Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Waiting for Superman—and Self-Sacrifice—in Public Education

Josh Larsen


September 21, 2012

By Josh Larsen

The recent teachers’ strike involving Chicago’s public school system came in the shadow of the acclaimed documentary Waiting for Superman. Released in 2010, Superman follows a handful of families who have been failed by their neighborhood schools and are hoping to land a coveted spot in one of the better-performing charter schools in their respective districts. 

Recalling the film during the events of the last few weeks, I was struck by its emphasis on a central aspect of effective education: the requirement of self-sacrifice. In the national conversation about education reform—and during a labor dispute in particular—this principle is often too easily cast aside, exactly when it should be at the forefront. In its depiction of a school system that has been compromised in order to serve special interests, Waiting for Superman reminds us that a just approach to negotiations must have self-sacrifice as a foundational building block. 

All education is, after all, a form of self-sacrifice, a setting aside of one generation’s time, money and other resources for the betterment of a younger generation. Waiting for Superman bears this out. The alternative schools held up as successes in the film—ranging from Geoffrey Canada’s lauded Harlem Children’s Zone to a school run by the Catholic Church—employ a variety of different methods. Yet one common element underscores their various efforts: sacrifices are made to better the experience of the students. Sometimes these sacrifices are on the part of teachers, who are earning less in order to work in a system that is better suited to the students’ development. Sometimes the sacrifices are on the part of parents, who are working long hours to cover tuition at a private school, where their child has a better chance at personal success

These are unique situations, and Waiting for Superman’s focus is microscopic in the sense that it mostly details the lives of the handful of families in the film. Yet it’s still worth asking, even as part of a broader view of public education, what we are willing to sacrifice. 

Would teachers be willing to sacrifice iron-clad job security, if it meant administrators would be able to hold under-performing faculty accountable? A stronger teaching force for children might be the result. 

Would legislators at all levels be willing to sacrifice the supremacy of test scores, if it meant teachers and administrators had more control over their curriculum? More vibrant, individually tailored classrooms might be the result. 

Would parents be willing to sacrifice higher taxes, if it meant more resources for the schools? An enriched learning environment might be the result. 

This isn’t to say any of these sacrifices would solve the ills plaguing the public education system in the United States. What I hope to emphasize—and what Waiting for Superman captures in each of the students it profiles—is the common virtue each suggestion shares: the necessity of setting aside personal gain for the common good of the student. Once we’re done with our own schooling, we adults must remember that education no longer revolves around us. Even if it encompasses our profession or necessitates our taxes, education remains an endeavor focused on the other, be it the kindergartner waiting at the bus stop or the senior at a state college. 

Writing about education reform earlier in Capital Commentary, Chicago professor Ted Williams III noted how “extending compassion to the least in our society” is a distinctly Christian characteristic. I think his equating of “the least” with struggling students is dead-on. Frederick Buechner once wrote about this Christian compassion as it contrasts with greed: “Avarice, greed, concupiscence and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our own sakes too.”

This sense of of self-sacrifice seems especially applicable in the context of the community in which education takes place. As Waiting for Superman is at pains to point out, the solution to the public-education system does not lie in the arrival of a superhero. Nor does it lie in what can be won at a bargaining table. It lies, instead, in what each of us is willing to give up. 

—Josh Larsen is editor and film critic for Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”