Don’t Tread On This

I don’t want Betsy DeVos to screw up my job.

I sympathize with her, in some ways. In several ways, actually: we both have names that are easy to make fun of. But, Betsy — are we not men? (I know, it’s a stupid joke. It is. Talk to me on Hump Day, Bets.) And we both got picked to do a job for which we were (are) grossly unqualified, me as a first-year English teacher, her as the most important figure in American education. But the main difference is that my time as a first-year teacher couldn’t have screwed up Mrs. DeVos’s chosen career as a billionaire lobbyist and political donor; but her time as the Secretary of Education could certainly screw up my chosen career. In a number of ways.

The thing is, though? It’s already pretty screwed up. My job, that is. In fact, there are several aspects of teaching that I wouldn’t mind at all if Secretary DeVos bit off, chewed up, and spit to her conservative Hellhounds, Voucher and Charter. I have such mixed feelings about education, in fact, that I’ve been trying for five days now to write this blog, but I keep getting tangled up and losing track of the path to Senseville. So the solution I’ve come up with is to split my thoughts into two sections, and write two blogs instead of one: one about the aspects of education that I hope survive this administration; and one about the aspects that I would like to see get thrown to the wolves.

We’ll start with the positives first, shall we? Because really, I think this is the greater issue. I think we would be in worse trouble if this stuff were lost than we would be if the bad stuff remained. Though neither scenario is ideal, and I fear that both may be coming to a head, to a tipping point where we may all lose something precious — perhaps by clinging to something worthless. We’ll see.

All right. The first thing that I think when I consider the state of education today is, this is my life. I was educated by public schools, as were most people I know; and not to toot all of our horns or anything, but I know a lot of smart people. There are a huge number — millions — of really freaking smart people in this country that went through American public schools. It’s hard for me to see public education as doomed and failing when I know scientists, artists, lawyers — and of course, teachers, lots and lots of teachers — who all learned most of what they know from public schools, many of us all the way through college and even graduate school at public colleges and universities. I know that it’s impossible to say how much intelligence or ability comes from schooling and how much from natural ability and inclination, and how much from home environment and social milieu; but still, education can’t be all bad when it helped make all of us. And I’ll bet anyone reading this could honestly say the same thing: you know a lot of damn smart people who went to public schools.

For me personally, I have been a part of the education system from the top side for almost two decades. I have taught enough people to populate a small town. For all the things we get wrong (See next blog, hopefully tomorrow), I do a lot of things right, as do my colleagues. The main thing that I get right is that I understand what my job really is, at the heart of it: I create an opportunity for learning to happen — and it does happen, most of the time, for most of my students. And then sometimes I am able to help create unique moments: moments of clarity, moments of revelation, moments of doubt, moments of change; and it is in those moments that people become something other than what they were before. That is what we are talking about when we use the cliche “making a difference.” In the strictest sense, I make a difference for everyone I teach, because if they hadn’t been taught by me, they would have been taught by someone else, which would have had a different result; but that’s not what making a difference is about. Making a difference is about changing a person in a definable, tangible, unique way. I have done that. I’ve done it with some students through personal relationships, as a friend or a mentor or even an inspiration; I’ve done it with specific classes I’ve taught that have been particularly useful for some; I’ve done it with books I’ve helped students to understand and with concepts I have made clear and meaningful; sometimes I’ve done it with a single statement, a single idea that I put into someone’s head. I don’t know that I’ve done it a lot, because I don’t know every time that I’ve done it, and I don’t know what “a lot” would be; but I know I’ve done it. I know that it’s good.

But even without this hippy-dippy touchy-feely stuff (He said in commiseration with the at least theoretical conservative reader who hates phrases like “make a difference” and thinks teachers are all liberal brainwashers who indoctrinate innocent American children into the wonders of multicultural homolovin’ Communism — aaaaaand now those conservative readers have left the building.), there is something purely valuable in public education, something I suppose I do my part for, but which mostly happens before students get to me: the basic foundations of an educated and thinking populace. Public education ensures that our society includes mostly people with a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy; people who understand how to read a newspaper and calculate their tax burden, even if they don’t always sit down and do either of those things. They can, and so when the opportunity and motivation arises, they do, and that is critical. Because as a society, we can work to get people interested and involved; and there are times in life when events conspire to get people interested and involved — such as the last election and the circus that has followed after it — but if the people can’t take in and grasp the information, then it makes no difference how much we work to get them interested or involved: they can’t be. If you can’t read a newspaper, then you can’t take part in a modern society. (If you don’t read newspapers or other genuine news sources, then you are choosing not to take part in society, but that’s a different issue, and not one that our education system is solving. In fact, it’s probably one that education today is exacerbating. Tune in next time, when despair takes over from hope!) And if you can’t take part in society, then all the democratic ideals in the world don’t keep you from being a slave. Public education does that extremely well. There are still gaps, still people who go through schools in this country and never master the basics and so line up for a life of toil and drudgery; but we do a far, far better job of ensuring that minimum ability in our populace than most societies have, and better than any society did farther back than a few centuries or so.

(Oh yeah: me personally, I teach critical thinking more than literacy or numeracy. I do a pretty damned good job at it, too. But that, unlike literacy and numeracy, doesn’t have to come from schools. The social environment does a better job of teaching critical thinking than it does of teaching literacy.)

I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want Secretary DeVos to close public schools in such ways that thousands, or tens of thousands, or even millions of kids are left without a fundamental education. I don’t want to create a new serf class, and trap them in the dark ages of the mind. Because ignorance sets, like concrete, and then it becomes impossible to dig out; you have to chip that shit away, bit by bit, blow by blow. And even then, you still get dumbfucks who think the goddamn Earth is flat. Jesus wept. If we defund public schools, or take away any educational standards so that a small religious community might decide that their children only need to learn to read the Bible and obey the word of their ministers and the Town Elders, then we may have children who become trapped in bubbles of ignorance — bubbles made of concrete. I don’t want that.

I don’t want to lose inspiration, either. I recognize that homeschooling done right can be incredibly effective — the two smartest students I have had in seventeen years of teaching (And really, I’ve had a lot of smart students, but when it comes to the absolute top, there is no. Freaking. Contest. It’s these two guys.) were two brothers who were homeschooled entirely through what would have been eighth grade, and then entered public schools as high school freshmen. But homeschooling, because it comes in a very familiar environment, is less likely, in my opinion, to be inspiring. Our parents can stand as role models for us, but it is much easier for them to be the people we rebel against than it is for them to be an inspiration; and when they are an inspiration, it often inspires us to imitate, not to create ourselves as something new. I think outside influences are better at that. What I mean is, my father is an inspiration to me as a hard-working and deep-thinking man; my mother is an inspiration as the kindest person I have ever known. But neither could ever inspire me to be a writer, because they aren’t writers. They don’t see literature the same way I see it: my mother sees spirituality that way; my father sees that inspiration in physics. And maybe I could have been like that, too — but like most kids, I intentionally went away from what they were, and so I am an atheist who reads literature instead of physics textbooks. My inspirations were teachers, and the authors they introduced me to.

I don’t mean to overstate this, or to denigrate the idea that parents are inspiring. But I think it is important for young people to see inspiration in people other than their family, in people who are tangibly different. School is not the only place that can happen — but it’s a good place. Because school is full of people who are, first, qualified, and often possessed of profound expertise, in their subject; and second, generally decent people. Teachers are good potential inspiration. I think it’s important that we be available for that, even if everything taught in schools could be learned from YouTube.

So I don’t want Secretary DeVos to make the job so difficult, so onerous, or so belittled and undercut, that every good person leaves the profession. We’re already working to drive them out, with our political factionalism taking on schools and teachers as handy scapegoats, or turning schools into the indoctrination centers that they should never be; and DeVos could make it worse, and may want to make it worse: anyone who opposes public education opposes teachers’ unions, which essentially means they oppose teachers. No, really: I understand the arguments against unions, and they’re stupid, but that’s not the point: the point is that teachers’ unions, even if they are too powerful, even if they are too greedy (And they’re not — that’s the stupid part), work only to protect and support teachers. The desire to break teachers’ unions is a desire to break teachers, often for financial reasons, and often for political ones. I think DeVos, with her support for Voucher and Charter (“Down, Voucher! Sic ’em, Charter! Attaboy!”), has both reasons for wanting to break teachers’ unions, and therefore teachers; if she succeeds on a national scale, she will essentially break us. I’ll tell you right now, I work in a charter school in a “Right-to-work” state, and while there are a lot of good teachers at my school, few of them are the new teachers who came up without unions. (Some of them are, which is awesome.) Most of us learned our skills in an environment where a union protected and sheltered us, and that made us better teachers. I’ve worked both with union membership and without, and teaching is unquestionably better with.

I hope DeVos doesn’t kill it. I hope nobody does. I worry that the wall, and the Executive Orders, and the Russian connections, are all distractions from the real harm that could be done to public institutions like the schools and the health care system, the free press and the right to vote. For that reason, I hope that Secretary DeVos, and President Trump, are exactly as inept as they seem to be. Because when it comes to education, this teacher wants them to fail.


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