Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reformsters and Dinosaurs

Last night my wife and I watched our newly acquired copy of Jurassic World, a movie that doesn't have an original idea in its head, but is still plenty of fun to watch. Even more than when we saw it in the theater, I'm struck by how the themes of education reform are laced through the film, and though I wrote about the movie at the time, I want a do-over, to expand on what I originally noticed.

Virtually every reformster foible is on display in this movie.

Our leading lady is introduced with a big Marked for Redemption sign on her forehead. She refers to the animals in the park as "assets," things rather than living beings, and she prefers to manage based on data and spreadsheets-- management by screen. She follows procedure rather than listening to her expert.

The movies baddest human is Vincent D'Onofrio's ex-military corporate tool. He's most immediately marked as a bad guy with his speech about competition, and how that's the road to improvement. What I noticed more clearly this time through is that he likes the idea of competition because he believes that he will come out on top-- competition is important because it's how other things are brought up to snuff.

Paired with that belief in competition is yet another rejection of expertise. Chris Pratt (playing what we affectionately refer to as Bert Macklin, Dinosaur Hunter) tries to explain to D'Onofrio all of the specifics and understanding needed to handle the almost-trained raptors, but D'Onofrio brushes him off because D'Onofrio believes that he just has a gut-level understanding that is greater than Pratt's actual knowledge and experience. D'Onofrio is so sure that he just knows how things go that he will prevail-- right up to the moment the raptor chomps down on his arm.

Also worth noting-- the billionaire backer of the park. He seems to be a voice concerned about the right things (Are the customers happy? Are the animals happy?) but he also suffers from a hubris problem. As he climbs aboard a helicopter that he intends to pilot, another character asks if there is anyone else who can pilot the copter. The billionaire replies, "We don't need anybody else." Again he believes in his own awesomeness over any needed expertise, and the result is death and destruction for himself and others.

Add--of course-- the scientist who has met the demands for a bigger, badder dinosaur without regard for the moral and ethical issues involved. Park management needs newer, scarier "assets" to keep their numbers up, and the scientist has delivered. Had the character ever read any Michael Crichton book, he might have paused to consider Crichton's favorite idea-- that human beings always underestimate the problems that come with their technological solutions.

All of these factors-- the focus on keeping numbers up, the impersonal data focus, the creation of artificial solutions, the belief in competition, the hubristic disregard for expertise-- combine to produce a monster. The monster was supposed to be the best, the creation that would save the park. Instead, it destroys it before being itself destroyed. It's all very, very reminiscent of the education debates, of the drive by powerful people whose faith is in their own rightness and not in expertise and experience to create something that is supposed to fix everything. But their values are warped and instead of trying to do what is best for the animals or the human guests of the park, they are really driving to create weapons, to create profits that will prove they are the best. What they create is meant to be the best, a savior, but because their values and goals are wrong, their creation is a destructive monster.

I suppose I might have spoiled a few details, but in truth there are no spoilers for this film because absolutely nothing happens that comes as a real surprise. And that's what's really interesting to me-- the characters who display the coldness, the detachment, the self-importance, the hubris that we associate with reformsters, are all immediately recognizable as characters who will be dealt either redemption or destruction. I venture a guess that nobody who watches the film sees D'Onofrio's character, hears him talk about how the raptors can be used, how competition makes the world work, how expertise can be ignored because he just knows-- nobody sees all this and thinks, "Yeah, that guy is going to be the hero."

Yes, the parallels aren't perfect. I'm happy to think of Chris Pratt as a proxy for teachers, but the dinosaurs end up as proxies for students and/or traditional public ed, which is less flattering. 

So public ed fans can enjoy the movie because the good guys win and the bad guys, mostly, get their comeuppance. And public ed fans can take heart from the fact that the good guys are readily recognizable by just about anybody, that our struggle does include recognizable archetypes. Maybe that will help the public really understand what is happening to public ed.

One thing, though, that might get missed in the Big Finale-- the scientist and his engineered embryos escape unscathed.

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