Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible survives to this day as a metaphor for accusations without merit that damage reputations and lives. The advertisement that appeared this week in USA Today after the Vergara decision contained such an accusation, which might as well have been of witchcraft and evil spells cast upon students by malevolent kindergarten teachers. The same organization that created that ad had another rejected by the Chicago Tribune, because it conflated teacher unionism with racist segregationist attitudes a la George Wallace. Teachers can likely expect a continued barrage of similar ads in the media, funded by privatization interests.
Maintaining a sense of dignity depends on the deference and support shown to you by society in light of your contributions. When major media publications accept ads portraying student feet protruding from a garbage can, and accuse teachers of placing students in that demeaning position, they accept hate speech as a legitimate source of income. Teacher sensitivity to outright lies is less a product of being targeted for criticism—that’s part of life in the public sector— than it is due to the duplicity of the bad actors that create those lies. They demonize teachers on the one hand and extend the other for profits to be earned by displacing unionized teachers with ill-trained, easily controlled dupes working in charter schools, among their many crimes. The “Center for Union Lies” does not criticize teachers; it intentionally distorts and mischaracterizes their achievements to enable corporate gain.
When you deprive teachers of dignity and meaning in their work, you strike a blow against public education. Of course, that is exactly the point for some. For others, it is “collateral damage” that must be accepted to improve instruction and raise test scores. If test scores rise, then education must be improved. If living and breathing teachers who will demand immediate compensation can be replaced with technology that raises test scores on tests written by testing companies whose shareholders seek short-term profits…well, all the better.
What is lost if public education is lost? Just as terrorism is a front in the war for the soul of Islam, attacks on public education—one of the sources of our common good— constitute one front in the war for the soul of democracy. Democracy can withstand challenges from without which are obvious and overt; whether democracy can withstand challenges from within is unknown. Dismantling public institutions encourages individualism and loss of community. That loss of community opens a democracy to manipulation and exploitation by powerful corporations.
Still, we teachers as a group fail to see the forest for the trees. We imagine that what we experience in the form of attacks by individuals and organizations on teachers and education is somehow unique and unrelated to other events. We feel our institution being assailed, and we forget that there are others in the public service enduring similar mistreatment.
How have we ended up in this situation? Corporatists have built a myth of excellence and efficiency in the private sector, and a specter of malfeasance and incompetence in public institutions. Their tactics include attacks on public institutions, accompanied by demands for firings and accountability measures. They then demand new “standards” for performance that are clearly impossible to reach, and place blame on those same institutions when they fail to attain them and attempt to cover it up. Finally, they seek to withdraw financial support from those institutions, citing the failures they themselves engineered. This has happened in education with NCLB and RttT, and will occur with CCSS, if it is not more widely abandoned. It has happened as well with the Veterans Administration. The VA (underfunded and overwhelmed by demands resulting from the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle) was accused of not providing timely care for those who deserved better. The solution? A standard was set that could not be met, a 14-day window for care, and accountability measures for not achieving success. When that couldn’t be accomplished, managers found ways of lying to make it appear that things were fine. Uncovered, the VA was again blamed for incompetence. Calls were made to privatize an institution that attempts to fulfill a public obligation to those who have stood in the line of fire for us all.
We teachers can easily comprehend what VA employees face. Our experiences are not unique; they are part and parcel of a wider attack on democracy. The sooner we accept that and coordinate our actions with other institutions that are also suffering, the sooner we will begin to turn the corner. We become powerful when we recognize our community, and weak when we abandon it. Badass Teachers know what it means to acquire community; we need to remind our colleagues of the role their unions need to play in preserving, protecting, and extending that community of public service employees. NEA and AFT have accomplished much in the past, but are only lately stepping up to the plate on this issue. They can do much more, and will need grass roots support to do so.
We are not just educators. We are warriors for democracy, and we fight a dangerous opponent. We fight for free, fair and appropriate public education, just as our brothers and sisters fight battles for better public health care, better public transportation, and improved public security. Part of our fight is to act with dignity and demand dignified treatment from society. We need to build a new myth of the public employee, one that recognizes our commitment to service and champions our achievements in creating community.
Arthur Miller is calling to us now.
© David Sudmeier, 2014