Celebrities, Thank You, But…

My formative years, thanks to my mother, included George Carlin, The Firesign Theater, and Richard Pryor.

I am convinced a powerful line from Carlin to Kurt Vonnegut remains the most important foundation of who I am outside of the people directly in my life. So I am offering here first my indebtedness to comedians, including my much more recent affinity for Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK—all of whom fill in some smaller way the void left by Carlin as comedians who are smart, funny, and offensive in the most brilliant ways.

And now that Louis CK has joined the ranks of Matt Damon and Jon Stewart among “celebrities teachers love,” I feel compelled to make a point that cannot be stressed enough: To celebrities weighing in on the education reform debate, I say, “Thank you, but…”

And before I explore the “but,” let me pose a key context for that: Davis Guggenheim.

With An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Guggenheim was the darling of the Left and scourge of the Right for his treatise on climate change.

With Waiting for “Superman” (2010), Guggenheim was the darling of the Right and scourge of the Left for his treatise on education reform.

The inconvenient truth about that Guggenheim contradiction?

Both versions are essentially celebrity visions about important and complex topics that already have very real detailed bodies of research and commentary from the experts within those fields—detailed bodies of research and commentary that are essentially ignored or misunderstood and misrepresented by the media, political leaders, and the public.

Now there is Louis CK and the Common Core, spurring points and counterpoints about whether or not Louis CK has any valid points himself.

There has always been an odd and easily missed streak of kindness, an awareness of the child’s perspective in Louis CK’s comedy, well beneath his profanity and anger. If his foray into riffing on education reform triggers any consideration in the U.S. about the need to increase our cultural kindness and respect for children, then I am on that Louis CK bandwagon. [See the video snippet here as an excellent example of where Louis CK is right on the money about “education should be welcoming.”]

Now I must turn to the “but.”

But Louis CK—as with Damon and Stewart—ultimately slides into the Guggenheim problem. While I agree that essentially Louis CK is onto many of the key failures of the entire Common Core problem as a key element in the broader education reform agenda—including the central premise that Common Core and the related high-stakes testing are inseparable in the debate—I fear that the clamoring to champion and acknowledge Louis CK’s criticism is more evidence that teachers, education researchers, and public school advocates simply have voices, expertise, and experience that do not matter on their own merit.

How must time and energy now is going to debate and cover whether or not Louis CK is accurate in his Common Core rants? I would argue, those debates are more distractions, just as debating the quality of Common Core is a distraction.

Celebrities, thank you, but your weighing in on education reform—while funny—is more entertainment that crowds out time better spent on the real world of teaching and learning in a country that really doesn’t care—not about children (if they are “other people’s children”), not about workers, not about people trapped in poverty, not about the mass incarceration of people of color, and certainly not about education.

I suppose it is better we spend our time laughing to avoid crying, but again, I am certain that education as a profession needs to be acknowledged and taken seriously on its own merit and not because a celebrity makes the same case educators have been making as professionals and not entertainers.


18 thoughts on “Celebrities, Thank You, But…

  1. Pingback: Celebrities, Thank You, But… – @ THE CHALK FACE

  2. This leaves me with a tension I’m not sure I can resolve so much as explore…. I hear your resistance to our culture’s preference for the voices with which it pretends to be ‘familiar,’ and share your outrage about the marginalization of the voices, efforts, and expertise of professional educators. But from the lens of ‘real’ politics, what precedent suggests more Americans will dig into evidence-based research on the failure of prevailing ed policy *unless* celebrities like @LouisCK weigh in? Granted the slippery allegiance and reductive arguments of folks like Davis Guggenheim (in the case of both films), wasn’t each film also the trigger for a tidal wave of discourse pro- and con? And wasn’t criticism of the spectacular misrepresentations of ‘Waiting for Superman’ the catalyst for some of the fiercest writing about teaching, learning, and ‘reform’ by many educators… writing that *did*, exactly because of the public exchange about the film, find its way to heads and hearts that wouldn’t have been interested in the first place?

    Great Qs to consider, Paul. Thank you, as always, for the provocation! CT

      • Agreed completely — and frustrated completely — and/but wondering (truly wondering, not concluding) if that limitation can be reframed as an opportunity (esp in a culture that creates minimal space for public intellectuals, and in which few public intellectuals have been able to create one).

      • There are efforts to make that change. Those are the people who are out there, like yourself, speaking forcefully to power. There are efforts to organize, within our unions and communities, in ways that allow our voices to be heard. There are protests being organized — there is one at the Gates Foundation on June 26, and one in DC being organized by the BATs on July 28. I see these as not simply reactions, but as proactive efforts to get our voices heard. I would be happy to hear if there are other ways to get this done, but this is what I see at work.

  3. Paul,
    Obviously I agree that we would be far better off as a nation if, when questions around big issues like the Common Core were discussed, educators were consulted as experts. But when you suggest that Louis CK’s discussion of these issues “crowds out” more serious discussion, I am not clear how that is so. It is not as if David Letterman would have invited Karen Lewis on to his show if Louis CK were unavailable. It seems to me that, in the absence of someone like Louis CK raising these questions, they would not be discussed at all in the media. Now that is deplorable, but to suggest that his advocacy somehow displaces the voices of educators, I just don’t get. He spoke up as a parent, not as a comedian, and his initial comments on Twitter were completely serious. So I agree that something is wrong with the public discourse, but I am not sure how it would help if Louis CK said nothing. I guess I am glad SOMEbody with access to the media is speaking out, because it at least opens the door for wider discussion of the issues he has raised. And maybe in that context we can move beyond wisecracks and into some more substantive discussion, with a chance for more voices to be heard.

  4. I’m with Anthony Cody on this. Recently on Twitter someone remarked to me that they’d rather listen to and learn from educators – and my response is that nobody in power is LISTENING to educators! Too many teachers are afraid to speak out as it is for fear of professional reprisal, and too few of those who do speak out have the kind of following that Louis C.K. does.

    He spoke out as a parent, and his concerns are exactly my concerns and those of many other parents. They resonate with those of us with crying children who used to love school but now beg not to go any more, with those whose children have spent too much time calling themselves “stupid” even when they’ve tested GT, with those of us who’ve looked at our kids’ math homework (or ELA, for that matter) and wondered who in their right minds came UP with those algorithms, and who decided that my 8YO should have more algebra than my 12YO. He emphatically has NOT claimed to be an expert, in stark contrast to Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Mike Petrilli, Arne Duncan, and a host of others with ZERO ed cred, and has in fact re-iterated that his Tweets are ONLY his opinion as a parent – again, in stark contrast to the others on that list. He also seems to be doing his research; his talk with Letterman seemed – and yes, perhaps I’m reading into it, and someone call me on it if I’m wrong – to have more specifics than his Tweets; his remarks about the process being secretive is what I’m thinking of. He hasn’t put on a tinfoil hat, he hasn’t gone “Agenda 21,” but he HAS turned on and is shining a light that is cutting – FINALLY! – through the load of manure that reformers have been spouting, and for that I am grateful. He’s a voice of reason in a very crowded arena.

      • I think I’m probably more agreeing with you than arguing with you. It cheeses me off no end that it’s taking this to bring CCSS out to the broader public.

        But – I’m thankful that it’s happening. 🙂

    • For what it’s worth, I think you’re spot-on in pointing out the difference between C. K.’s Tweets and his appearance on Letterman. On Twitter, groused about awkward homework questions and the relentless pressure his kids are exposed to. Those comments were spontaneous and hardly an indictment of any systemic evil (unless you happen to be intimately familiar with said evil from years of opposing it in the educational trenches). On Letterman, he’d clearly read up on CCSS and made more complex points about systemic failures in education in a MUCH punchier way. “They test your kids all the time, and if they don’t pass the tests, they burn down the school” is a punch to the nose of the underlying concept — a brutal takedown instead of the gregarious kvetching he’d indulged on Twitter.

      Original point about celebrity culture aside, I hope folks in the know reach out to C. K. and answer his earnest questions (that have answers). He may be the rare celebrity who understands anything he says will become a blunt instrument in the hands of ideologues, and I hope that’s rewarded with engagement.

      • I’m largely convinced of C. K.’s sincerity and reachability by the way he ended his series of Tweets: With praise for his kids and their teachers. Clearly, he’s someone who saw both as victims of a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy who were still managing to claw their way in spite of it all. It’s a lovely instance of that “easily missed streak of kindness.”

  5. Pingback: Celebrities, Thank You, But… | Educational Policy Information

  6. You miss the boat completely on this Paul. Louis C.K. is speaking, not just as a professional entertainer, but as a parent of public school children. He wasn’t speaking as a favor to the left, so there no need for the “thank you, but…” Also, no need to lump all entertainers together. Thanks for speaking out as a parent would be fine.

    • You miss my point, Mike. Not really about Louis CK, but the response, and whose voice matters. Lots of parents peaking out who don’t happen to be celebs, and they never get any recognition, similar to ignored educators.

  7. Having spent the last 35+ years (geez) teaching in one way or another and years before that on the “other side of the desk,” I certainly understand the frustration. That said, I listen to Louis CK’s comments as those of a parent an expertise of a different sort. Parents are in a unique position – not better but unique – to report the boredom, the lethargy, the tears or the curiosity or enthusiasm they see when kids arrive home. From where I sit, although not necessarily always persuasive, it is data to which we need to attend. But/And … indeed… some voices matter far too much … the consequence of our cultural attitude toward celebrity. PS Like your blog a lot.

  8. I appreciate the nuance in CK’s comments, which was less “Listen to me, I’m famous” and more, to my ear, “I’m a parent with something to bitch about.” CK’s whole version of “celebrity” is a bit of a study on its own.

    I have a problem with “teachers go second,” though until we get to go first, I appreciate somebody going first who has something to say I agree with.

    But I think we have a consistency issue of our own if we say, “Amateurs should keep their mouths shut about education– except for amateurs who say things I like.” Either we think amateurs can legitimately comment on education, or we don’t. We can’t really have it both ways.

    • I thoroughly agree — and believe that’s the central point of the post: Long-time CCSS opponents within professional education should choose now to stand up and object to the celebritization of the discussion. Louis C. K. may be on the right track, but the next celebrity to chime in may have a bigger reach — and may decide to throw his or her weight behind a harmless generalization like, “What’s wrong with having some standards?” Calling for greater nuance and reliance on research and expert opinion at that stage will land flat if no one is willing to answer C. K.’s questions about number lines and pre-algebra now.

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