Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Waiting for The Wizard of Oz

In his book, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, Neil Postman recognizes that it is through narrative that we give things meaning. Our lives are given meaning either through the development of personal narratives or to the extent to which our lives serve to enrich the narratives that serve humanity.
"Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future."
He later goes on to point out that one of the strongest sources of narrative in our modern world are movies, especially science fiction (Of which I would include fantasy as a sub-genre).
"[Stephen] Spielberg is sometimes near-Homeric in his capacity to give form to myths that resonate deeply, especially with our youth. I put aside, for the moment, Jurassic Park (Which connects him to the tradition of Frankenstein), and Schindler's List (In which he forgoes prophetic tradition altogether), and refer to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., each of which asks us to believe that we are not alone in the universe."
This is, I believe, why Geoffrey Canada's story about waiting for Superman to come save him from the problems in his Harlem neighborhood has such resonance and why as a child that image of a super-human savior figure had such a place in his own psyche.

However, as I explored in a previous blog post, Superman is perhaps not the appropriate metaphor for education reform. As Canada points out, Superman is not real. Superman also is not human, and he doesn't make long-term commitments. When he does make long-term commitments he looses his power:

Postman's End of Education is about identifying those narratives we currently cling to to give meaning to public education. He identifies some that are destined to fail (Economic Utility, Consumership, Technology, and Multiculturalism) and attempts to identify those which might serve (Spaceship Earth, The Fallen Angel, The American Experiment, Diversity, and The World Weavers/World Makers). I am currently reading this book, as those who follow either my blog or follow me on Twitter probably already know (hence the lack of links to the last two narratives) which has had me thinking about other possible narratives from popular culture that might be more appropriate or fitting to give meaning to education reform.

One of the figureheads of the current education reform debate is Michelle Rhee who has been a contentious figure in education ever since Mayor Fente appointed her chancellor of D.C. schools just a few years ago. Etched in so many of our minds is that iconic image of her that appeared in Time Magazine holding that broomstick. That photograph, whether justified or not, along with her cold and prickly approach to reforming the D.C. schools has led many to draw comparisons between her image and that of the Wicked Witch.

So today, in the wake of an overwhelming referendum on her approach to reform in D.C. in the form of her boss loosing the primary, when I heard her announce her resignation I couldn't help but get the song from the Wizard of Oz, "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" stuck in my head.

So, then it occurred to me that The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the perfect narrative for school reform. Coincidentally, aside from being right on message (which I will get to in a moment), the fictional narrative fits very well with what is playing out right now in this national debate. Of course, in the real narrative many individuals make up the corresponding characters so my analysis of this is going to be rather simplified. In reality very few issues are as simple as the narratives we use to give them meaning. So, for the purpose of analysis, who are the characters?

Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, The Lion, and Toto:

These five characters represent the public. At times they each represent individual members of the public but for the most part each character represents a trait of ourselves as individuals. Dorothy is naive and through the course of the film she learns valuable lessons about herself. At first she is confused and lacks confidence in her own abilities. She looks to others for answers, following the advice of the Good Witch of the North she follows the yellow brick road in search of the Wizard of Oz who can help her get home. Of course, in the process of seeking this person who has all the answers and can help her achieve her goals she learns that she possessed the ability to help herself all along.

The Good Witch of the North

The Good Witch intentionally deceives to Dorothy but believes she does so for her own good. Of course, she knows that Dorothy possesses the ability to go home right from the beginning when she gave her the Wicked Witch's ruby red slippers. Instead, she sets Dorothy off on a quest of personal discovery, a quest that leads her to find her brain, heart, and courage. This quest, it could be said, is needless and if she really cared about Dorothy's individual needs she would just show her how to use the slippers right from the beginning. But, Dorothy's needs are not the only ones she is concerned about. Dorothy's quest of self discovery liberates all of Oz both when she destroys both wicked witches and when she reveals the Wizard for what he really is. If Dorothy is the learner, then the Good Witch of the North is the teacher.

The Ruby Red Slippers

While not a character, per se, the Ruby Red Slippers are a prop that possess enough character-like qualities to make special note of them. They represent the authority or agency to act on one's behalf. If individuals like Rhee represent the Wicked Witch of the East the removal of her slippers is the removal of authority and the placement of them on Dorothy is then the giving of agency to the learner. The fact that teacher-run schools are becoming a much talked about solution in the education reform debate is evidence that this analogy might fit. At least, in the case of Washington D.C., the agency is given back to the public. It is yet to be seen if the people of D.C. will give those slippers to the wicked sister, The Wicked Witch of the West. What should be noted here, is that in the film, once Dorothy has the slippers on they cannot be removed. Meaning, once one possesses the agency to learn on their own or to act on their own behalf it is nearly impossible to remove that from them.

The Wicked Witch of the West

In our analogy, if the external agency or authority is represented by the Wicked Witch of the East, the Wicked Witch of the West represents standardized curriculum and all its trappings. She represents the desire in education to dictate what things are. I am firmly convinced that one of the most dangerous words in the English language is "is." Standards attempt to freeze everything in place with that word. She is an ideology that attempts to dictate to us what the world "is" and discourage us from describing the world with more mailable words. For the Wicked Witch of the West the world is better off the more she can control it, prevent it from changing, and convince us that within her authority exists total knowledge.

Flying Monkeys

Of course, the Wicked Witch of the West is not without support, she has her minions of flying monkeys who do her bidding. In education reform anyone who has bought into and supports the rhetoric of the standards movement are this story's flying monkeys. While in the film the flying monkeys seem to play a small role, in reality this group of reformers makes up a significant group of many well-known and respectable names. It's any politician who lobbies for more testing, its every educator, administrator, or department of education representative who relies too heavily on data found in a scantron for their data-informed decision making. Of course there are a fair number of parents and community members on this list as well. It is important to recognize that while these people may be misguided, like the Witch's monkeys, they are not inherently evil. In fact, this group is possibly the most grateful when Dorothy liberates them. I believe the same will be true of our own education reform flying monkeys.

The Wizard of Oz

Now, the figures often associated with today's Ed Reform Superman, are those billionaire philanthropists who come down from their Fortresses of Solitude and save struggling schools with their superpowers ($). We are led to believe that this Superman is who we are waiting for, much like Dorothy sought the Wizard of Oz as her savior. In the current narrative this role is best filled by the Zuckerbergs, Gates, and Broads of the world. Individuals who appear very powerful because they possess superior technology and have enough money to make it appear like they have superpowers.

The Wizard puts forth a false facade and wants us to, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Of course, Toto, who represents our curiosity, reveals that the Wizard is not a wizard at all. He doesn't have any special powers and even with all his money he cannot buy Dorothy her liberation. He is just a normal man. A man from Kansas. Who else do we know from Kansas? Oh, right, this guy.

So, while you are waiting for Superman, try clicking your heels three times and say, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home."


Scott Schwister said...

No place like homeschool?

Mrs. Tenkely said...

Great analogy Carl. I saw your tweet about the monkey's yesterday and was looking forward what role you would come up with for them. I think you have it dead on.

There's no place like home.

Reena said...

Hi mate,
It was nice to see this article and interesting to read this one.