Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking in the Trenches: Teacher as Soldier

    In their April op-ed in The New York Times, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries," Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari compare teachers to troops and ask why we blame educators for the failures of education policy, but not soldiers for the defeats or setbacks in war.  Assuming education comes down to a war on ignorance, they argue that we should support the teachers on the ground fighting on behalf of our nation’s kids, just as we support the noble efforts of our troops on behalf of our country.  When battles are lost, we may bolster our resources, adjust our strategies, or redefine our goals, but we don’t scapegoat the men and women in uniform.  The hypocrisy in our culture’s response to teachers and troops seems clear.  Where we grant that soldiers need more resources to confront tough conditions, we expect underpaid and overworked teachers to transcend all obstacles and limitations to student achievement.  We idealize the sacrifices of troops but demonize “ineffectual” teachers who fail to produce “results,” regardless of their immeasurable passion, dedication or devotion to students.  It’s an enlightening analogy, if not entirely for the reasons the authors make explicit.
     Our culture’s view of soldiers is complex and contradictory.  If the soldier as heroic symbol is almost universally revered in our national imagination, the flesh and blood humans who fight in wars are often treated as disposable once they return to civilian life as veterans.  To the degree that we admire the image of the brave warrior, an image that transcends the corporeal and moral limitations of mortal men and acquires mythological status, we can trace our admiration to a source.  We might be impressed by a soldier’s courage, his strength and perseverance, or her willingness to be martyred for a cause.  We might value the loyalty and camaraderie between soldiers fighting for a common goal.  Even the word “soldier” has enough positive connotations that it can be used to define devotion to purposes as divergent as war and peace.  However, there is one aspect of being a “good soldier” that our society has celebrated perhaps more than any other, and that is the unblinking acceptance of authority.  Although the Nuremberg Trials set a precedent for challenging "Superior Orders" as a defense for war crimes, soldiers are still largely expected to adhere to the hierarchical chain of command.  It is in this arena of absolute, unquestioning duty that the comparison of soldier and teacher breaks down.
     Imagine for a moment that teachers in America were given not only the same respect, but also the same symbolic treatment as soldiers.  With No Child Left Behind, President Bush launched what amounted to a war on low student achievement, or at least this was his official target.  Imagine this had been an actual war.  After initial campaign misgivings, President Obama enthusiastically continued this war, and when the public asked too many questions about charter schools and standardized testing, a ubiquitous bumper sticker won them over:  Support the Teachers.  We must support the reform agenda pushed by the Federal Government and its corporate backers in spite of all the research and statistical evidence that it is misguided.  Why?  The teachers need us to get behind them.  They’re out there teaching those test questions every day, plugging away at the standards like a shooting target, so the least we can do is valorize their hard work. 
     If this reasoning sounds familiar, then what is odd about the substitution of teacher for troop in the message?  Where troops are expected to follow orders without challenging the rationale of their leaders, teachers should ideally ask questions and engage in critical thinking and skeptical inquiry.  Teachers have an indispensable role as intellectuals in our democracy.  We can no more relinquish this role than we can abdicate the responsibility to nurture creativity and critical thinking in our students, but we will be punished for teaching students how to think; in a hierarchical, authoritarian society, intellectuals are reviled.  The attacks on teachers are a troubling sign that our democracy is slipping away.
     It is important to note that soldiers have not infrequently been intellectuals and artists.  According to Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J.D. Salinger, the antiauthoritarian Holden Caulfield took shape amid the trenches of World War II, literally, with bombshells exploding around Salinger’s typewriter.  Before that, World War I soldiers like Wilfred Owen wrote poems condemning the glorification of war. In spite of the cynical way that the government used “the troops” as a tool to garner support for an immoral war as recently as the invasion of Iraq, there are those soldiers who saw the forest for the trees and objected to their mission.  There will always be those soldiers, but too often they are dismissed as disloyal or insane.
     Meanwhile, the soldier, the steadfast, unselfish soldier whose ultimate sacrifice becomes the circular justification for war remains a potent symbol for patriotism.  In patriotism’s perverted logic, the war must be just because people are giving their lives in its name, and it is unjust for people to give their lives to an unworthy cause.  As to the clause after the comma: indeed. That is why we must defeat unworthy causes and end all unjust wars, on behalf of soldiers, civilians, and humanity.

     And how must we respond to the metaphorical war on authentic, democratic education?  If not teachers, then who are the troops in this war?  The answer, of course, is students, the young and innocent who follow orders that we teachers, in the chain of command, are meant to give them, the kids who do as they are told in the ever-dimming hope of attaining success and a decent quality of life.  It is in the name of students that the reformers attack teachers or anyone with intelligent criticisms of their policies.  The implication is that we must not care about our kids if we're not on board with their notion of reform.  "Support our kids" can easily degenerate into a mindless slogan to instill obedience in educators.  Moreover, the bloated rhetoric about student achievement disguises an indifference to the complexity and autonomy of real kids; they are not mere receptacles of our knowledge nor are they instruments of our best-laid plans.  They are free to make of their education what they will, and we must not deceive them on this journey.  To paraphrase Owen, “my friend, you [should] not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie, dulce et decorum est,” to sacrifice one’s real education for a passing CAHSEE score and the promise of a low wage job or a violent death in a foreign country; in other words, “pro patria mori.”


1 comment:

  1. Reading this does make me want to soldier...for the students. The trick is teaching them how to think for themselves (especially for the long term) while also helping them score points in the current (often goofy) system. The analogy of the conscientious soldier may not be all that bad to help us keep coming in every day to--please excuse the cliche--fight the good fight.