There's an advertisement on television now for the all new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Perhaps you've seen it. A sledgehammer pounds a steel tie into a railroad track with a romantic clang as nostalgic images of the Great American Century pass us by. "This was once a country where people made things," our decidedly working class narrator tells us. "And so it is again..."
This advertisement kept popping into my head while I watched Davis Guggenheim's new documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'." The crumbling facade of a Washington D.C. school building brought to mind the same such images of desolation in a once-booming Detroit. Built at around the same time, public schools and GM Plants -- once pulsing new factories pumping out lawyers, middle managers and Oldsmobiles -- have fallen upon the same brutal fate. The great backbone of America, cars and schools, have become incontrovertible failures.
At one time, both industries employed hundreds of thousands of workers. They built the middle class to its state of prominence on the backs of unionized labor. Things worked well enough. That was then.
Now, the glory days of education have given way to the Rubber Rooms of New York City Schools, where teachers facing disciplinary action spend days doing nothing at all at full pay. The auto industry gives us GM's notorious NUMMI plant, where the UAW made it nearly impossible to fire anyone and could shut down a plant at a moments notice if any grievance with the automakers arose. Complacency replaced innovation. While other fields -- medicine and technology -- made great advances, the nuts and bolts on our cars and schools rusted. Now, the size of a computer processor shrinks while our class sizes grow.
With the great collapse, and the threat of losing our Big Three automakers altogether, emergency sessions of Congress and a Car Tsar took down the old, unimaginative leadership of General Motors. They renegotiated union contracts, closed plants and dealers that grew too large under an outdated system. Finally, they plugged the financial gap with more than sixty billion dollars. Now, the future of the American car industry looks, if not bright, at least less dark then before.
I can't help but be left to wonder -- are cars more important than schools? How close to the brink of collapse must we come to fix our education system?
No one is actually waiting, in the passive sense, for Superman to show up. People are calling out for him daily -- lining up for charter school lotteries and moving to better school districts. Parents desperate to give their children a shot are met at many turns by red tape and incompetence. Ever tried to get a message to a teacher in a public school district? Forget voice mail or e-mail; try a scrap of paper in the mail cubby. (Watch a parent in "Waiting for 'Superman' " try to schedule a parent teacher conference unsuccessfully and you'll see what I mean.) Something tells me GM must have worked in a similar fashion.
Guggenheim makes so viscerally clear the utter failure of our nation's education system that the audience literally gasped in unison at many moments during the film. Guggenheim places blame in a few different places (teacher's union president Randy Weingarden is made to look especially villainous). What's clear as day, however, is that our education system is crumbling as fast as some of the building facades captured in the documentary.
The great collapse is already upon us. Superman's not coming. So picture this. Middle of the Superbowl, an ad comes on:
A student clutches his diploma. Throws his graduation cap high in the air. Black and white images of John Harvard, of the UC Berkeley campus. Flash cut to a teacher, energized and enthusiastic as he hands a nervous high school student back his essay. As our narrator implores...
"This was once a country where people made things. When will it be again?"