Revisiting The Teacher As Victim

In giving my book a final read before it is sent off to the publishers, I thought this particular post would not only help me “hype” the book (!) but also be worth a moment’s reflection. It’s not all about self-promotion, you know. It’s more nearly about provoking thought I would hope.

If Richard Hofstadter were writing today as he did in 1962 when he explored the origins of anti-intellectualism in this country, he might be struck by the open attacks on the public school system. But he would not be surprised by the low opinion the general public has of the teacher in the schools. In his book, Anti-Intelectualism in American Life, Hofstadter quotes at length a pamphlet written by a New England farmer, William Manning of North Billerica, Massachusetts in 1798. Manning argues as best he can against “book learning” and defends a pragmatic theory of education in which children are taught their three R’s but little else. As Hofstadter tells us:

At the heart of Manning’s philosophy was a profound suspicion of the learned and property-holding classes. Their education, their free time, and the nature of their vocations made it possible, he saw, for the merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and executive and judicial officers of state to act together in pursuit of their ends, as the laboring man could not.

Now if we dismiss the bit of paranoia at the heart of Manning’s attack on the intelligentsia of his day, he has an interesting point — one that goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have such a low opinion of teachers, whom Manning sees as also belonging to the leisure class. That is to say (as Manning himself put it), they are among “those that live without work.” Please note here that “work” means laboring, sweating, physical engagement in “the real world.” Life in the ivory tower or the classroom is clearly other-worldly, and does not involve real work. I suspect this is an attitude that is shared by many today who see the teachers around them working short hours with long vacations. Folks who struggle to succeed in the work-a-day world don’t regard those who teach as doing real work. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Or, as President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina said late in the nineteenth century, “To teach school is, in the opinion of many, little else than sitting still and doing nothing.” I suspect that many a teacher would love to see these folks spend a week in front of one of their classes!

But rather than choose sides on this issue (and it is clear which side one who taught for 42 years would come down on!) I would like to draw some lessons from all this. To begin with, the attack on our schools is nothing less that one of the many signs of the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country. The notion that teachers don’t do real work is, I dare say, widely shared — given the misconceptions that are abroad. I know when I taught at the university level there were several studies undertaken in order to fend off the attacks of the critics who hold the purse strings; those studies showed that the average college professor worked 62 hours a week. The public misconceptions arose from the fact that the normal teaching load was 12 hours of classroom teaching a week, even less in larger universities where professors publish or perish. So folks naturally assumed that college professors are lazy and overpaid. Some are, to be sure, but not all. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that I know a number of high school teachers, of all people, who regard college professors as among those who “live without work.” There’s resentment all around us! But the critics are wrong: teaching is real work, at any level. The notion that a 12 hour class load is not real work ignores the countless hours a college professor spends preparing lectures, advising students, attending (boring) meetings, and grading papers. I am sure elementary and high school teachers, who must not only teach their subject but also try to keep order among unruly kids, spend many hours in and out of their classrooms doing the same sorts of things as well — including, in their cases, meeting with parents. Anyone who thinks this is not real work needs to think again.

But very little thought is involved in this controversy, as we can see by reflecting on what the Massachusetts farmer was saying in the eighteenth century. When one’s frame of reference defines real work as laboring in the fields or spending eight hours a day in a shop, a cubicle, or on the assembly line, the life of the teacher must seem easy and totally lacking in worth. Despite the fact that a solid core of merchants and businessmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like Andrew Carnegie, were staunch supporters of education, after the Civil War the antipathy between the average business person and the intellectual became sharper and deeper, and as more and more of the nation’s children needed to be schooled education increasingly became a matter of “life adjustment” or job preparation, and teachers, earning a pittance, continued to be held in low esteem. Increasing numbers of business persons, and others in the work-a-day world, adopted the perspective of the farmer from Massachusetts. And that’s the key here: we are faced by two opposing and conflicting world-views. This is not an issue that can be settled by thoughtful debate. It is an issue of the heart: it’s about feelings, such as resentment and envy based on misconceptions. One can hope to correct those misconceptions, but I doubt that the feelings will be altered by even the most lengthy discussion.

In a word, the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter so carefully examines has its roots deep in a country that was wrestled away from the wilderness (and the native people) by men and women of little learning but immense courage, practical skill, and determination. It’s easy to see why they and their progeny distrust those who get paid to work with their minds and seem to have it easy. Even today in the popular mind teachers “live without work.” This is nonsense, of course, but it is what a great many people believe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. Unless there is a radical change in cultural perspective, teachers will continue to have it hard and can expect little or no sympathy from those who are convinced they are overpaid and “live without work” — which goes a long way toward explaining why this country’s educational system is in such dire straits.

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting The Teacher As Victim

  1. Maltreating teachers is not a recipe for success. In spite of rhetoric, you cannot make a country great when education is ridiculed. We should challenge ourselves to make it better, but abusing the teachers is like ridiculing the people who serve your customers and make production more efficient. Good luck with the book. Keith

    • Teachers are held in low esteem in this country and this is either a result or a cause of their low pay. In tiny Finland teaching is a prestigious profession and teachers are paid well and given their heads to teach as they see fit. We pay the teachers very little and then the Blob looks over their shoulders and tells them at every step what they should be doing. This is a formula for failure.

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