Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Politics of Teaching

When is teaching political? Many of us will answer simply,"never."  After all, shouldn't there be an enforced separation in our classrooms between the lofty goals of education and the muck of politics? Don't we need to protect the "objective" sphere of pure learning from partisan manipulations of information and the biased agendas of political parties?  When it comes to factual distortions and omissions, of course.  But are teachers ever really operating outside of the political universe, even when they aspire to transcend it?  And is such an aspiration noble or dangerous in today's world?  When we insulate students from political controversy, are we truly serving them or their future?  Must teachers avoid thorny social, political and moral questions in order to serve students digestible lessons?  Is academic knowledge designed to go down smoothly without excess emotions like doubt, fear, confusion, anger, or even love?  In short, can we truly teach without touching down on the real world in all of its contested fragility?

Leaving aside a prolonged acknowledgement of this question's different degree of relevance depending on the subject matters we teach, I believe we all must confront the matter of politics in education, now more than ever.  One reason is outlined in this article from Rethinking Schools.  In spite of the way we separate and demarcate types of knowledge, our disciplines are interrelated and commonly implicated in the world's major challenges.  Grades and test scores are puny symbols for the true human stakes of learning, and so much in our world hangs in the balance between ignorance and knowledge. While the Climate Crisis may seem outside the parameters of a high school English course, Frankenstein is not.  Mary Shelley's warning about the monstrousness of technology that is out of sync with nature is a theme our students will confront writ large, and it is crucial that we prepare their consciousness for this challenge from every academic angle.  Politics is an arena too often ceded to "specialists" and "special interests," to people who have the mind or stomach for it, but in truth, we are all political actors on a political stage.  This brings me to my second reason for believing that teachers must confront politics.

We are political scapegoats.  Our collective image is being used to further an agenda of austerity and privatization, not just in the realm of education but in the society as a whole.  Private interests and profits are superseding the interests of children, workers, and people everywhere who want a sustainable life.  Teachers are on the frontline of the resistance to this corporate takeover of our public resources. This is not a self-centered observation of complacent victimhood, but a troubling recognition that we must confront as a profession if we are to save public education.

However, much of the public sees the members of our profession in a selfish light.  Misinformation is rife about pensions, teacher tenure and the supposed epidemic of bad or "ineffective" teaching.  The mantra that teachers must be held accountable to student test results sounds to too many ears like a battle cry on behalf of children, particularly poor and minority children, against institutional neglect; in fact, the steady drumbeat of testing and reprisals for low performance reinforces an education apartheid that has already taken root in our country. Disadvantaged populations are churned out to low wage job slots from testing factories, while children of privileged parents emerge from well-rounded private educations.  This inequity is untenable in a democracy, a fact of which antidemocratic forces are well aware.  I could go on and on, or you could just read Diane Ravitch's latest.

What do we do when the fight for our salaries and our working conditions is pitted against the needs of our students, as though the more we stood up for ourselves, the less we cared about our kids?  Jim Judd's editorial in The Press Democrat suggests that we teachers need to get over ourselves and our frail egos, and get down to the business of educating our kids.  So if tying our pay to student test scores works to improve their learning, we need to do it.  If firing principals and teachers when schools "fail" is the answer to meeting our students' needs, then what's stopping us? Teachers. What else!  Disregarding ample evidence to the contrary, Judd presumes that both of the above measures do work.  He then enshrouds this presumption in an especially clever form of scapegoating when he implies that we are the problem for noticing that we are being scapegoated.  That's right.  We are now being scapegoated for objecting to being scapegoated as Jessica Jones and Michael Aparicio do in their Guest Opinion at which Judd takes aim.

We cannot fight this kind of assault by pretending to be above the fray, or telling ourselves that politics is beside the point of education.  When oligarchical power plays threaten the foundation of democracy in public education, politics is hardly beside the point, in or out of the classroom.  The accelerating pressure to replace substantive lessons with testing soundbites is a political maneuver, and we must meet it head on with a clear articulation of our own values.  I value authentic learning and democracy, and I refuse to throw my students and our nation's children under the bus of budget cuts, school closures, and mind-numbing testing curricula divorced from personal, and yes, political engagement.  We need to define teacher and student interests together.

It is instructive that the nurses at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa just negotiated a salary increase amid a recession.  They succeeded  where we did not because the CNA knows that nurses are there to protect patient care, and that reduced funds translates to compromised care.  We have an analogous situation in public education, but we must embrace more fully our role to protect our students from budget cuts.  Until we can articulate the real damage to kids of slashed funding and imbecile policy choices, we will be marginalized as selfish people.  Although that damage is intellectual, social, moral and spiritual, we must express it in concrete political terms.  Public education is a right, and we will fight for it in the classrooms, in negotiations, and out in the streets.


  1. Thank you Simone. This is beautiful.
    More later, when I can find words.
    Meantime, thank you.

  2. This has been part of several discussions in the lunch room, and, for me, it always comes down to wondering HOW we articulate that damage. It isn't tangible, and the issue is compounded by the fact that the kids don't care enough about the loss. What's a couple more days off, in their minds? Why should it affect how teachers function if they have a week cut out of the school year?

    The answer of how must be found as quickly as possible. We must find evidence that budget cuts and "we don't care if our kids can read" days are negatively affecting our students.