Voices from the Learning Studio: Waiting for the Übermensch

One of the great things about teaching adults, as opposed to 3 year-olds, is that I get to engage in extended, deep, and meaningful discussions with my students.

Since the drafting of our book Teaching 2030 (link is external), I have been continually enthralled by the idea of the Transformed Learning Ecology (link is external) (PPT). It has emboldened my teaching philosophy and helped me to approach my teaching in preschool and college with wonder.

One of the great things about teaching adults, as opposed to 3 year-olds, is that I get to engage in extended, deep, and meaningful discussions with my students. I also get to read their writing about important topics in education. Each semester at VCU (link is external), I have had students critique an educational film using an analytical/ethical frame. This past semester, in Seminar on Ethics, Issues, and Policy in Education I had the joy of reading an incisive analysis of Waiting for Superman (link is external) by one of my students, Caroline Wren Martin, a school counseling student. Her application of ethical thinking and analysis of the film shed fresh light on the film and education for me, and hopefully for you as well. I asked her if I could share it.

Caroline Wren Martin (link is external)

Waiting for the Übermensch: A Critical Examination of Waiting for Superman

David Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman is a critique of the American educational system and an argument for reform. The film’s chief proposal is an abolishment of teacher tenure, championing charter schools that do not offer it to their teachers. Other approaches praised by the film include a universal, high-standards curriculum for all students and an educational experience that begins at birth rather than at age five. Guggenheim observes that the current educational model fails most students, especially students from minority and impoverished backgrounds. He argues through examples in this film that new models can be produced to serve all children, regardless of home situation. These glimpses of schools that successfully graduate all their students are enlightening and worthy of consideration by leaders in education, but Guggenheim’s proposals should be interpreted with healthy skepticism, as his arguments are not without serious flaws.

The title of this documentary refers to the Superman of comic book fame. Unfortunately, Guggenheim missed an opportunity to invoke the Übermensch Superman – that is, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s concept, adapted for his novel Crime and Punishment from Friedrich Nietzsche, of a man gifted with unique insight and clarity of thought. The lead character believes such a person is not only allowed, but even obligated to work outside of the moral laws habitually followed by lesser people, in order to achieve a greater good for mankind. This is a consequentialist viewpoint, of course; the means are subordinate to the ends. Our protagonist believes he himself is an Übermensch, so he takes on the task of killing a pawnbroker whom he sees as predatory and evil. This, he posits, is a greater good. Unfortunately, he also accidentally finds himself compelled to kill another person in the process of getting away with this charitable deed. He finds himself rapidly unravelling just as the investigation into the murder ramps up (Dostoevsky, 1993). There are many important questions elicited by this novel: If there really can be such a person as an Übermensch who is above usual moral stipulations, how anyone accurately identify him or herself as such? What if you decide you are an Übermensch and therefore not only may but even must murder someone, but in reality you are just unhinged? What if suddenly every person decides he or she is an Übermensch, resulting in a mass abandonment of conventional morality?

Guggenheim has sought out the Übermenschen of American education; those who can move beyond the received wisdom of how education should work and have acted to promote the greater good. Charter schools are bastions of the Übermenschen, casting aside staid concepts like teacher tenure and student tracking and instead embracing merit pay and high standards for all students, regardless of home situation. By throwing out the conventional thinking about schools and trying anything and everything to find out what improves student outcomes, the charter schools use a consequentialist philosophy of education policy.

How exactly can academic success be defined, though? In Guggenheim’s eyes, it means being accepted to and eventually graduating from college. The film repeatedly refers to college admittance statistics as a measure of schools’ success. Implicit in this approach is the message that the goal of public education is to prepare students for college, rather than to produce generally well-rounded critical thinkers, or emotionally balanced young people, or even to provide state-funded childcare during the adult workday – all common theories regarding the purpose of public education (Schafft & Biddle, 2013). A segment of the film explains that the school system as it was developed fifty years ago aimed to track students toward college or toward another vocational endpoint. However, the documentary posits, today’s economy demands a better-educated workforce, and schools should be preparing every student for college. No mention is made of the many trades, such as plumbing and welding, that are stable, in-demand, and well-paid. Lower-paid, yet societally crucial industries such as sanitation also are omitted from this discussion. Finally, the many recent college graduates struggling with unemployment or underemployment are completely overlooked during this segment on the purpose of our public education system (Spreen, 2013).

Given that college may not be the best goal for every person in the United States, and that we in fact need people to fill roles not requiring a college education, this measure of academic success is problematic. The film does make frequent reference to comparisons of test scores between different cohorts of students as a secondary indication of school performance, but fails to even remotely address the myriad problems of standardized academic testing. Sometimes these tests results are the best yardstick available for student performance, but it is suspicious for a documentary to rely on them to argue a point without acknowledging their flaws. It is well-known among education experts that standardized testing is often problematic in terms of both validity and reliability, and furthermore that the use of standardized testing to pass or fail students and to distribute funding often leads to a dumbing down of curricula (Tam, 2014). A full discussion of this issue merits its own documentary, or several, but to gloss over it is suspect at the least.

Another major premise of Guggenheim’s piece is that talented teachers are the chief factor in student success. He does acknowledge two other elements of successful school models: a long instructional day and a program that begins not at age five, but at birth. However, these tie for a distant second after the importance of teacher quality in Guggenheim’s eyes. Dismissing other influences such as the availability (or unavailability) of local resources, Waiting for Superman places all its eggs in the basket of quality teachers, while simultaneously failing to explicitly suggest what distinguishes a successful teacher from an unsuccessful one. The viewer may assume that college acceptance rates and possibly standardized test scores are Guggenheim’s idea of a measure of teacher success. Nevertheless, he argues, we must separate the wheat from the pedagogical chaff, doing away with teacher tenure provisions and holding our educators to strict standards.

Waiting for Superman’s goal is not to produce a thought-provoking, balanced reportage on the issue of teacher tenure or any other element of education reform, but rather to promulgate the arguments of a single side of the debate. Therefore, no one who is ideologically supportive of teacher tenure is represented in this film. In a different film, the viewer would have been treated to hearing reasonable educators explain the merits of teacher tenure, including recruitment of more people to the profession; promotion of innovation; allowance for teachers to advocate for students without fear of being fired; increased care taken by school administrators when hiring teachers; and prohibition of replacing experienced teachers with inexperienced and therefore lower-paid teachers (Waddell, 2012). There are many reasoned arguments for the protection of teacher tenure, so the better question might not be “Should teachers be granted tenure?” but “Under what circumstances should teachers be granted tenure?”

I have known a few teachers who should never have been allowed in the classroom, and who should be fired, or even arrested, “with all deliberate speed.” David Guggenheim provided several more examples. It is a terrible thing that any child should be consigned to an educational doom. It’s disheartening that the inertia of the system almost completely disallows any sort of reform. However, if we decide we are the Übermensch, the Superman, and can throw out our long-held principles like job security for teachers and tailoring of standards to students with diverse abilities, we may find ourselves unravelling much like Dostoevsky’s protagonist. As with most arguments about the ends versus the means, a middle ground on these issues is likely our best bet. Therefore, in order to develop a balanced and productive view of education reform, a viewer must seek out more perspectives than the one offered by Waiting for Superman.


Dostoyevsky, F., Pevear, R., & Volokhonsky, L. (1993). Crime and punishment. New York: Vintage Books.

Schafft, K. A., & Biddle, C. (2013). Place and Purpose in Public Education: School District Mission Statements and Educational (Dis)Embeddedness. American Journal Of Education, 120(1), 55-76.

Spreen, T. (2013). Recent college graduates in the U.S. labor force: data from the Current Population Survey. Monthly Labor Review, 136(2), 3-13.

Tam, M. (2014). Outcomes-based approach to quality assessment and curriculum improvement in higher education. Quality Assurance In Education: An International Perspective, 22(2), 158-168. doi:10.1108/QAE-09-2011-0059

Waddell, C. (2012). The Tenure Debate. American School Board Journal, 199(10), 25-27.

Image: http://sohansurag.deviantart.com/art/Superman-Ubermensch-Wallpaper-156880728 (link is external)


Image: http://sohansurag.deviantart.com/art/Superman-Ubermensch-Wallpaper-156880728

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