Pardon my brief respite from technology blogging to do a little pop-culture blogging here
Once upon a time (another lifetime ago), I taught film studies at the University of Oregon. One of my favorite courses addressed the Hollywood movie star. The class asked "What makes someone a star?" Why do stars -- their film roles and their personal lives -- interest us so much? Why do they give us pleasure? The class looked at the rise of the movie star in the industry, alongside the ways in which our society has elevated celebrities (not just film stars, but sports and music stars as well) to become spokespeople as well as performers. And we looked at the ways in which, as viewers, we "read" stars as texts -- how we construct a star's "meaning" based on their biographies ("real" or invented), their roles, their politics, and often lastly their actual film performances.
The last time I taught the class was 2004ish, but even so, I didn't have the opportunity to include in my syllabus, the wonderfully smart and irreverent and hilarious Team America, a film which makes much of the argument that I aimed to with my course: when we read that star "text," we often then conflate the actor and the role. Matt Damon becomes Jason Bourne. Matt Damon becomes Will Hunting. Matt Damon kicks ass with complete integrity. Matt Damon is a math genius, who just needs a good teacher and mentor to help him get his life in order.
There's no denying: all this makes Matt Damon a pretty appealing defender of teachers. And when he spoke a couple of weeks ago at the Save Our Schools rally, I'd contend that it wasn't just his message to teachers that was incredibly compelling: it was the entire "star text." He was eloquent and passionate and on message in his "headliner" talk. And when challenged in an off-the-cuff interview afterwards, he was boyishly belligerent and somehow appropriately foul-mouthed.
Now don't get me wrong. I like Matt Damon the actor. And politically, Matt and I agree on most things. But I think that, as educators and as education journalists, we need to be a little critical of the "star" endorsement.
I don't mean "critical" as in finger-wagging. I don't mean "critical" as necessarily negative or rejecting. I mean "critical" as in deeply thoughtful and analytical.
Because of course, without a celebrity headlining the Save Our Schools rally, one has to wonder how much media coverage would there have been. No doubt, the "Matt Damon versus Reason TV" YouTube video has probably seen more coverage and virality than any other speech or occurrence at the event.
Such is the nature of celebrities. And while in this case, many educators may be happy to Matt Damon as their savior/supporter, it's worth pointing out that there are lots of other occasions -- lots of other occasions -- where educators argue that celebrities, politicians, and other non-teachers are ill-equipped to speak knowledgeably about education. Why does Matt Damon get to speak for teachers? Because we like his message? Because we like his previous roles?
See, it's pretty easy to dismiss an op-ed blasting the NEA from Motor City Madman Ted Nugent, for example. "WTF, Ted Nugent?" I hear you say. No, really. He has written op-ed's about education. He cares! But he's a rockstar. His mother isn't an education professor. He's a well-known conservative. And he doesn't speak "the right" message in many teachers' eyes. Nor do other celebrities -- Bill Gates may be the obvious (but non-Hollywood) example.
That's the danger, of course, in getting too excited about having Jason Bourne, err Matt Damon, on your side in this conflict. If part of the argument is that "education reform" (whatever that means) needs to be left to those who "understand" education (again, whatever that means), then Gates, Nugent, and Damon are all out. Right? Or, of course, is it possible we offer a more nuanced analysis than one that just defers to what talking heads, puppets ("Maaattt Daammmon"), performers and the like offer?
No doubt the role that celebrities play in public discourse is fascinating -- in education as in all other political spheres. It's worth taking seriously as media literacy. And it's worth asking as politics: is Matt Damon's involvement here some watershed moment for education? (I'm trying to think of some other star who made education their "thing" but I can't. Please help me in the comments! Bonus points added or deducted -- I haven't decided yet -- if you invoke Vinnie Barbarino, of course.) Does this mark a new phase for education as a political movement? And if, indeed, education needs now involve celebrities in order to get "the message" (again, whatever that means) out, how do we proceed -- particularly when it comes to helping students think critically about what exactly a star "means" (in terms of race, class, power, sexuality, technology, politics)?
Humbly submitted, the PhD dropout, not-in-a-classroom-right-now, former-teacher-turned-journalist. Not a star. Or something.