But Why Do We Bash Teachers?

Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, in an otherwise excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, ignore one important question: Why do we, as Americans, so loathe our teachers?

Eggers and Calegari are right: we can turn around our schools, and can do so by renewing our faith in teachers, in providing them better and better training and real support in the schools, and by paying them adequately.

That we don’t, that we blame our teachers for the ‘failures’ of our educational system, is tantamount, Eggers and Calegari say, to blaming the soldiers for the loss of a war:

No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.
   And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Yes.  Exactly.  So, let’s stop blaming the teachers, give them pay and support, and improve our schools!

Except it’s not so simple.

Our war is a war on education, and on teachers.  We don’t see them as our army, but as our enemy.  If you destroy the enemy ground soldiers, you destroy the enemy: The planners cannot complete their plans without the grunts.  The leaders cannot lead without the followers.  As the planners, the leaders, are safely bunkered way behind the lines, it’s much easier to take out the infantry, the teachers.

The question that must be addressed before the country will be willing to back its teachers is why do we hate education so much?  Why do we see it in such loathsome light?  No taxpayers willingly give money to support the very people seen as fighting to destroy them or their values–hell, that was one of the causes of the American revolution!

What has happened to the image of the teacher in American society stems directly from callous political calculations that began in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  Conservative activists saw that they could take advantage of two trends for their own successes at the voting booth.  One was (and is) dissatisfaction with the new protections for American minorities.  This is seen most starkly in resistance to busing and in the rise of alternative private schools and the home-schooling movement.  Seeing the public schools as becoming the possession of minorities, many white Americans decided to opt out of the system–but they could not opt out of paying for it.  The other was (and is) the foundational mindset that have grown so strong in America since the Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century.  American education, growing out the Enlightenment empiricist traditions, tends to gainsay that mindset.  Evolution, and its teaching, has proven the central issue of this conflict.

Vilifying public education, then, proved an easy tool towards prominence within the American right.  David Horowitz has made it into a means of becoming rather well-to-do, for the target is big and broad, and has little ability to fight back effectively (education was not built as an army–something Horowitz, who equates politics to war, understands quite well).  The “problem” with American education is simply a creation of political activists, for the solution, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is simple… is conveniently ignored, for those activists don’t really want the problem to go away.

Fighting for better teacher salaries will never be enough.  We who hold to the real American traditions, ones that do spring from the Enlightenment and that were expressed by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution and other writing of the time, need to start fighting for those traditions more aggressively.  Part of that struggle will lie in effectively pointing out some of the facts that we’ve politely elided, these past few decades… facts like the continuing racism of a great part of American society, facts like the paucity of the intellectual base in many of the religious movements in America.

Yes, we will offend people by bringing these up.  But it is the threat of offense that often has been used as a weapon against us, keeping us from addressing these quite real problems.

We don’t need to fight with mean spirit or with anger, or to destroy the other.  Lord knows, it’s possible to believe in God and in evolution.  Ours shouldn’t be a battle aimed at laying waste, but one of conversion.  We’ve forgotten the lessons of King and Gandhi, allowing attention to be turned from them by laughter, and  by derision of their naivete, distracting us from techniques that even those who oppose us know work.

When more of us have confidence enough in our own beliefs–not a foundational confidence, but one based on experience and experimental results–and stop simply reacting to the attacks of the conservative activists, we can start moving our society in a positive direction.

In a direction that will allow us to provide the support that our teachers need, the support that, as Eggers and Calegari point out, is the only thing that will ultimately improve our educational system.

Not to mention our country as a whole.

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