“I don’t see any dead people here,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews said by way of an opening at the Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics & Prose Wednesday night. Matthews was holding a conversation with M. Night Shyamalan about the latter’s new book I Got Schooled, the zany filmmaker’s surprisingly earnest treatise on K-12 education reform.
The Q&A quickly turned into a rehearsal of an argument that has been happening on the left for years. Matthews, a self-proclaimed Democrat who often leans to the right, divulged his support for the kinds of conservative, free-market theory policies that have infiltrated the progressive education debate, like private school vouchers for low-income kids. (“I think kids coming from undisciplined backgrounds need that kind of discipline.”) He asked Shyamalan what he thinks of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. school system whose enmity with teachers’ unions is the stuff of legend, and who Shyamalan interviewed in the course of research for his book. And the movie mogul, who looked preternaturally young with his head of loose curls and the incongruous paddock boots he paired with his gray suit, did something unusual for a celebrity interloper into a policy debate: He pushed back against the prevailing, sexy “us versus them” narrative—codified, in the case of school reform, by documentaries like the blockbuster Waiting for "Superman", which cast teachers’ unions as the bad guy and charter schools as the salvation of a “broken” system. “When you look at all the data, everyone goes to this thing, ‘Fire the teachers,’” Shyamalan said, fumbling with his words. “But that’s not what the research says—when you look at it impartially."
In fact, as the evening wore on, it became clear that Shyamalan learned a thing or two in the five years he says he spent researching the book. His five prescriptions—they include smaller schools, better leadership, more class time—are far from revolutionary, but they’re largely on-target. The main problem with his performance was his apparent lack of self-confidence, his careful elision of any controversy that might have forced him to take a stand. Of his views on Rhee and the teachers’ unions, he said, “It’s not about ‘which side are you on.’” He was only comfortable discussing the reams of quantitative research he has read (though not, it must be said, in anything resembling detail). “If you ask me questions, I can tell you what’s proven and what’s not proven now on every topic,” he said at one point, like a schoolboy avowing his readiness for a test. During the question and answer session at the end, he told a woman from the audience, “Now we’re getting into my opinion, which you can throw out…”
Shocking though it may be, Shyamalan seemed aware of the impossible gap he had to bridge in order to be taken seriously. When the book first came out this September, most of the coverage focused—less shockingly—on his once-fabled, now-fallen reputation; Breitbart sneered that his policy moonlighting was a way of “taking a break from receiving bad reviews.” But the few outlets that bothered to write straightforward reviews generally liked I Got Schooled. Said NPR, “Shyamalan is smart and sincere, and his innovative ideas are unbound by the educational establishment.” Whether or not he was driven by a fear of seeming ridiculous, the most mocked man in Hollywood has produced a quite reasonable book. It’s like the ultimate plot twist.
“I’m surprised, because I want to not like you,” said one woman, who introduced herself as a former teacher with a PhD in education. “Like, who is this guy?” But then, she said, he debunked the “teachers are the problem” doctrine that has found itself into the mainstream. “So, thank you," she concluded. "And I do like you."