Monday, September 27, 2010

Teach Your Children (A Whole Lot of Unanswered Questions)

One of the recent trends in American media coverage that both fascinates and dismays me is the focus on education--or, more specifically, on teachers.  Bad teachers, that is.  How many of them there are.  How we're all sick of it, goddammit.  How they're wasting our money, and we're not going to take it anymore. 

Look at them, you know who they are, you probably had one yourself at some point.  They do nothing all year, and then they have summers off.  You can tell they're doing nothing, because look at how stupid everyone is (present company excepted, of course).  Look at how stupid children and teenagers are today; it's embarrassing.  None of us were that stupid when we were fifteen or ten or five.  We know, because we remember.  We were definitely a lot smarter, no question.

The debate is interesting, strange and somewhat terrifying to me, particularly since I'm a teacher myself.  I don't have any answers to the problems it poses, just a whole lot of unanswered questions and some observations that I'm not sure I can coherently connect, but well, here goes nothing. 

On the one hand, I can't help but notice that golden parachutes are STILL floating to the ground all over Wall Street, but we've all become strangely fixated on how teachers' salaries are way too high, given what they "do" (i.e., nothing). 

But if teachers really are doing nothing, well, at least they aren't doing what Kenneth Lay and Andrew Fastow and Jeffrey Skilling did.  That should count for something nowadays, shouldn't it?

In a world of corporate fraud and financial collapse, it seems to me that we've become obsessed with results and accountability, but only in the classroom, not the board-room.  It is very odd to me that there have been no discussions whatsoever of administrative salaries in higher education.  If you think you're pissed at Bobby's fourth-grade social studies teacher, check out what the Assistant to the Assistant Principal at his school made last year, and then find out what exactly he or she did to earn that salary.  See what I mean?

We can always find someone to blame, someone who's making more than they should be and doing far less than (we think that) they should be doing.  But what good is finger-pointing, when the facts are clear: the money isn't there, it hasn't been there for a while, and it isn't going to be there for quite some time to come. 

So what the hell are we going to do now?

President Obama has weighed in, indicating that it's not about money, it's about standards, and that American kids may need to go to school longer as a way of off-setting their apparent inability to retain information over the dog days of summer.  In a really interesting blog posting on, journalist Bob Braun argues that no, yes, it is about money, and that there is a direct correlation between money and academic performance.  According to Braun, "Wealth and achievement are inextricably linked. Give the College Board, the agency that produces the SAT Reasoning Test, your family income numbers and your race and educational level of your parents and it will predict your scores and almost always be right."

But this means, of course, that the SAT's, like most standardized tests, don't measure "knowledge" at all--something all of us in higher education have known for a very long time.  And yet, we still elevate them as way of evaluating whether teachers are doing right by our children: if test scores are low, somebody's not doing what they're supposed to be doing and the country is suffering as a result. 

I think we hold these kinds of standardized, evaluative measures in high regard because they're a ticket to something we've decided we should all strive for.  Something expensive and time- consuming, but ultimately very valuable.  What that "something" really is, though, we're not so clear about.  

I think that what is at issue is an underlying crisis of American identity and self-definition.  Who are we?  Who do we want our children to be, and what do we want them to have?  If we don't want our children to be the Kenneth Lays and the Jeffrey Skillings of the future (and in some cases, I wonder whether maybe we don't care if they are, so long as they're smart enough not to get caught), what do we want them to know, value and strive towards?

A hundred years ago, the answers to these questions may have seemed far simpler, although I don't think they ever really were.  If your family was poor, you went to school only if and when your family could afford to do without your labor.  In many rural communities, education was more or less seasonal.  If you weren't in school, chances are, you were working, and at that time, most people had to work. 

In today's world, we have come to regard labor with an odd kind of voyeurism.  Like many, I'm a fan of Mike Rowe's show, "Dirty Jobs."  But when you think about it, this show's popularity is a really interesting comment on contemporary American culture.  We don't want to actually DO these jobs, we want to watch someone else do them and get dirty, so that we can laugh. 

Personally, we'd all prefer to stay clean and get paid a lot more money doing a lot less "work," because if you're smart enough, "real" work should be nothing more to you than a form of entertainment.   And, at the end of the day, this is what we want for our children, to some extent. 

I find it interesting that Rowe's experience with the show has alerted him to a crisis in America's infrastructure, and he is committed to raising awareness about and reevaluating the definition and significance of manual labor in the United States (check out his site for more about his project, "Mikeroweworks"). 

I think his arguments are interesting and persuasive, and they lead me to wonder, is our current focus on teachers' salaries in higher education really "about" something besides education and the opportunities that we want for our children?  Is it really about the financial identity that separates the middle class from the working class?  Is our anxiety about upholding the social markers of education a way of deflecting our fears about the harsh realities that have been spawned in the wake of Wall Street's collapse?   

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