The Oct. 18 episode of the radio program “This American Life” was devoted to superpowers and superheroes. In one of the segments, reporter John Hodgman told people they could have a superpower, and then asked them to choose between invisibility and flying, explaining that they couldn’t have both. As an educator, I’m curious about human motivations and was interested in what people’s responses would be.
If you’re like me, the responses from those interviewed on “This American Life” may surprise you. One of the first people interviewed said she’d choose invisibility so she could steal cashmere sweaters. Another said, “I think that a lot of people are going to tell you that they would choose flight. And I think they’re lying to you. I think they’re saying that because they’re trying to sound all mythic and heroic. Because the better angels of our nature would tell us that the real thing that we should strive for is flight. And that that’s noble and all that kind of stuff. But I think actually, if everybody were being perfectly honest with you, they would tell you the truth, which is that they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.”
I’m one of those people who’d choose flight — not for any heroic reasons, but because I’d just love to be able to fly all over the world without burning fossil fuels and get to experience this amazing planet expeditiously. But it would never occur to me — or, I’d like to think, to the vast majority of the people I know — to choose invisibility for the sake of shoplifting or becoming a peeping Tom.
But this woman really did say this, and in fact, many people interviewed chose invisibility for the reasons she suggests, so perhaps I don’t have my finger on the pulse of mainstream human motivations.
Which makes me all the more committed to transforming and redirecting our motivations, which is why I’m a humane educator whose goal is to provide all students with the knowledge, tools and, yes, motivation, to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a peaceful, just and humane world for all people, all species, and the environment that sustains us. Which makes me sound like a superhero wannabe.
I’d also like to think that readers of this post are superhero wannabes, too.
Happily, we actually do have a superpower, not in the traditional sense, but within the most mundane venue of all: classrooms. It is in schools that we may have the greatest power to achieve the greatest good. It is in schools that we have the potential to seed a generation with the motivation to be solutionaries.
When my husband and I were listening to “This American Life,” he pointed out that real superheroes don’t actually have superpowers. He said that if you have superpowers — if you can fly or scale walls, if bullets can’t harm you and you can leap tall buildings with a single bound — then you’re not risking much if you spend a little time doing some good in the world. The real superheroes are people without superpowers, like Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who’s been advocating for the education of girls and women, at great risk to her own life, and who, after being shot in the head by the Taliban and recovering for the better part of a year, is still speaking out despite continued threats to her life. She’s speaking out about the power of education, identifying it as the single most important path toward peace, justice, and a humane and healthy world.
I agree with brave Malala. But right now, the focus of school reform, at least here in the United States, has little to do with producing solutionaries for a better world. The goal of education, as articulated in the U.S. Department of Education mission statement, is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.” This concept of preparing students to compete in the global economy has become such a buzz phrase, echoed by policymakers, politicians, school administrators, educational reformers, and in numerous books and articles on education, that it’s become an unexamined good.
But I question this goal. I believe we should embrace the great power of and hope for education: to graduate wise and capable people who are not simply literate and numerate, but who are also brilliant critical and creative thinkers and eager collaborators, whose goals include ensuring that the systems within production, agriculture, energy, transportation, protection and economics are just, healthy, restorative and humane. In other words, to produce graduates who, unlike some of the interviewees on “This American Life,” want to speak and heal rather than sneak and steal.
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