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When It Comes to Education, America Has a Lot to Learn

One of the--many--great things about living in Traverse City, Michigan is the local connection to filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore spearheaded a downtown theatre revival where two uniquely restored gems are staffed by community volunteers. He co-founded the spectacularly successful and fun Traverse City Film Festival. And he maintains a home nearby-- Michael Moore sightings are common in Traverse City. Whether you like his politics or not, he's had a stimulating and inventive impact on this beautiful bayside resort town.

Moore's latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, premiered in the US last week, to an enthusiastic full house, at the State Theatre in Traverse City (as well as New York and Los Angeles). From a filmmaking standpoint, it's like all of Moore's documentaries--loosely strung together, occasionally jarring and consistently thought-provoking. He's chronically over the top, behavior-wise (making a visit to the President of Slovenia in his baseball cap and tennis shoes, for example).

But--the premise of the film is genius. It's not about war-making. It's a fantasy, with Moore as noble explorer, appropriating the best ideas about social well-being from countries across the globe. Women business leaders from Iceland (where they actually fixed their economy using ideas from American financial experts). Corrective justice from Norway and Portugal. Humane vacations and workplace conditions from Italy. Equal rights for women in--get this--Tunisia.

Themes around quality education are woven in: From France, delicious fresh-food school lunches, including a cheese course, designed to make students healthier and more conscious of good eating habits. Free college educations for all students in Slovenia (including American ex-pats, escaping absurd loan debt back home). Enlightened, non-punitive sex education. Teachers who feel entirely autonomous in their classrooms. European teachers who pity American educators, because their work is evaluated by their students' testing data.

And from Germany, a segment that made me cry quietly, watching in the dark: German educators discuss how they teach the events leading to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, and the hideous years that followed, the unspeakable acts fervently carried out by some of the students' own great-grandparents. I wondered how many American teachers feel compelled to speak out about our own checkered national past--and present. I wonder how many teachers are afraid to allow, let alone guide, discussion about American failings, inequities and crimes in recent history.

I was in Nuremberg in 2014, and toured the Nazi Rally Grounds there, with a special guide who led us through the Documentation Center. He was insistent: it must not be called a museum, because a museum is a collection of cultural artifacts that explain the historic values and accomplishments of a people or nation. The Documentation Center, conversely, collected items so that the people of Germany could not destroy evidence or look away from their past, and would never repeat their mistakes.

In the Q & A that followed, he explained how seriously German educators took their charge to rebuild a just and equitable society--beginning with an early childhood education centered on kindness and acceptance, and using a curriculum that gradually introduces children to hard truths, knowing the evidence of recent history is still present in their physical environment and family stories.

How did they begin to introduce that terrible period of history, the social dissatisfaction and exclusion that drove it? Like you do in the United States, he said--we begin by reading The Diary of Anne Frank.

Do the Common Core State (sic) Standards--which broadly roll social studies into English/Language Arts standards as "content"--provide any framework for teaching the most important historical events and principles important to Americans? Although I know that many Social Studies teachers in the States push their students to uncover our real history--the glorious and the shameful--what kind of "common standards" do we have to ensure that our young people are engaged in civic responsibility? We're testing the daylights out them, closing their neighborhood schools and burdening them with heavy debt when they want to pursue higher education---none of that is leading to a more enlightened citizenry.

The best part of Where to Invade Next is the end. Moore points out that all of the countries he's visited once had terrible problems--industrial, financial, political, social and educational--to solve. And all of them have made significant improvements in the lives of their people. We can too, Moore says. We have the tools, the creative ideas and even, if we're determined, the leadership.

 It was a nice thought to take out of the theatre. Is he right?

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