The exciting new documentary film, “Listen: The Movie”, will be shown on April 24 at 7:00 PM in the Shineman Chapel on the Hartwick College campus and is free and open to the public. The film maker, Ankur Singh will be in attendance and will lead a discussion following the screening. Listen was written, produced, filmed and narrated by a young man who takes the second semester of his freshman year in college off to explore the current state of education in the United States. Driven by his own frustration with what he sees as a deadening and worthless enterprise of hoop jumping for the sake of the hoop, he sets off across the country with camera in hand. The film reveals that despite the dehumanizing nature of the education reforms associated with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, we are still very much human: idiosyncratic, resourceful, resilient and ultimately free. Singh illustrates this by allowing his subjects to speak for themselves, and there are all kinds. Many of his subjects have suffered deeply at the hands of the educational system but each has found ways to resist or reject it and to come out emboldened by their struggle.
Singh situates himself as a bright, sensitive boy in a privileged mid-Western town who lives a double life. In high school he is frustrated and bored, a mediocre student. Outside of school, he lives a rich creative life as a developing, self-taught filmmaker. We get to see old footage of him with his adolescent friends joyfully struggling through building a film studio, they can’t line up the two by fours, they crack jokes and they experiment. It’s a gang of boys fully engaged in learning. No adults, just kids with tools and materials making something original, solving problems and experiencing joy through a shared project. The film juxtaposes these early scenes with testimonials from individuals and families who couldn’t fit their square pegs into the round holes of the educational system. They tell of being nearly flattened but somehow managing through will and intelligence to survive it. A deeply philosophical young woman who dropped out of high school in tenth grade because she couldn’t and wouldn’t conform tells of her journey to pursuing a college math degree because she believes that that was the only way she could fully understand nature.
At its center, “Listen” is incredibly hopeful; we are reminded of what learning really entails. One of the things I most appreciated about the film was that, though Singh doesn’t shy away from the hard truths about the corporate reform juggernaut, he firmly rejects being vanquished by it. A mother who homeschools her daughter reveals how wonderfully and naturally a curious child bubbles with enthusiasm as she experiences hands on science. He doesn’t use any educational experts because his subjects are experts in recounting their own narratives; their expertise in their own experiences shines though.
Singh has done his homework, as the committed learner that he is, and succinctly explains the history of and motivation behind the reform movement. He addresses the class issues that drive the corporatization of public education. Several students from an inner city Chicago high school speak with clarity and deep understanding of structural inequities to which they are subject. In response, they strategically withhold compliance by banding together and refusing NAEP testing in their school, despite pressure and intimidation from their teachers and administrators. They simply won’t cooperate with the schools agenda unless they received something in return. Their demands? To feel safe and visible in a school where they do not feel protected or valued. They tasted the power of their shared vision of fairness and like all the other subjects in the film, these Chicago teenagers tell a story of wresting their identities and their destinies back from those who would do it for them.
At the beginning of the film I was put off by Singh’s youthful voice reading from a script that sometimes sounds stilted. As the film unfolded however, I began to warm to and finally to celebrate its flaws, for example when he indulges in an unnecessary digression into ruminating on whether this project might be a pointless narcissistic exercise. Of course we forgive because these flaws only add to the film’s authenticity. This really is a kid’s project, albeit a brilliant and adventurous one with obvious financial support and parents with enough imagination to cut this young explorer loose to pursue his vision, and that makes it all the more compelling and inspiring.
Many of us in the standardization resistance movement are subject to discouragement when we see so many teachers and families capitulate. We wonder why people aren’t angrier. “Listen” demonstrates that resistance is out there in myriad forms and that it begins inside individuals who can imagine other possibilities for themselves. The trick is in touching people in ways that let them imagine their own alternatives to compliance with education reforms that they know aren’t good for their students and their children.
One unanticipated outcome of the testing and accountability movement has been a near explosion in muckraking journalism, political activism and creative expression. It makes me think of the dissident poets and composers on the Soviet era. It would seem that we humans are ignited by oppression to create, to speak, to act. This film deserves to be widely disseminated, because it reminds us of the incredible human reserves, mettle and audacity that so many possess and because it inspires us to double our own efforts to take back control of our public education system from those who have almost succeeded subjugating it.