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Blaming the Mirror: Lolo Jones and US Public Education

P.L. Thomas explains that Lolo Jones and other female Olympians are not the problem, they are a reflection of what the American people have come to expect.

For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image” claimed Jere Longman for The New York Times. In part, Longman focused a scathing gaze at Jones herself as a prominent face (and body) put on the entire Olympics for Americans:

“Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But Jones is not assured enough with her hurdling or her compelling story of perseverance. So she has played into the persistent, demeaning notion that women are worthy as athletes only if they have sex appeal. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.”

This commentary has created a good deal of controversy about Jones, including some considerations about celebrity and athletic accomplishment for women (a debate that has now been reduced simply to uttering one name—Anna Kournikova).

While I believe some debate may be in order regarding how women are portrayed—notably some genuinely disturbing visual messages sent about body type and the rarely discussed concerns I feel every four years about women’s gymnastics—I feel that the Lolo Jones controversy is a typical case of the American media and public blaming the mirror because we simply don’t want to admit what is being shown to us.

Lolo Jones, I think, is not the problem, but the embodiment of just what the real problem is.

Lolo Jones and U.S. Public Education

A few genuinely fair claims can be made about Jones. She is an elite athlete; she competes in a timed event, and despite what some may want the public to believe, Jones is the personification of U.S. claims about a meritocracy because she earned her way onto the Olympic team and the start line of her events.

Jones also fulfills the expectations for a certain kind of “celebrity beauty”—and here, we must also note that Jones in no way has created that expectation. Let’s also note that other female Olympic athletes are being marketed, such as a female swimmer doing slow-motion hair tosses for a shampoo company. If the media and public in the U.S. want to address how Jones and Natalie Coughlin are the personification of truly damaging body type messages sent to the American public and that these two women are turning hard-earned athletic accomplishments into celebrity and wealth (and isn’t that supposed to be a good thing in the good ol’ U.S. of A.?), then I think we may find some value in the so-called controversy.

But little, if any, of that is going on in the media or public discourse surrounding Jones.

The truth is that the Jones controversy is yet more distraction; it is, in fact, a case of blaming the mirror because we don’t like what we see.

The media has successfully turned the critical gaze on Jones just as it has with U.S. public education. And what do Jones and public schools have in common?

Jones and public schools are powerful and distinct reflections of who America is, and despite what fame Jones has received for her looks, that reflection isn’t very pretty.

Just as Jones has not created the dynamic that now both celebrates and demonizes her, U.S. public education has not created the enormous inequity that characterizes us (as in the U.S.).

Education celebrities, who embody the charges leveled at Jones, have been elevated to that celebrity status without having earned it—notably Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and self-promoter Michelle Rhee. Yet, these edu-celebrities participate with the media in the same sort of distractions we see around Jones—pointing an accusatory finger at U.S. public schools in order to keep everyone’s gaze off social inequity.

Duncan and Rhee sell the media and public convenient and pacifying pablum—”Poverty is not destiny!”—while living lives of privilege and political appointments themselves (and here we might ask, How many people living in poverty are getting those political appointments and salaries to buy power suits?). Educators and scholars who do have expertise and experience are left in the celebrity wake, offering messages refuting the pablum (see Ravitch on Rhee and Jersey Jazzman on Duncan).

While I may be compelled to find some problems with Jones’s conflicting messages between how she promotes herself and her religious claims, on balance, I cannot see Jones as the problem, but as a powerful embodiment of the forces that are the problem.

In the same way, our public schools are mirrors of our social inequity: Regardless of how many times edu-celebrities say otherwise, poverty is destiny in the U.S.

And let’s be clear about some things here: Women are objectified in our culture, and they shouldn’t be, and poverty is destiny in U.S. society and its public schools, but it shouldn’t be.

The edu-celebrities jump to demonize as fatalistic those scholars and teachers willing to turn away from the mirror and face the real problems; the edu-celebrities demonize teachers and scholars as self-interested, as avoiding accountability, as perpetuators of the status quo, as throwing in the towel on children from poverty being able to learn.

But these are all lies, and more distraction.

Jones and public schools have some problems that very much need addressing, but to maintain our gaze on them as if they have nothing to show us about the inequity of our culture that has produced them is an utter failure on the part of the media and the public it feeds.

To claim that for Jones, everything is image is to claim that for Americans, everything is image.

To claim that public schools are failing our children is to claim that U.S. society is failing our children.

But to blame Jones and public schools as if they created the inequity is to blame the mirror because you don’t like what you see.