It struck me part-way through watching my third consecutive episode of Swamp People that while there are reality shows about alligator hunters, junk buyers, truck drivers, coupon cutters, and pawn shop owners (actually two shows here) there are no reality shows about education.
If you are among the many that believe reality shows are a sign of the impending cultural apocalypse, or if you believe education is too serious of a topic to be serialized on the History Channel, then this news must cheer you.
But if you are a fan of reality TV, or if you like the way reality shows take overlooked parts of society, show the nuttiness of the people who inhabit it, and then demonstrate how that nuttiness is in fact part of a lifestyle that has meaning and dignity, then the fact that you can't spend a season tracking the progress of Ms. Johnson's 8th grade pre-algebra class, or sitting in on the weekly meeting of Dean's Council must make you wonder.
I don't have some Great Theory of Culture that explains this fact. And there is a lot of media attention to education, both in a fictionalized (Glee, High School Musical) and documentary (Waiting for Superman) format, not to mention the endless discussions about fixing education that emerge any time a legislature sits or an executive stops trying to solve the worlds problems long enough to focus on our own.
But the absence of reality shows about something like education, where every day teachers face the equivalent of surprisingly dangerous alligators and discover a human analogue of the $10,000 guitar hidden behind a pile of junk, must have some explanation. I would love to see yours.
Here is mine. Both reality show producers and education leaders believe that education is too important to show on television. For reality show producers the question goes like this: Why would we produce a show that might turn out to have an unhappy ending? For education leaders it is the same question, asked a different way: Why would we trivialize something as serious as the crisis of education by putting it on TV?
Behind both of these questions is an assumption that education is broken, and only major, systemic overhauls can do something positive. No one wants to relax to that on TV.
But we know that many parents are satisfied about their kids' education, even when that kid is enrolled in a "failing" school (it is the equivalent to the case that while most Americans distrust congress, most like their own representative). And we know that educational success is tied to a bunch of context-specific things--home life, access to books, the enthusiasm of the teacher--that don't give themselves easily to system-wide fixes.
It is exactly those context-specific things that make reality shows interesting. So if we see several education reality shows emerging on TV in the years to come, it will be a sign that education leaders and media producers have come to better understand education as something like hunting alligators--hard, interesting work done by people who aspire simply to decent lives and the chance to do what they love with people they like. That would be a good sign.