Few things are as endlessly entertaining as depictions of Philadelphia in pop culture, which is why we're launching The 19102 Review, a new column devoted to Philly books.
I Got Schooled
M. Night Shyamalan
Nonfiction, 2013, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.
It’s tough not to judge M. Night Shyamalan’s new book (out Sept. 10) by its cover. It couldn’t draw any more reflexive eye rolls if it were titled At Long Last, M. Night Shyamalan Descends Like Prometheus from Olympus to Bestow Upon Mankind the Secrets of Education Reform, Because All Those Other People Clearly Just Weren’t Thinking About It Hard Enough.
The twist? If you can make it past the first quarter of the book’s terminal lack of self-awareness, it suddenly becomes a pretty evenhanded, data-reliant but readable examination of common practices among schools that excel at educating poor kids that are potentially scalable to other schools. It is not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. But, lord — does it ever take a while to get there.
The full title, I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap, suggests a couple things — that this book is going to be about M. Night Shyamalan first and his sidekick education reform second, and that Shyamalan rarely uses 10 words when 20 will do.
The interminable 75-page introduction, taking up an entire quarter of the book, backs such assumptions up. In it, Shyamalan gets into his feelings, thoughts, personality quirks, childhood, wife, meals, important friends, films, Bryn Mawr-private-schooled daughters, shock at the differences between Philly’s Masterman and Overbrook schools when he scouted both as locations for The Happening, moment of insight over spinach gnocchi at Vetri, Wikipedia research, establishment of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, and decision to write a book. There’s also facts and research, but frequently framed in the first person, as in one page describing an education panel in which the words “I,” “me” or “my” are used an astounding 34 times.
But though the lack of self-awareness is off-putting, the motivations are pure. Shyamalan’s much-touted “interested amateur” status is sure to make non-amateurs grind their teeth, but it means that the book is allied with neither Team Charter nor Team Public, which have been butting heads for so long that sometimes the education-reform discussion feels as inaccessible as the 457th reply in a Usenet flame war. Shyamalan’s conclusions (centered around lots of training, better data analysis and a reliable, observation-based method of locating and firing bad teachers) aren’t skewed toward either side, and are argued with persuasive data and a surprising sense of optimism.
Since the book started with the Philadelphia public school system, where few are optimistic at the moment, I summarized Shyamalan’s five keys for a teacher friend in case I was missing obvious Pollyannaisms. She actually liked most of his ideas, but wearily noted that “every single idea ever thought of to improve public education depends on one essential thing: adequate funding.”
If you have a book that'd be perfect for The 19102 Review, email ten.repapytic@gylime, or just drop it in the mail it to Emily Guendelsberger at Philadelphia City Paper, 30 S. 15th St., 14th floor, 19102.