By David K.
Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s provocative new documentary on the state of American public education, opened in select cities last Friday, contributing to the recent wave of debates from Main Street to K Street on educational reform.
The Superman metaphor is a fitting one for the neglected students in America’s fast deteriorating public schools; it captures their longing for rescue from the muck of educational disparity.
For branders, “Superman” will evoke something entirely different—superhero as (super)brand mark, comic-cool, paragon of advertiser’s virtue. After all, is there a more iconic brand ensemble than red cape, French blue body suit, and golden “S?” Color and logo leaping over distressed frontiers like education in a single bound, swaying the tide of public perception faster than a speeding bullet, and raising the banner of generational hope with taglines like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” (that’s “NCLB” and “R2T” for aficionados of brand acronyms). Yea to branding and its seductive, zany lure.
But, when it comes to the hallowed battleground of the classroom, should we confuse Superman as brand mark with Superman as metaphor (or, one better—real life reformers in the flesh?)? Elevate consumption over participation? Favor sales over lesson plans?
I’ll confess my rosy-eyed bias on this one. In education matters big and small, I’d push for an “R” rating: branding restricted. Some issues might be better left unturned for the brander, especially, if teachers like John Keating, students like Akeelah, and friends like Will Hunting and Chuckie are what students need to thrive in the education game (more than a feel-good superhero logo on a lunch box).
If only it were that simple. The truth is, when I trace my own adventures through American public and private schools, I see “brand” flitting around everywhere:
G.A.T.E, Kumon Math and Suzuki method; Cub Scout, Boy Scout, “private” and “prep;” National Merit, ASB and Varsity Letter; Phi Beta Kappa and Tri Delt …
…eventually landing on the ubiquitous campus sweatshirt, the “branded brand:” Adidas UCLA Bruin, Nike Alabama Crimson Tide, Champion Tennessee Volunteer.
In recent times, these once balmy cross-branding ventures among educators, policy makers and big business are getting even more serious—
• There’s Educational Innovation Laboratory (Edlab), launched by Harvard economist Ronald Fryer, which attempts “to infuse education with the data-driven approach that is common in science and business.” Naturally, then, its first experiment was to pay middle-school students in NYC schools $500 a year for excelling in reading and math tests;
• Or how about viewing the college experience as primarily a branding expedition?
• Even visionary initiatives like Teach for America, hatched in the late-1980s as a kind of Peace Corps alternative for domestic educators, has succumbed to brand talk; TFA’s brand today has been labeled as no less than “elite.”
Whether Edlab, Teach for America, or other like-minded initiatives continue to make an impact on education in spite of, and not because of, their brand value remain to be seen. But if they are making a difference, should it matter if brand is propped up front and center?
If the essential message of films like Waiting for Superman is education as mission, civil right, and equalizer—and, not merely, as passive consumption—then yes, it matters. In this age of brand, the fight for education is a fight for preservation, where students can be free to be students first, learners first, thinkers first, creators first …and consumers, last.
In his review of Superman for the New York Times, Trip Gabriel writes that it was Guggenheim’s “swirl of private guilt and public obligation” (Guggenheim sends his kids to private schools) that motivated the filmmaker to turn his eye toward public education. It’s that same swirl that is ours: corporate identity-making twined with public obligation. After all, thanks to kryptonite, even Superman had his limits.