Art imitating life, life imitating art. Sometimes it is not so easy to tell which is which.
Yesterday I had an email from a friend whose company is making a movie, “Won’t Back Down,” on teachers and schools, education and education reform. He wanted me to see their latest work, but also to see some of the culture-wide conversation that is already happening around the film.
Starring Viola David and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the summary puts it this way, “Two determined mothers¬, one a teacher, look to transform their children’s failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.”
And then in this morning’s Post a top-of-the-fold story is about the Chicago teacher’s strike, “Strike Echoes Beyond Chicago—Rift sharpens national debate on school reform.” CNN online features it too, as its lead story. Of course it is political as it is educational. Of course it is about children and families, as it is about teachers and unions. But it is also always about the way we see our responsibility to history, to the future of who we will be and who we want to be.
All of life is complex, and people who do not acknowledge that choose their own small universes to live in, imagining worlds that do not really exist. That is true of ideologues wherever they may be found, in politics, in religion, in the arts, and in education. Education reform is its own window into that reality, and anyone who argues that there is a simple solution has never gotten close enough to the problem to know the complexity.
60 years ago T.S. Eliot gave a series of lectures on this very issue, at the University of Chicago, ironically. He called the four addresses over the course of a year, “The Aims of Education.” With brilliant insight, he slowly developed the thesis that to fragment education as we were doing in America in the middle years of the 20th-century, pretending that it is ever possible to separate “the aims of education” from “the aims of life,” was cultural silliness, and could only result in schools and schooling that did not serve students or society. We are living with the bitter fruit of long choices that have shaped our cities and our culture.
But hearing from my friend about his movie is a hint of hope. To push back, and to do so artfully, is one of the best ways to change the conversation. I hope that “Won’t Back Down” is able to come under the radar of the ideologues who so often dominant the discussion, and find an audience of ordinary people in ordinary places who long for something more. Good stories shape good societies, always and everywhere.