M. Night Shyamalan, the director of The Sixth Sense and After Earth, usually tries to invent riddles. Now he’s trying to solve one—namely, the American public-school system. His book I Got Schooled has lots of underlying explanations—but, like his movies, they aren’t all what you think.
What got you started on thinking about education?
I’m not inherently a very altruistic guy. I’m obsessed with filmmaking and my family, occasionally a sporting event. I’m not very good at listening to the world in a general way. But the things that cause me to listen happen in Philadelphia. When I walk into a school and see a bunch of kids who’ve been taught by the world around them that they are worthless, it bothers me. Because that’s not true. It’s not true in the universe.
Your book is a genuine stab at social science, very data-driven. You give five essential requirements for school reform, including getting rid of bad teachers, shrinking school size, and having kids spend more time in the classroom. Who do you think your audience will be for such a technical book?
You know … [Long pause.] Realistically, I really just don’t know who could possibly want to pick up this book. I just needed to understand why we are where we are, because there’s something fundamentally offensive about it to me. I felt like this was a racial thing. That underlying this was “We’re okay with this education gap, because it’s happening to a group of people who have always lost in our country.” All I wanted to do was put everything on the table so that everybody—a parent, a teacher, an administrator, someone in the government—has the same information.
Some politicos and policy types are taking issue with your wading into these waters. The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews recently tweeted that your joining the cause was bad for education reform, and the conservative Breitbart blog said you were “taking a break from receiving bad reviews” to do this. How do you respond to the charge that you’re a Hollywood interloper?
I’m not gaining or losing anything with this. It was just my area of interest for five years, and I learned a lot, and I have clarity. If it helps anyone have clarity, it’s so cool.
What about people who’ve devoted their lives to education reform? Are they annoyed? I imagine teachers aren’t pleased, considering you’re so emphatic about letting the bad ones go.
Everyone was excited. Everyone wanted this book to happen. Now, some people are on a different continuum of their conviction, but I’ve had such a wonderful response to the effort.
But it’s not like there’s a shortage of people writing about education reform. What need were you filling?
The need is, I don’t want to hear anyone’s opinion, and I don’t want to hear what you spent your life working on. I just want to know what everybody found. I have no investment in this. In fact, most of it was counter to what I thought I was going to find. For example, small classroom sizes. How could it be wrong? How could that not be a part of the answer? Or master’s programs and Ph.D.’s for the teachers. How could that not be a part of the answer? How could paying teachers like doctors not be a part of the answer? How can funding the schools at $20,000 per pupil not be part of the answer? And yet none of them are.
In your book, you talk at one point about your fondness for grand, unified-field theories. I feel like I’m hearing that here.
It comes out of—I don’t know what you want to call it, a spirituality, a belief that there is an order to things. So, right now, the landscape of education reform looks mushy and hopeless. That’s not how the universe works. Right? So we know that’s wrong.
Do you have the same ideas about film? Like, an informal five things that always work in a successful movie?
I do have a theory about effective and meaningful movies. What is it between The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather—what is it that makes those things work when they’re seemingly being approached completely differently? We can get a lot of false positives. A big box-office opening weekend is a false positive. But what sticks with us five years, ten years later? There is something underlying, a set of truths.
Can you tell me what they are?
Here’s the thing. It probably isn’t that hard. It’s just that it’s so precious to me I don’t even want to say it. Sometimes, when you say something out loud, it dies on the vine. It’s meant to be ineffable.