'I Don’t Know Anything': Why M. Night Shyamalan Wrote a Book on Education

An interview with the film director who believes he has the five keys to closing America's achievement gap
Matt Slocum/AP Photo

In spring 2007, M. Night Shyamalan was visiting Philadelphia high schools, looking for a location for his movie The Happening. The first school was beautiful, bright, and energetic. Students and teachers wanted to be there, Shyamalan remembers. Then he and his team drove four minutes down the road and visited a second school.

“It was prison,” Shyamalan said. “It‘s basically prison in the form of a school. It had guards, everybody had guns. It was very scary. I mean it was like a cheesy movie. Every cliche was there.

“I met a student there. A student came up and he kind of recognized me, and then he was like ‘nah,’ and walked away. That for me really said a lot, because he did know me, but then he decided that’s not possible. And that feeling of ‘that’s not possible’ was sad,” he said.

The experience led Shyamalan to ask more and more questions about a subject that confounds teachers, politicians, researchers, and parents: the gap between America’s best and worst schools. Shyamalan claims he is not the “do-gooder guy.” He insists, “I’m not Sean Penn or someone like that. I’m not fighting for everybody’s rights and everything that’s good... In fact, I don’t like to be [the do gooder guy] because just because you spend your life learning a particular craft, doesn’t mean you are an expert in anything other than that craft.”

Yet almost six years after that location scout in Philadelphia, Shyamalan is sitting across from Chris Matthews at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., discussing the fruit of his four years of research, his new book I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap. Before the event, Shyamalan told me about how he came to education reform and why his five tenets for closing the education gap could be a tool for policy makers. 

How did you wind up researching education for four years and writing a book?

I started asking questions to everybody. Luckily for me, I can call somebody up. I can call the Chancellor of Washington D.C. and say “Can I have dinner with you?” And they’re like, “Sure, great!” And I’m like, “I’d just like to ask questions.” And they come and have dinner and I ask questions: ”What do we know? What works? What doesn’t?” And they’ll say, well I’ve tried this, that, and you’ll hear the opinions and you’ll hear the things that they believe work. And then I go to somewhere else and I ask an expert in education and someone from another city and someone else that we know, and they’ll give me a different list. They would be so adamant that this was the way. It all felt very blurry, and I was like, “Let’s just get the information on the table.”

I kept saying, “Can you send me the data? Can you send me the data?” And nobody was sending anything. And I was like why? What’s going on? I would meet somebody and they would say, “Charter schools are absolutely the thing!” and I was like, “Fantastic!” They’d give their data off the top of their head. And was like “Fantastic!” I would say, “Can you send me the data that supports that? And then I’m your guy.” But that didn’t come, and over time I realized that’s what we should do. We should use the [M. Night Shyamalan Foundation’s] time, my time, everybody’s time to gather the data.

There are plenty of books out there written by policy makers and education experts who have spent their careers researching education. What makes you qualified to write about education? What makes your book different?

The point should be that I don’t know anything, that’s the point. I don’t know anything. So I’m going to bring no opinion to the table. Tell me what works. If you can’t tell me what works, I am going to gather everybody’s information so that the mom...who doesn’t have the access to call the Chancellor and spend four and a half years researching, has the information. None of it is mine. In fact, a lot of it was surprising and contradictory to what I thought.

Where do you think the achievement gap come from? How did American public schools get to where they are today?

That’s a really deep question. This is opinion, so now we are getting into opinion. It’s racism. It’s racism. Ultimately, and we all have it, a form of it in us, it’s there, it’s in the genetic code of the country ... If you took out the schools in the United States that have high poverty, if you took those inner-city schools out, and you just looked all the other public schools in the United States, we lead the world in education. We crush Finland. So we’re doing a good job for those kids. So what color are those kids? They are predominantly white. The inner-city kids are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. We are failing that group and we are doing great for this other group. … And so it’s that there is apathy. There’s a latent feeling like it probably can’t get figured out. So you’re approaching it like its not possible to figure it out.

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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