As the 2014 NEA Rep Assembly winds down, and we simultaneously set off fireworks to celebrate the collection of 56 signatures on our nation’s Declaration, I keep thinking about the ways revolutionaries are created. Some seem born, and leap to any cause that opposes power; others seem slow to accept insurrection until swept up by events.
The Boston-born Sons (and Daughters) of Liberty filled a role that many Badass Teachers feel suited to—public displays of disaffection toward governmental and corporate structures that are insensitive to vital public institutions. For the Sons of Liberty, the collusion of the British Crown and the East India Company presented a corporatocracy worth challenging because it acted beyond the reach of representative assemblies. BATs look to the alliance of the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education with similar hostility.
Hostility, however, can be self-defeating. Poet Charles Bukowski’s description of the alienation from American society he experienced as a student and young person exemplifies this:
“The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole g—damned nation of a—holes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidates who reminded them most of themselves.”
Bukowski damned corporatism and the idiocy it promoted, but was famous for his own forays into idiocy and self-destructive behavior. Still, his words evoke feelings persons close to current educational politics can relate to.
The distress BATs feel about the election of Lily Garcia to the NEA presidency (and Randi Weingarten’s reign in the AFT) is linked to their rejection of corporatism and its corrosive effect on democracy within the teaching profession. Corporatists have slowly emerged as leaders in each organization because they are not leaders at all. This is the irony of corporatism. The way out is not self-destructive calls for separation from those organizations or revolution against their leadership. It is a commitment to self-discovery and re-creation. We must change ourselves in order to change our national professional organizations and to protect public education.
BATs have had a remarkable year. We have become self-aware, all 49,000 and more of us. We have begun to present a recognizable and consistent voice on matters of public education. It’s probably a bit early to expect name cards at the tables of decision to include many BAT members, though. As an organization, providing a compelling vision for public education that is supported by a mechanism for achieving it will be necessary to turn self-awareness into visible action. And that is a concern.
As long as we find it necessary to identify ourselves as BATs– as members of an interest group— we will be one of the corporate structures that inhibit the function of democracy itself. When we are able to convince people that their obligation is to society as a whole, we will have convinced them to be part of a true democracy, where interest is subjugated to disinterest. We may also find it unnecessary to label ourselves as an interest group.
There is no reason to expect the tension between democracy and corporatism to be anything but prolonged and difficult. It has been a central conflict in our national history since its inception.
We should be pleased that the past year has given rise to the BATs and the idea that public education is worth supporting. I think it’s time to set some signposts that might indicate the effect our movement has had as we look forward to our second anniversary:
- Has CCSS become a pejorative in its own right? That might mean that people are experiencing frustrations due to the impacts it has on instruction and on the finances of school districts across the nation.
- What is the level of awareness of Gates Foundation involvement in public affairs, including education? Debate on the impact of its semi-private initiatives will bring it into the sunshine of democratic process.
- What is the status of recognizable BAT participation in national, state, and local education policy decisions?
- To what extent have BATs extended their activities to other initiatives for social justice and general public policies?
If we become more self-aware, and if we seek to have a positive impact on local, state and national affairs, we will look back on the 2014-15 academic year as one of democracy-building success. We will watch the fireworks with new understanding of the challenges the Founding Fathers passed on to posterity.
We will also feel less like Charles Bukowski, and be better able to contribute to society as a whole. Then, the primary obligation we have—to convince the coming generations that their obligation to society actually exists—will be next.
© David Sudmeier, 2014