A truly amazing series of events have occurred over the past month and a half in the NFL. Without playing a minute on defense and special teams or kicking any of the (rather spectacular and odds-defying) field goals, Tim Tebow has apparently single-handedly won a string of football games: Run by Tebow, Broncos gets harder to explain (Yahoo! Sports) and Tim Tebow: Prodigal Son's Comeback Win Fueled by Higher Power.
Carpenter, in his Yahoo! piece, ends, in fact, by quoting the quarterback christened "prodigal son" by Daniels at the Broncos' own web site:
“If you believe, unbelievable things can sometimes be possible,” Tebow said.
If any of us—Tebow fan or detractor, NFL fan or critic—step back and consider the context of NFL football games, a sport powerfully driven by team quality, that Tebow is winning the games out of sheer rugged individualism is, in fact, beyond the evidence and entirely a mirage of belief. This Tebow-mania and its disassociation from evidence are strong evidence of the distorting power of the American mind to bend anything to our predetermined cultural narratives.
Our Too Big Brains and a Blink of the Eye
Kurt Vonnegut examines with his unique and insightful satire the human species as a fact of evolution in his Galapagos, a narrative that reinforces the theory of evolution by speculating where it takes humans next. It appears, according to Vonnegut, that evolutionarily speaking, humans are equipped with brains that are too big; thus, the species evolves into a smaller-brained seal-like creature, essentially unlike the human species we know today.
While Vonnegut's novel and speculation are essentially satire and designed to force contemporary readers to consider how we behave as humans today—often all brain and no soul, all rationality and no kindness—I believe that Vonnegut is touching on the source of the American "blink" reaction of turning every empirical moment set before us into evidence confirming what we already cherish as American ideals and cultural narratives:
"Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."
Tebow-mania and its message of rugged individualism, then, are less a factual assessment of Tebow's role in the winning streak of the Broncos and more a verification that Americans are apt to cling relentlessly to two major flaws: (1) a faith in rugged individualism and competition that ignore the power of community, and (2) a distorted and misplaced understanding of the distinction between causation and correlation.
If we were a culture committed to community instead of individualism, the Broncos' stunning and unexpected winning-streak would likely garner headlines about the team and not lavish isolated praise on Tebow (since it is possible and even likely that Tebow's move to quarterback simply correlated with many factors creating the streak; a number of agents may have coincided with those changes).
For those of us working in and speaking to the current education reform debate, the rose-colored glasses worn by Americans—tinted by an entrenched belief in rugged individualism and a snap-to-judgement embracing of causation where correlation exists—are blinding those Americans to the distorted claims of corporate reformers, dedicated to their status among the 1% but using the language of equity to mask a "no excuses" ideology that misrepresents those children and families trapped in inequity they did not create (consider Newt Gingrich's demonizing children in poverty as unfamiliar with work—a claim unsupported by evidence but that resonates with cultural narratives associating poverty with lack of effort).
The conditions of the U.S. are created and tolerated by those with wealth and those with power. To suggest otherwise is to see the world through rose-colored glasses that frame the world we want to see and not the world that exists.
Many humans have unique and special qualities, including talent and tenacity, and it is likely that Tim Tebow has some qualities that are valued within the specialized and distorted world of professional football, a violent sport that feeds off and perpetuates a glorification of Social Darwinism—let dog eat dog. The NFL chews up and spits out in a few years far more men than it creates wealthy stars.
But we idealize and worship only the glamorous outcomes we want and choose to see.
Whether we are fabricating a heroic Tebow or telling children living in poverty as well as the teachers educating those children there are "no excuses" for those children's educational outcomes, we are misrepresenting and corrupting the values that should be driving who we are as people—democracy, equity, and the very kindness that Vonnegut has warned us that we ignore, as Ladd and Fiske clarify:
"But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the 'no excuses' approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook — or what Mr. Bush famously called 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.' ...
"But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question."
The winners need the bottom and distant 99% to continue wearing the rose-colored glasses that make those winners appear as if they are heroes and as if they deserve their positions at the top. Once we set those glasses aside, however, and allow the evidence to speak to us instead of shaping the evidence to fit the needs of the winners, a very different story will emerge:
"In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods."