Why I Will Not Watch “Waiting for Superman”

For the last several days MSNBC has traipsed across its stage educators, administrators, a documentarian, journalists, politicians, and union leaders, all putting forward solutions to the United States’ education woes. Fingers have been pointed at a union which protects incompetent teachers and at administrators who engage in heavy-handed tactics to “reform” some school districts. The debate rages and people believe they really do have the answers; but, they don’t. And, why is this? It’s because they are trying to solve the wrong problems.

First, I would like to take a shot at the polling data which I kept seeing on MSNBC. The pundits kept highlighting the fact that 77 percent of respondents to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll gave our education system a C or worse. Of course, the same poll revealed that 64 percent of respondents thought our education system was either adequate or excellent. However, if you add in those who give the system a D—which in nearly every school in this country is considered a “passing” grade—the number of people who think there is no problem rises to 89 percent.

The main problem with this poll is that it is meaningless. It is the opinion of people who have no clue what real problems exist within the U.S. educational system, and most of those polled are likely misled by a series of common non sequiturs about education, such as, education leads to jobs, education leads to prosperity, education leads to competitiveness, education leads to equality, or education leads to a better democracy. None of these things necessarily follow from education. Rather, these are the ways in which we “sell” education to those being educated and those who fund it, namely taxpayers—although, in higher education that burden has been shifted to students and their families for the last thirty years.

What we are doing in this debate is shifting attention away from structural problems within our society, of which education is the least significant problem. The list is so long I am hesitant to create one. Once I make a list someone will complain that I have forgotten this or that, their particular bugaboo. However, I must not let that stop me. So, here goes.

The United States has many problems but below is a list of the top five problems, in my view:

  1. A “defense” budget that is completely divorced from the national security needs of the United States — The bloated Pentagon budget not only wastes national treasure but continues to prop up a foreign policy of defense through dominance, which does not achieve the objective of making the United States more secure but, rather, contributes to the opposite.
  2. A broken democracy that leaves two-thirds of the electorate feeling alienated from the political process — The duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats in American politics leaves the electorate feeling that those who are suppose to represent them are instead representing an agenda that serves either the interests of powerful, moneyed interest groups or the interests of the party itself.
  3. A national fiscal deficit, and debt, that makes increased taxation a certainty — Many believe that the United States can “cut” its way to fiscal health. However, this is simply not possible unless we dramatically cut segments of the budget that are considered sacred to large groups of people, namely defense, Medicare, and Social Security, and even with cuts to these programs it would require greater taxation to get the fiscal house in order.
  4. The chronic and growing chasm between the haves and have-nots — Income and wealth disparity is not itself a problem. In fact, these disparities need to exist in order to reward those who are truly exceptional and those willing to go the extra mile, whether that means rewarding entrepreneurs or those who simply work longer and harder. However, too much disparity in the distribution of income and wealth makes the ship list to one side, making it inevitable that it will eventually roll over and be of no use to anyone. This is the argument made by Karl Marx, who wanted the ship to roll over, but clearer heads have preferred the adoption of a “conservative bourgeois socialism” in order to the keep the capitalist system going. One of socialism’s remedies is to keep income and wealth disparities within reasonable levels—whatever those might be.
  5. The lack of a vibrant public sector — Public service should not be the last refuge for those graduating from college. However, it is, because the government is seen as completely disconnected from the everyday needs of citizens. We do not observe daily the thousands of water treatment plant employees who provide us with potable water. We do not observe the millions of teachers who are tasked with the nearly impossible job of educating kids who have to walk through gang neighborhoods and whose parents discourage education through their own salutary neglect, motivated in part by their own belief that nothing can be done to escape the poverty and violence of their community.

As I said, many will now claim that I have left out problems that desperately need solving. Some will say that we do not have a tax system that creates enough incentives, some will argue that government is too intrusive, still others will suggest that economics is of no importance, that it is abortion, evolution, or gay marriage that truly threaten to destroy our society.

To all of these people I would say this: Imagine a world in which our Pentagon budget was $400 billion a year rather than $900 billion a year. Imagine a world that offered more than two choices when you walked into a voting booth. Imagine a world in which the U.S. dollar was again the de facto world currency because everyone wanted it as a store of value rather than gold. Imagine a world in which people went to work and school because they knew that their labor would be rewarded by a commensurate share of the national pie. Finally, imagine a world where public employment attracted the best and brightest because gross economic narcissism was discouraged rather than encouraged.

A nation like the one described above would be sure to create a prosperous, just, and more equitable society where education worked like it should. Education would work because it would actually mean something outside the classroom. No one would have to be “sold” on it. Right now we only have the non sequiturs, of which a growing number of people are becoming suspicious due to lackluster GDP and high unemployment, even among the college educated.

An education means nothing to the kid who can quote Shakespeare but still gets robbed and beaten while walking to school. Higher education is of  little value to the college graduate who upon leaving school has to compete with a high school graduate for the same $10.00 an hour job, which the latter gets because the employer knows the college-educated employee will eventually move on to greener pastures—wherever those are.

Education is not a panacea. If we want education to work we must first change society. Maybe that is why we are having this debate, because we know the real issues are so intractable that to address them would simply paralyze us with inaction?

That is why I will not watch Waiting for Superman. Like this documentarian’s other film, An Inconvenient Truth, this one clearly attempts to dumb down the issue of education, drawing attention away from systemic problems faced by the United States, and Western society in general, namely, a run-amok narcissism that at its root makes any communal effort nearly impossible. United we stand, divided we fall goes the cliché. Could it be true?

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