The Teacher As Victim

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 the popular mind has 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 that showed 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 away from 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 as developing young minds, 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 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.

The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.