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.

Co-opting Women

One of the more disturbing consequences of the growth of capitalism and the attendant world view that insists on measuring success in terms of income and possessions is the dissolution of the family. This may seem a strange claim to make, but when one considers the factors involved it will hold up to scrutiny.

In a commodified culture such as ours where success is measured by buying power, the pressure becomes intense on women to join the work force in order to become empowered  in the only way such a culture knows how to measure power. As an early feminist writer,  Jane Addams, noted as early as 1910, women who stayed at home to raise the family were little more than “parasites, unproductive, consumers upon the state.” If women were to become empowered and free themselves from the chains that bound them to a home and family, they had to go to work and challenge the men on their own ground. The alternative was unacceptable: self-fulfillment could only be achieved in the real world making real money. As Christopher Lasch has pointed out in his disturbing book on the dissolution of the American family (Haven in a Heartless World), “faced with an argument that condemned leisure as a form of parasitism, antifeminists could have insisted on the positive value of leisure as the precondition of art, learning, and the higher form of thought — arguing that those benefits ought to be extended to the American businessman.” And this despite the fact that one of the original feminists, Virginia Woolf, argued persuasively that a woman requires a “room of her own” in order to write fiction — i.e., improve her mind –not make money.

In any event, such an argument in a commodified culture would sound other-worldly and it would never pass muster with women (or men) who have been raised to believe in their heart of hearts that the only things that truly matter have dollar signs attached. Success in our culture is all about money and power and one cannot obtain either of those by staying at home taking care of the kids. The seeds for the idea that emancipation and true self-fulfillment in a consumer society were only possible with increased buying power were sown by the advertising agencies which, in the 20s and 30s of the last century increasingly targeted women, convincing them that their freedom was predicated on buying things they didn’t need. Eventually their message devolved into the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” This necessitated women’s financial independence from their husbands, which, in turn, translated into the urge to leave the household and find work. The assumption here that self-fulfillment and independence, indeed, true success, rest on increased purchasing power, is an assumption that is seldom questioned in our culture.

However, the notion that true empowerment may be a function of the pursuit of goals higher than financial well-being deserves attention, because it is one that goes back at least to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who treasured their leisure and knew how to make the best of their spare time. A reflective life dedicated to art, literature, and learning was for them one well worth living. But such a life seems unattractive to Americans of both sexes who have been conditioned to believe that such pursuits are frivolous and not worth serious time and attention: we have become an increasingly anti-intellectual society as we have grown older. Further, we have forgotten how to use our leisure time and especially forgotten that for centuries people were convinced that it was during those moments of creativity, contemplation, and reflection that one achieved true success. Our measure has become that of  dollars and cents: success must be measured to be real.

In this process, women have become convinced that real success can only be achieved “out there” in the real world breaking the glass ceiling and fighting for their place at the table of wealth and prestige that our culture blindly insists is the only one worth occupying. The result, of course, is children raised in day-care and the all-too-common phenomenon of the “latch-key” child who comes home each day to an empty home and whose parents are riddled with guilt and determined to make it up to them by spoiling them rotten. As Lasch points out, “Feminists have not answered the argument that day care provides no substitute for the family.” One can hardly argue any more  that children are more well-adjusted and happier today than they were when they were raised by authoritarian parents who attempted in their stumbling ways to instill discipline. As Lasch has argued at length, children desperately need strong authority figures or they conjure up their own and the ones they imagine are much more damaging to their psyches than the real thing and often lead to twisted personalities and violent actions. In any event, child rearing has been taken over by psychologists and social workers and other members of the “helping professions” as well as the schools and television; the parents of both sexes have found that their time is better spent elsewhere.

This is not to say that the urge to empower women is somehow wrong-headed. Clearly, women have been powerless and marginalized for centuries and their time to shine is long overdue. But it is sad that in our culture the only way they think they can shine is in the limelight their male counterparts have stolen and keep to themselves. But it is a pale light indeed. The problem here is the misconception involved in measuring success and power in terms of income and credit card limits. It would be better for us all if it were measured by those things that really matter, those things that make human lives fuller and richer. And this goes not only for the women who have in effect abandoned their families and turned them over to the helping professions. It also goes for the businessman who, as Lasch suggests, could also benefit from a life measured in more meaningful terms than mere financial achievement.  Making a living is necessary, of course. But it shouldn’t be the measure of a man’s worth — or a woman’s either.

A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.