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Education Meltdown: Why Won’t Back Down Could Be This Generation’s China Syndrome

Can advocates of school reform break through with popular culture?

by
R.J. Moeller

Bio

October 3, 2012 - 7:00 am

If you claim to care about the state of American public education and don’t see the new Daniel Barnz film Won’t Back Down, please find the nearest child in your general vicinity and apologize to them for being a part of the problem.

Then go and find Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and the ghost of Jack Lemmon to let them know that Hollywood has finally produced a new film that will replace The China Syndrome, the feel-good film of the ’70s that got nuclear energy banned. If we play our cards right, Won’t Back Down will become the movie that could become the one teachers and professors reference when discussing the positive impact pop culture can have on public policy. More on this in a minute.

There are two reasons behind my overwhelming endorsement of the movie which opened nation-wide last week.

The first is simple: It’s a really well-made, well-acted, well-crafted piece of cinema.

Writer/Director Barnz has assembled an excellent cast — Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter — and constructed a compelling story about the crisis in education. Set in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Won’t Back Down chronicles two mothers’ (Gyllenhaal and Davis) seemingly Sisyphean task of taking on the teachers’ unions.

Gyllenhaal’s feisty character is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom who works multiple jobs to provide for her young daughter, a 2nd grade student at John Adams Elementary who suffers from dyslexia. Davis deftly portrays Nona Alberts, a world-weary teacher at the same school who wallows in a toxic mixture of disgust and mounting guilt over a broken system and her own second-best effort in the classroom.

Neither woman is perfect, but both desperately want the quintessential American dream for their kids: a dynamic education that will lead to better lives than their own.

Holly Hunter plays a conflicted union boss who serves as the on-screen voice of the average American who sees and hears about the failures of public education, but isn’t quite sure how to remedy it.

While the film is a tad bit predictable in its “David vs. Goliath” template, Won’t Back Down breathes new life into the under-dog story audiences appreciate. Barnz’ storytelling abilities grab and hold your attention for the entire 121 minutes, and if the subject matter weren’t so “controversial” in the progressively hallowed hills of Hollywood, someone from the project would have a serious shot at an Oscar nod.

But there is much more to Won’t Back Down than its artistic merits. There’s a bigger picture to keep in mind: a cultural landscape heavily influenced by popular culture cannot be ignored. This is especially true when one considers how much of an impact a simple documentary – Waiting for Superman – had on raising the level of awareness of the education system’s flaws in the general population two years ago.

Which brings us to the second reason you should see this film: It offers the viewer, voter and taxpayer, a bipartisan opportunity to consider how to implement change for the better in this society. 

Typically whenever Hollywood makes a “cause” film — like The China Syndrome (1979), for example — it seems to always champion a progressive issue. Being anti-anything-nuclear was a large part of the Left’s agenda in the ’70s and ’80s. The China Syndrome portrays a greedy corporation hellbent on keeping their precious nuclear reactor open for business even if it put the lives of millions in the Los Angeles area at risk.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of a TV news reporter, and the sacrificial act of a conscience-laden engineer from the plant, total disaster is narrowly averted.

Lesson learned: nuclear reactors are far too dangerous to be entrusted to the care of private companies who only care about chasing the old Yankee dollar.

To compound the impact this movie had on the psyche of the average American in 1979, roughly two weeks after its release a partial meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania. Fast-forward some thirty years and our country wants almost nothing to do with an energy source that even far-Left socialist nations like France have embraced (over 75% of their energy is nuclear driven).

That film and the corresponding crisis changed the political debate so drastically that we’re still feeling the effects four decades later.

If only – oh, if only! – there were any high-profile events occurring in the country today that had any connection to a story of public-sector union corruption and the need for parents and teachers at the local level to re-claim their schools…

Perhaps then momentum for change would begin?

Reforming education is a cause that should unite all Americans. Who does not want to see every child equipped with the tools needed to be a self-sufficient, productive member of society? Who doesn’t want kids given skills that enable them to provide for a family someday? There is general agreement that the system is broken. Politics will always play a role as positions such as school board chairman are voted on.

Yet there are key steps that must be taken prior to those auxiliary decisions made at the ballot box. Between here and there a complete overhaul of the way we do public education is needed at the local, state, and federal level. This type of monumental change requires some consensus-building. 

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the D.C. public schools and founder/CEO of Students First, was, for all intents and purposes, the star of Waiting for Superman, and according to Barnz, one of the key inspirations for him as he wrote and directed Won’t Back Down. She is also a committed liberal Democrat. She has taken flack from her “side” because she has dared to challenge one of the most sacred of cows of the American Left: public-sector unions. Yet she’s also received considerable support from her “side” because millions of Americans across the political spectrum have grown fed up with the status quo.

There seems to be a window of opportunity opening to really shake things up in the way we do education in this country. With events like the Chicago teachers’ union strike and the showdown between Governor Scott Walker and the public-sector unions of Wisconsin, we need to look for catalysts that will awaken the electorate to the sense of urgency warranted by the problem at hand.

Won’t Back Down works as a movie and touches a national nerve – as such it has the potential to be a cultural catalyst. It is a fine film; the fact it has the potential to change some hearts and minds along the way only adds to its appeal.

You might even say it’s educational.

*****

Related at PJ Lifestyle:

The Waiting for ‘Superman’ of the New Atheists

3 Reasons Higher Education Is Broken — and How To Fix It

This Is The Way The Higher Education Bubble Ends…

5 Ways Public Schools Prepare Us For Prison Life

R.J. Moeller is a Chicago native currently living in Los Angeles where he writes for the American Enterprise Institute and hosts their weekly "Values & Capitalism" podcast (The RJ Moeller Show on iTunes), which also re-airs every Saturday on AM 1530 in Chicago. He serves as a media consultant to Dennis Prager and Ricochet.com. He is also a contributor at Acculturated.com. His educational background includes undergrad studies in Business/Econ and Masters work in Theology/Philosophy. Follow R.J. on Twitter @rjmoeller!
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