You can keep waiting for Superman, but he’s not coming.
I find the title of a certain highly controversial documentary to be ironic, because it is problematic in its symbolism, alone. To invoke such iconography during the debate over education reform supports the notion that the solution might be definitive, clear, and clean. It’s not. What likely needs done is ugly, outside the box, and calls for the facing of painful truths that many on both “sides” are likely unwilling to address.
The irony in this is that, as a symbol of America and of fighting the wrongs of the world, Superman, as a character, has died a slow death in our nation’s culture. He is no longer relevant and certainly does not reflect the complexity of 21st century America. In spite of the issues at hand, education is probably in better shape than the hero who is supposed to do the saving.
In popular culture, our beloved, yet naïve, Superman has been replaced by complicated, dark, flawed, and brooding superheroes. Batman saw his father murdered as a child, and clearly must have been an eyeliner-wearing gothic teenager. Wolverine struggles to contain his rage over who he has become and who he wishes to be. The wildly popular Iron Man must manage his own hypocrisy by protecting the innocent from weapons that his company invented and sold. His power-suit is built from blood money, and his salvation comes by helping those in need. Spiderman, perhaps the most popular of all of the heroes of the past two decades, wrestles with the guilt from the death of a beloved uncle. To make matters worse, it was a tragedy that he could have prevented. Further, he can’t even deal with the everyday challenges of being a teenager.
These characters, and an army of others, have surpassed the “Man of Steel” in American popular culture because they reflect the complexity of our challenges, the uncertainty of our future, and the questions we have about our own abilities to save the world. For those of us in education, they also serve as raging and conflicted metaphors for our own internal struggles.
Superman is not the hero for our education debate; there is no singular evil and no definitive right or wrong, in spite of what one might hear from the current batch of talking heads and instant experts. There isn’t an obvious villain directing a single death ray at Metropolis. And, until we recognize that there are flaws in each generalized argument, there will likely be little movement.
But, while we bicker, our children wait. At least I wish they did.
Let’s start with capitals, as in letters. The media frenzy over the film has helped to reinforce the idea that each stakeholder group is a collective entity with auto-defined characteristics: Charter Schools, Teachers (Unions), Lawmakers, Parents, Administrators, and Children. You know those characteristics and could list them as you sit. However, this is where the problem begins, because each group is a collection of individuals. A single characteristic cannot be assigned to such diverse groups.
There are fantastic teachers who are underpaid, but there are bad teachers who are able to keep their jobs when they should not. Considering both in the same capitalized category is criminal. Some deserve much better, while others are lucky to stay employed. Sometimes the ones who are not performing are the loudest voices and make poor examples of the successful teachers. There are also many underperforming principals, charters, lawmakers, and parents. But, there are examples of miracle workers, in each.
Teachers are not inherently good, but there are a great many good teachers. Charters are not inherently bad, but many fail. Public schools are not inherently poor performers, but many are. Parents do not inherently fail to send their children to school unprepared for learning, yet many do so with regularity. To be associated with any constituency group should not mean you lose your personal identity. Your group does not deserve to be praised, nor bashed.
But you might.
Teachers, administrators, parents, policy-makers, charter schools, private schools, and students themselves contain the problems. But they also contain the solutions.
In the end, Superman wouldn’t know what to do with our “education nation.” As a character, he does not possess the complexity to sort the individuals within each category. Odds are, he’d rather find a meteor to deflect or a sock drawer that needed organizing before even trying. It just isn’t his cup of tea.
Many may be waiting for Superman. I, however, am waiting for Batman or Wolverine. Iron Man would do. They all understand complexity, contradictions, rage, protectionism, and emotion. They see these traits in themselves. They are dark, limited and complicated, just like us. They are also hopeful, talented, and good. Again, just like us. They know that there is much more grey than stark contrasts of black and white.
Sorry, Superman, but your skill-set can’t help us this time. Don’t go anywhere, though. I really need playground aides and I can’t help but think “flying” would be a fantastic job-related skill.