Sunday, January 23, 2011

Waiting for "Superman" (movie review)

The movie offers a somewhat ahistoric view in that it paints a picture of some idyllic time, when it all just worked, but now it's all broken.

The supposed idyllic time was no doubt after the Civil War, but maybe before the Cold War, or during said war if your family was then living the suburban American dream and unaffected by the world's hellish conditions (a minority even then).

There was no mention of the fact that a really giant educator, the military service, slurps up a lot of people, and has been doing so for a long while. The prisons get talked about, but not the military.

Other voices in the film (besides the director's) do point out that the despoliation has been occurring for a long time, somewhat contradicting the "idyllic past" hypothesis.

So lets just say the movie tells more than one story, at least if you read between the lines.

The analysis accepts a rather rigidly nationalistic framework, with the USA pitted against these other nations in a kind of metaphysical Olympics (USA losing).

I won't deny the "metaphysical" part, but is nationalism much more than a crutch for a lame and insufficiently responsible rationality? What did Albert Einstein think about nationalism, and what percentage of high schoolers have studied that question in the last year, anywhere in the world? I'm sure we don't know, but probably not very many (OMSI-goers an exception).

In sum, this movie is itself the product of a somewhat impoverished all-American curriculum. The movie-makers have no time for much history (nothing about "busing" or the civil rights movement, desegregation, successive waves of immigration, church and state tensions). They're effective teachers (deserve merit pay) but that doesn't make up for the rather shallow analysis.

The animations work (or what does Tufte think? -- too much chart junk? I saw spatial volumes substituting for surfaces when showing percents, a recipe for making statistics misleading) but with that kind of bandwidth, we could be covering a lot more ground. Let's put even some good college teachers to shame by really covering a ton of data in the allotted time. Don't dumb it down for us.

If you have Bill Gates on your show again, maybe have him do something more technical, less political? Maybe he could teach us the next Windows, or explain SQL? Lets actually educate about math and computer science, not just talk about whether we like it or are good at it.

Like, at what speed does one actually break the sound barrier and when was this done? There's lots of room on the screen to show facts and speedometers (control panels). Why not flood the screen with data, like they do during football games (with scores of other games, recent headlines, a company logo dance, a belly dance...). Let's play with the theory that big screen communications could convey a lot more, now that we have the ability to easily rewind them. This is what happened to writing, once literacy became widespread.

I found it interesting to come to this film having just seen Helen's work, which looks at the same issues from a more zoomed out perspective. Is this "education" we plan to be offering all that big a help? Were we teaching anything about how to grow vegetables? So what if you know calculus? Sure, you might need to know it but are they telling you why? No computer programming in your high school? Reasoning? Where's the debate?

In much of the world, kids get herded off to classrooms, where a culling process begins and a few get skimmed off by The Empire. The rest are dumped on the streets with no prospects, ready to be recruited into liberation fronts. Their farmlands have been taken, their community fragmented. Why should this be called "school". If you're not building networks and friendships for life, as well as relevant skills, maybe it doesn't get that label?

When Quakers wanted to distinguish their houses of worship from the other churches, they decided to use "meetinghouse" as their designation. A church was but a "steeple house" and, as such, was not up to Quaker standards. I'm seeing a similar need today, to distinguish, to disambiguate.

People these days say "eco-village" a lot. Perhaps a real school is at minimum an eco-village. City-as-campus. Maybe these buildings called "schools" are just another kind of learning center, one of many. Should we Quakers open some new learning centers around town, and leave "going to school" to the less innovative? Let's check what the tribes are thinking.

The guardians in this movie are committed to providing a decent life for their kids, however it's clear that this cannot be done near or in the home, and that adults who have not specialized as classroom teachers are not a source of "schooling" and will not be offering many life-relevant skills beyond idle play and/or nagging to do one's homework. "On which side of the Periodic Table do we find metals?" Your average parent is not expected to know, and yet your average 8th grader is.

If there's something between you and that body of knowledge, it must either be your own lack of will, or the fact that some system is withholding your rightful heritage. In this case, I'd agree with the film makers: it's your heritage that's being withheld, by those likewise deprived, but then when has the public curriculum been overwhelmingly generous? It's not new to hold back. Not everyone needs to know the King's business, after all.

I mean look, if we were really serious about pumping more and better information into the culture, wouldn't we be doing that by now? Perhaps some of us are. We have televisions and DVD players galore, not to mention Youtube, which many "schools" block.

Sure, we could be investigating our problems way more seriously than we do, and have working solutions to many more of them. Like we could've had voting machines in the schools for some years, and been polling students frequently on many issues, lots of stats. We could have used this technology to explore how voting works, how votes get tallied fairly even when the ballots are secret. What's private and what's public?

But lets face it: at the end of a long day commuting and pushing products nobody really wants or needs, it's more fun and relaxing to kick back and pop open a can and watch something quasi-mindless. I'm not against R&R, but lets talk about how to talk ourselves out of crummy work habits. Guardians need quality time with their kids doing shared community service. When does that happen?

Note to historians: Americans had simply run out of any ability to imagine the future, other than to try to inhabit some TV world they'd had beamed at them as the wars raged in Asia. If Star Trek and The Jetsons were unobtainable, maybe we could relive something already in the can, say The Waltons or even All in the Family. "Someday, we might even break the sound barrier and wake up in the 21st Century (give us another generation or two)". Welcome to the rubber room, still open for business and packed with people in transition.

We went to this movie at Laurelhurst Theater on Burnside directly from Quaker meeting. This was one of the two days a week when minors are permitted (the marquee didn't let on there was a 1:10 PM showing, as this was only true on weekends -- the Web was my source). Tara and I had Chinese food afterward and discussed our views. Her latest debate tournament at PSU didn't result in any awards, but she felt good about her role as a mentor to the relative newcomers to the sport. Other Quakers went home to watch football, as today was an important game, especially for Bears fans.

At meeting, I talked about AVP and whether violent video games were an alternative to violence. In some curricula I think they are, most definitely. Carl and I also discussed the merits of NPYM affiliating with FGC. He's neutral on the topic. Doing so would have its costs, but they're probably bearable.

I'll be avoiding Quaker Quest (a program hatched in the UK) as I'm finding it too alien to my own Friendly faith 'n practice. No biggie, forking happens.

I also met up with Lew, our property management clerk. He'd recently finishing using Google apps such as Sketchup to get the Multnomah Friends meetinghouse in 3D on Google Earth, as a public service (our clerk positions are unpaid). Now this guy is educated.

Multnomah Friends / Google Earth
click for larger view

The title Waiting for "Superman" has somewhat the same cadence as Bowling for Columbine, but the films come from different angles. Would a KIPP show Michael Moore films to its students? How about SuperSize Me? Would it teach Verboten Math? If you're a student or teacher in one of those, maybe drop me a note, as I'm curious. Journalists? Any news?