The Waiting for 'Superman' of the New Atheists
The 2010 documentary Waiting for "Superman" accomplished a rare feat for a film on a topic as politically charged as America's failing public education system: it earned enthusiastic praise from both conservatives and progressives. Meredith Turney at Townhall explained why:
It's hard to know what to expect when an avowed liberal takes on the controversial issue of school choice. Director Davis Guggenheim is the director behind "An Inconvenient Truth," the global warming film that lionized Al Gore. Guggenheim also directed the Barack Obama biographical film played at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the Obama infomercial that aired on television during the 2008 presidential campaign. His liberal bona fides are stellar. So it's only natural to anticipate a school choice documentary that defends the status quo and toes the party line blaming lack of funding for the woeful state of America’s government education system.
Prepare to be surprised.
In the opening moments of the film, Guggenheim freely admits that he betrays his liberal beliefs every day when he drives past three public schools on his way to drop off his children at their private school. His children's education is so important, he's unwilling to risk their future success on the abysmal education record of government schools. It’s a refreshingly honest admission and the rest of the film follows suit.
Over the course of the film, Guggenheim explores in depth why today America spends more on education than ever before, only to earn weaker results than past decades. It's an engaging, thoughtful documentary made by a man with the courage to confront one of his party's strongest financial backers, the teachers' unions.
In the end I left the film more disappointed than most. Yes, Guggenheim articulated many aspects of the issue but he chickened out when it came time to offer solutions. The film ends leaving one thinking that in spite of the film's careful dissection of the problems, education remains a mysterious, ever-present big problem with many potential paths forward.
"But wait a second," I thought as the credits rolled. "This isn't complicated. The film showed that teacher union contracts make it next-to-impossible to remove bad teachers." Recall the famous "dance of the lemons" sequence showing how rather than fight through the bureaucracies to fire a weak tenured teacher, administrators just pass around their failures, condemning students to waste a whole year of their life with an instructor who can't perform:
If principals could just fire the bottom 10% of teachers then the problem would be solved and fewer kids would be stuck years behind because they had the bad luck of receiving a burned-out teacher who won't do their job. Simple.
Guggenheim may have managed to find the problem, but solving it requires a much deeper confrontation than he's willing to do yet. Because to really recognize this as the core of the issue means that a) most of the blame falls on the political party he made a career supporting with propaganda, and b) it affirms the unpopular, politically incorrect, conventional wisdom that free-market principles work better than government bureaucracies to raise the quality of life of impoverished minority children. But Guggenheim cannot yet look at himself and how his own views contribute to the problem he's critiquing.
University of Gloucestershire Religion Professor David Webster's delightful polemic Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy does the same thing on the subject of the irreligious life. Like Guggenheim's documentary Webster can slice and dice the problem. He skillfully dissects the intellectual and ethical problems of ala carte spirituality and a sizable sector of the New Age movement in both the United States and his home in the United Kingdom. But when it comes time to take the medicine to cure what ails us, he flinches, unwilling to go where his own words should lead him.