‘No Small Matter’ Deftly Explores the Science and History of Childhood Education

Christopher Karr


At a time when social, political, economic and educational complications are at an all-time high, a new documentary from directors Daniel Alpert, Greg Jacobs, and Jon Siskel tackles an issue that overlaps with all four areas of concern. 


No Small Matter is kind of a Trojan horse of a film. It begins as a scientifically-inclined examination of the vitality of early childhood education. “The first three years of life are like a Big Bang for the brain,” the narrator, Alfre Woodard, tells us. “An explosion of 86 billion neurons connecting to each other over a million times a second as babies interact with the world and the people around them.” 


The outmoded impression that there’s “nothing going on up there” in the brain of a baby has been categorically disproven with the recent aid of cutting-edge science. 


But the alarming army seeded inside the horse’s mouth here tells the story of financial hardship and inadequate childcare — two primary factors that make it nearly impossible for middle-class parents to properly provide for their children. How can parents (let alone a single parent) earning a minimum-wage income provide the personal attention babies require? Astronomical medical bills pile up; daycare can cost as much as college; and the quality of life for both parent and child rapidly erode. 



As No Small Matter makes clear, social interaction is brain food for young children. And yet, only 3 percent of U.S. education spending goes to early childhood. These factors create a nest of challenges for low- and middle-income families that adds up to a drastic inequality of opportunity. 


In terms of exploring a relatively underreported concern, the documentary is well worth watching. It’s probably even essential viewing for any prospective or new parent who wants to be informed about the struggles ahead. As a new father, I was alarmed enough by the exploration to think twice before sharing the content of the film with the mother of my newborn. The harsh reality of the film is enough to generate more sleepless nights than is expected for the parents of any infant. Nevertheless, it’s healthier to encounter harsh realities than to ignore their existence. Therefore, I appreciate the diligence and attention to detail the filmmakers bring to the table. 


It’s likely asking too much for the movie to offer powerful solutions beyond a tepid — although not completely irrelevant — call to activism before the end credits. The statistics reported indicate an overwhelming amount of bipartisan support, which is reassuring and, no doubt, meant to be perceived as encouraging. 



Still, I was left unsettled at the end of my viewing experience. Chalk that feeling up to a persistent and creeping sense of hopelessness generated by the daily reminders that the pandemic is far from over. Indeed, it appears that it might just be getting started, or restarted. Bipartisanship, no matter what the stats indicate, feels far away — especially right now. I was also unnerved by the gentle implication, in the final act of the film, that parents should join the military as a solution. The suggestion isn’t patently wrong, of course, given the military’s track record for familial security and financial stability, but it did strike me as a bit condescending and peculiar. 


Ultimately, setting aside my pandemic blues and fussy reservations, the filmmakers have made a respectable effort to raise awareness about an extremely important subject that might not be on the radar of the average viewer. They needn’t feel obligated to solve the problem in the same breath they use to draw attention to it. In the final analysis, this attempt to educate parents and future parents is admirable, accessible, and well worth your time. 


No Small Matter, absolutely true to its title, is intelligent, tightly contained, sharply edited, and it deserves considerable attention. 


Author Bio:


Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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