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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Corporate Intruders

Readers of this blog will attest that I have a high regard for the writings of Christopher Lasch. I do tend to refer to him a great deal because I am convinced that he saw deeper than most into the current malaise, the sickness that is at the heart of our culture and our society. But he is not always correct in his musings, despite the fact that I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says. Indeed, I would recommend any and all of his books to anyone who is seriously interested in seeing more clearly what is going on around them. But, as I say, he sometimes goes a bit too far. As an example, take the following passage from The Revolt of the Elites that deals with the corporate “takeover” of American universities:

“It is corporate control that has diverted resources from the humanities into military and technological research. fostered the obsession with quantification that has destroyed the social sciences, replaced English language with bureaucratic jargon, and created a top-heavy administrative apparatus whose educational vision begins and ends with the bottom line.”

I am not aware that corporations ever allowed monies to flow in the direction of the humanities. So it is not clear how they “diverted” it into military and technological research. But it is certainly the case that corporate monies have somehow found their way in that direction. In any event, I think Lasch makes an excellent point here. But he takes a step too far later in the same paragraph:

“One of the effects of corporate and bureaucratic control is to drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities where they can indulge in a taste for ‘theory’ without the rigorous discipline of empirical social observation. . . . Social criticism that addresses the real issues in higher education today — the university’s assimilation into the corporate order and the emergence of a knowledge  class whose ‘subversive’ activities do not seriously threaten any vested interest — would be a welcome addition to contemporary discourse. For obvious reasons, however, this kind of discourse is unlikely to get much encouragement either from the academic left or from its critics on the right.”

There’s a problem here: this sound a bit too much like conspiracy theory. In his book Lasch makes a good case that the left-leaning academics have become lost in the jungle of newspeak they have invented to discuss the finer points in culturally acceptable literature — without bothering to read any of the classics they reject out of hand because they smell of the stench of “dead, white, European males.” In a word, they are caught up in the unreal world of “metalanguages” and “texts” in order to allow them to detach themselves from the real world where good minds should be attending to real problems. I accept this much. I have always felt that academics generally shield themselves from the world in so many ways, indeed, that many of them have retreated into the ivory tower precisely to escape from reality which can at times create undue stress. And I also see the intrusion of the corporation into the academy in so many ways, and have seen first hand the trend away from any sort of course requirements in the academy that would result in real thought on the part of college graduates. But I fail to see how the corporations have somehow managed to “drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities.” How, precisely, is this supposed to have taken place? The implication is that the social sciences no longer have any critical thinkers and those in the humanities are wasting their time (and their students’ money) chasing academic butterflies while the world around them is falling apart. I suspect his claims are on solid ground, but Lasch does not argue for these claims here, which would make him vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism he levels against other academics — bearing in mind that he was one himself.

So while I find myself in agreement with so much of what Lasch says, I do find him giving vent to generalizations at times that almost certainly reflect the man’s own take on the world, which he may have grounds for but which he fails to share with his readers. I would love to know how we get from the truth that the corporations have intruded themselves into the academy to the claim that they have managed to shift “critical thinking” personnel from the social sciences to the humanities (by withholding funding perhaps??). And I resent the implication that none of us in the humanities have the critical acumen to deal with real problems in the real world, though I would be the first to admit that an increasing number of people in literature and philosophy seem to be chasing imaginary butterflies. Indeed, I would go so far as to question whether those in the social sciences, by and large, are now or ever were any more critical of what is going on in the “real” world than those in the humanities. After all, these people are all academics in the end — and that seems to be the reason they feel most at home dealing with academic problems.

But it is assuredly the case that the corporations play an inordinately large role in the academy, as they do in the “real” world. And this is to be deeply regretted and should receive the attention of all those who regard higher education as a matter of some importance to the preservation of what’s left of our culture and indeed to our way of life.

 

History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.