In the new documentary “Waiting for Superman,” released this week, a filmmaker follows five children living in some of the worst school districts in the country as they go through the charter-school selection process. The film’s title, I’m guessing, is meant to suggest the odds of a minority, poor or inner-city child getting a poverty-ending education in the United States is akin to some superhero showing up to your door and whisking you away. Not likely, but hey anything can happen.
“Waiting for Superman,” is the third film this year to examine the public education system. “The Cartel,” about the New Jersey Public School system is more of an indictment than documentary, “The Lottery,” is a tear jerker that also holds the system’s feet to the fire. “Waiting,” is probably the least political and even it has drawn the ire of teacher’s unions, though many minority teachers grumble but mumble under their breath, “It’s about time people knew what we already know.”
The fact that three films simultaneously are taking on the labyrinth that is our public education system is not surprising. For decades people have complained about school’s failing poor and minority kids. For decades teacher’s union have kept innovative solutions like charter schools, privatized schools and school choice on the back burner. In a bid to protect jobs, tenure, whatever the teacher’s unions have been the most formidable foe when it comes to changing how America’s schools operate. As educators they definitely should have seat at the table when it comes to fixing our broken schools, some say even the head but others say the unions have broken down the table and refuse to let others come in to help rebuild it.
The bottom line is children get a better education in private schools than in public ones. Period. That is stark reality. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at scores from the National assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Each year 4th and 8th graders all over the country take the NAEP test. Children from public and private and religious schools take the test. In 2003 the U.S. Department of Education found the following:
The immediate question to ask is why? But what I was really intrigued about was another question that I got while reading Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Struggled.”
Stay with me I’ll wrap this all up in a neat little bow for you.
Written in the 1950s “Atlas Struggled,” is Ayn Rand’s capitalist manifesto to combat a growing sentiment in America that the happy-go-lucky 1950’s American dream lifestyle of industry captains running the world wasn’t so joyful. It was a defense of capitalist culture before the culture came under attack. I have a 50th anniversary copy of the book and it includes notes from Rand’s journal on how she developed the book’s key characters including the mysterious John Gault, the novel’s central figure.
Without giving away too much, Rand basically wrote the book in an attempt to answer the question – what would happen if the creators – the money makers – just decided to quit, to walk out one day and never resume their duties. The book is deep and whole university classes can be taken on Rand’s philosophy but one key theme that comes out in her writings is this hierarchical categorizing of mankind’s subsets. It’s basically a caste system where there are creators – prime movers she calls them, the captains of industry, and the takers – second-handers she dubs them. In my mind I split the two groups into the doers and the sustainers. The doers do the sustainers exists because the doers do.
In her writings she says a central character – a prime mover – makes a fatal mistake in dealing with the second-handers:
“Man at his highest potentiality is realized and fulfilled within the creator himself. … Whether the creator is alone or finds only a handful of others like him or is among the majority of mankind is of no importance or consequence whatever … numbers have nothing to do with it.”
Rand is saying that for the doers to worry about making everyone else a doer is not important. There are doers and there are others who choose not to do. She also goes on to say that the doers cannot, and should not, try to train, influence or change the non-doers. That, she writes is, where doers fail.
Which brings me back to the public school system debate. Our public schools are failing? The big debate is how to fix them. But another question is can we? Can we turn do nothing schools into do something schools? The bigger question is why should we try?
Should we, like Rand suggest, not worry about the non-doer schools. I mean how many Bill Gates are out there anyway? Are we really so naive to think that every child, given a great education, will become the next Mark Zuckerberg? There are fantastic schools with fantastic teachers and equally fantastic students. They can’t all be fantastic right? Otherwise we’d have to come up with a better word than fantastic.
These questions sound like blasphemy in a time when words like equality and fairness are rallying cries dipped in the blood, sweat and tears of the civil rights movement. I believe Rand is wrong. The world may be split up into movers and slugs but it doesn’t have to be. The fact that mediocrity has become the norm doesn’t mean that’s our destiny as a country. And yes, we doers most definitely should worry about whether a second-hander reaches his or her potential. The catastrophe that occurs in Rand’s book when a creator withholds his genius from the world and government is the same crisis that we’re in now because too many people in education have chosen to be a second-hander, refusing to meet their potential and hanging out on the bottom rung of Maslow’s ladder, refusing to do only sustain. And because so many doer’s have washed their hands of it, our whole society is losing brain power, innovation, diversity of thought and reason by the classroom.
Rand is one smart lady, smarter than me of course. And I believe in her philosophy of rugged individualism trumpeting government any day. But I disagree that the world is separated into the can do’s and the ain’t never gonna. Because the potential of the individual is limitless and who am I to hold it down? Yes people can choose to be mediocre but our young children are having that choice stolen from them. They’re being slated for mediocrity long before they get bored with Biology and discover teen rebellion.
Let’s not give up on them just yet.