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Sam Chaltain Headshot

(Education) Inception

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I just watched Christopher Nolan's remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: "What's the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea's taken hold in the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it -- but it stays there."

Cobb's movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today's advocates for public education reform -- how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee's two newest efforts to launch her own form of "Inception" -- an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization's inaugural policy agenda -- I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that "public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo." And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will "trigger controversy." This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as DC Schools Chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us -- but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee's approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership. Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders -- people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You're either with us or against us. Don't tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly. Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee's sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception -- at seeding the foundational idea -- one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way -- it's the core message of his movie. "How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?" Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best -- something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. "Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic."

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.