October 12, 2010

Superman ain't coming.

A note before we begin: I know very little about politics, social policies or anything of the sort. I mostly watch sports and movies. Some of those movies, however, are documentaries, and from them, I've started to glean a better picture of the world outside my Caucasian, middle-class bubble. I also really liked The Wire. So here we go.

I saw Waiting for "Superman" earlier tonight, and I thought it was a probing look at what's wrong with American schools. A quick summation without spoiling too much for those who haven't seen it: Some extremely charismatic reformers want to change how public schools work, but a good deal of the teachers and administrators in said schools seem complacent in their overall beliefs toward education.

This could mean that troubled schools in lower-class areas are not getting enough attention, mostly due to the theory that bad areas create bad schools (studies show it's the other way around). The film also surprisingly touches on the idea that innocent looking middle-class schools also function incorrectly, as they operate on fifty-year-old principles that separate each grade based on archaic "levels."

Basically, you used to become either a doctor/lawyer, an accountant/middle-manager or a factory worker; those were the three general tiers. Even though children can no longer efficiently be defined in this way, the policies remain. Therefore, a lot of kids are herded in the wrong direction with an inadequate level of teaching, where they often fall behind other students.

This part, admittedly, is a lot less interesting, because it just means that (mostly) well-to-do white people are given only a bunch of advantages, not the full range of advantages they expect. Luckily, this only takes up about one-eighth of the film.

The interesting thing about this documentary, and others of its kind that I've seen recently, is that they attempt to diagnose the key issue plaguing America. What this is, at least from my perspective, is that the people in charge of the systems in this country will not allow them to be replaced. Whether its big pharmaceuticals, the teachers unions or some other faceless, shadowy organization, things are a certain way and our leaders have no interest in allowing them to change.

Now, I've seen enough documentaries to know that objectivity is not often one of their goals. The director usually has an opinion, especially if it's Michael Moore, and that guides the film, even if it comes with the best possible intentions. I'm very sure teachers unions do a great deal of good, even though "Superman" paints them as inconvenient roadblocks in the way of true reform. And I'm sure that, while Sicko depicts every other country in the world as having super wonderful healthcare that Americans can only dream of, the political realities are slightly more complicated than that.

But certain messages -- the core ideas behind Sicko, Taxi to the Dark Side, Waiting for "Superman" and An Inconvenient Truth -- are hard to argue with. Do you like Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim, do you agree with their politics? Maybe not. But do you want people without healthcare to suffer from crippling financial burdens, do you want poor minority children to languish in awful educational systems, do you agree that innocent foreigners should be tortured, do you think we're polluting the Earth in one way or another?

The curious thing about documentaries is that no one sees them. The people that do seem to be film buffs or upper/middle-class liberals, not necessarily unlike myself. Documentaries seem like they're going to do a lot of good, but I've never seen one have more than a fleeting impact. Besides Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, very few of them even pass over into the public realm. Meanwhile, March was only a bunch of pretty pictures of penguins, and everyone agreed after the fact that Fahrenheit sucked ass.

The only thing that lends credence to this era of "muckraking" documentary filmmaking is that information is now disseminated so much more quickly and openly. There's a great part in "Superman" where it shows that, although American students score very poorly in mathematics, they're also supremely confident when interviewed immediately afterward. Basically, we think we're great, even when we're not.

And that's probably what slows change as much as anything. We're America, damn it! Intentionally or otherwise, we've been convinced that we're number one, so why would we need reform?! We've got all the money, all the power, all the bombs, we're kicking butt.

But apparently we're not. Apparently, we're getting stupider, and no one wants to admit it. But now, thanks to the Internet, to Twitter, to Facebook, young people have access to this information. You don't have to go buy a stupid newspaper or watch boring old "60 Minutes" to learn about the world; everything is at your fingertips. Everything is unlocked, to a certain extent, and a bit more freely accessed by anyone interested in looking. I don't think this will make us smarter, but it's pretty sad if it makes us less informed.

So as we have access to more information, and as America and other advanced countries come in closer and closer contact with each other, will we realize how far we're falling behind? Will it become more and more obvious that other nations are usurping economic and political power bit by bit, that changes are needed if America is going to remain an intelligent, functioning world leader?

I guess that depends on whether people will use, or pay attention to, the new power they've been given; everyone used to say television will (or should, at least) be an educational tool, which seems ridiculous now that "Outsourced" exists. But it does seem like, as it becomes less a looming peril and more of an inevitable conclusion, improving our failing school systems (which could generously be labeled as "declining" if you aren't into the whole facts and studies thing) is something that most people can probably get behind.

So let's bust those devilish unions, fire those incompetent teachers and build an army of genius robots to teach our young. Documentaries can be the new pamphlets, because Thomas Paine surely had futuristic, 100-minute-long montages of talking heads in mind while he was crafting Common Sense.

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