Bill Maher presents viewers of his HBO series, Real Time, with a mix of satire and serious considerations of topics and ideas often ignored in our wider public discourse. During his 15 October 2010 episode—with panelists John Legend, Markos Moulitsas, Dana Loesch, and Dan Neil—Maher shifted the discussion to education after identifying the documentary Waiting for Superman a great film.
After praising the documentary, which has received unmatched media support including a week-long focus on education by NBC and an episode of Oprah dedicated to the film, Maher offered facts he had learned from the film. While Maher at first appeared to have accepted the film uncritically, he did turn on the basic argument of the documentary—that the teaching profession is bloated with bad teachers who need to be weeded out in order to save our schools and those children trapped in bad schools—and raised the possibility that educational struggles include far more than a weak teaching core, specifically the powerful impact of poverty.
While I found Maher’s initial praise of Waiting for Superman and his willingness to embrace the messages of the film as “facts” disappointing, his opening challenge to blaming teachers served as a perfect opportunity for the panel discussion to serve the audience and the education debate well. Instead, viewers witnessed several snapshots of everything that is wrong with the current national discussion about education.
First, Maher’s acknowledging the film as a great film and fact is a snapshot of our cultural habit of embracing as true those messages that match what we already believe (regardless of the evidence). As Thomas Jefferson warned: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.”
Waiting for Superman is cultural narrative designed to reinforce societal assumptions that avoid confronting any aspects of our mythologies that could render those myths untrue.
Consider another snapshot: John Legend, musician, took the moral baton during the discussion after Maher’s opening comments about the film. Legend wrote the music for the documentary and has established himself as a spokesperson for education reform, which he qualifies by his friendship with economist Dr. Roland Fryer.
This snapshot is complex and powerful. Just as we should pause before embracing Waiting for Superman as sincere or authoritative, we should be able to question why Legend—or even Fryer—deserves his status as educational reformer.
Legend has rhetorical capital as a successful African American male who has risen above challenging life conditions, including having attended a “drop-out factory,” as Maher stated. And Legend is passionate and talented.
In his HuffingtonPost piece, Legend catalogues facts, similar to the facts Maher lists from the documentary, reinforcing the decades-long mantra that our public schools are failures based on international comparisons of test scores (including the ubiquitous Finland reference); and then he makes his central argument:
“So what do we do? Give up? Move to Finland (#1 across the board)? Canada (#2 in reading and science)? Shrug our shoulders and blame the kids and their parents? No, we can’t afford to do that. Ensuring that ALL American children can access a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. We cannot stand idly by and allow this institutionalized inequality to continue.”
Do John Legend’s status and background qualify him for being a spokesperson for educational quality and reform? I think not, especially when his claims are corrupted by misleading data and sweeping narratives that speak to myths, not facts.
Legend is the personification of rugged individualism, and he speaks against the recognition of social failures—which he characterizes as blaming children and parents while carefully not raising the possibility that social inequity may be to blame—and to our enduring faith that schools can change society.
And Legend leads to a third snapshot: An exchange between Legend and Loesch, a Tea Party leader and spokesperson.
When Maher pushed against blaming teachers and asked about the influence of poverty on any school’s, any teacher’s, and some parent’s ability to help children, Legend and Loesch presented what every American wants to hear—they rose above their backgrounds, including single-parent homes (like Obama, and even Bill Clinton), poverty, and high schools as drop-out factories.
Loesch’s mother worked multiple jobs and had time to insure her education, she countered to Maher’s argument that people living in poverty may be unable to attend to their children’s education because of the weight of their lives.
And here is where all of the snapshots from this episode of Real Time converge: Cultural narratives speaking to rugged individualism, to everyone pulling herself or himself up by the bootstrap, are reinforced daily by those people who have excelled.
We are a culture who raises exceptionality to the expectations of the normal. This becomes the message of our narraive: Legend overcame, and so should all African American males. Loesch overcame, and so we cannot let any single-parent home off the hook.
Let’s not turn to the facts in the face of cultural myths, however, because the data clearly show that Legend and Loesch are exceptions, not the norms. But normalizing the exceptional allows us to raise our heads and stick out our chests while blaming those who fail for their failure.
Those people living in poverty are simply not holding up their part in the American Dream, we suggest and even state. Teachers are failing our children as are our public schools, we add.
As Legend proclaimed in his HuffingtonPost piece: “We know how to fix our schools. We just need to DO it. ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’ highlights some schools that are working against all odds.”
Like Legend and Loesch, that some schools have been designated as miracles is evidence that all schools can do the same; if schools are failing, they are to blame because “we know how to fix our schools.”
One exceptional school, one exceptional person—these legends are exceptions, not norms, and legends should not guide us, especially when we are addressing our children, especially when we are addressing children who face lives of poverty not of their choosing.