The battle in Wisconsin has been at a fever pitch for quite a number of days now. The legislature there has passed a bill requiring the democratic representatives who are held up in "The Land of Lincoln" to come to Madison in person to collect their paychecks. Ohio is next, then who knows but it is clear this battle will not end there, it is likely to go from state to state in an attempt to bust up unions, especially the teacher's union. Most of the time I turn on the news or listen to the radio (be it NPR or a conservative station) I hear two basic sides of this issue expressed and we are caught in a recursive blame game. Nothing good can come of this and I would like to take a few moments to reflect on the situation and propose all sides take a moment to, lets not call it "see it from the other's point of view" but rather take a third party perspective.
To boil this down to the point of over-generalization, which is what most people will take away from broadcast media anyway, we have two positions being expressed: 1. The teachers, and other public employees, need to keep their collective bargaining rights and maintain their solidarity in the face of those who would hand everything over to big business. and 2. The teacher's union is nothing more than a thuggish organization that has held the state hostage for years demanding unrealistic pay and benefits. These are the two stories I hear when I turn on the television and radio, is this correct? Lets take a moment to analyze what problems there are with both sides.
The purpose of school.
I have long felt that the biggest problem with education, especially public schooling, in this country is confusion over the purpose of school. I have for the last two years made a point of asking the question a lot. I even began capturing some of these responses on video last fall and I hope to capture some more this week (I'll post them on this blog early next week). Whenever I would ask teachers what the purpose of school was the vast majority would answer, "To develop lifelong learners." Whenever I would ask high school students or their parents this question I would get, "To get a good job," as their number one answer. Another popular response from tends to be, "to create a functional democracy, and informed electorate." The list of possible answers to this question are nearly endless and there really is nothing that explicitly informs us what the correct answer is. There probably is no one right answer and that is part of this problem in Wisconsin right now.
So how does the purpose of school relate? Well, about seven years ago a family member of mine graduated from a well respected and fairly expensive private college. When he was sent there by his parents they had this view that this was a sure investment, just as their own college educations were sure investments. It was expected that once he graduated he would be given a job and that the school would be there to support him in the process. Turns out this was a false assumption and for quite a number of years afterwords dinner table conversation at family gatherings tended to center around this profound misconception. The family response went from confusion, to blame back and forth between graduate and school, anger, then finally acceptance. Mom and dad had no reason from their own experience not to expect that education=good job, that is how it was for them and that was also a line that our institutions of learning have been happy to own for quite some time.
The lie that the purpose of school is to get a good job became so widely accepted as truth that even a lot of educators started to believe it. How many of us sat with school counselors and heard them expel the mantra that the key to success is a good education and that if you don't want to spend your life working at McDonalds (another line I now find quite offensive) you would at least have to finish school and you would probably need a college degree. While there is some truth in this statement, it is not a whole truth. The way this message had been sold for decades led most people, even most of the educators telling it, to believe that a potential outcome improved by a formal education was actually the result of that education when in actuality it is only a factor.
Why all the hate for teachers?
The purpose of school is not to get a good job and most educators know this, it is why most of them will say "to develop life-long learners" when asked the question. But, they have done an exceedingly poor job of selling the public on this idea. So, when I see protest signs that say things like "I lost my benefits, why should they keep theirs" an anger is being expressed and blame being placed that illustrate this confusion. Likely the people who are angry at teachers, the people making up much of this Tea Party movement that swept the nation this last election cycle, are like my relatives who blamed the university when their son couldn't find work in his field when he graduated from college. So, when economic times are tough and when for so long people who are now out of work heard their teachers say "finish school or spend your life working at McDonalds" and they took that advice but are still having to take jobs working at McDonalds or Walmart if they are lucky enough to find work at all it is through deductive reasoning that they might come to blame their teachers, especially when they see them still collecting a paycheck.
What we see going on, especially from those who would otherwise benefit greatly from union membership in their own fields who sit on the Tea Party picket line, is sheer retaliation and anger. There really is no other way to describe it. Especially when the budget crisis really is somewhat small:
What Scott Walker and the Tea Party are doing here seems to make sense when you look at why they might think that way. But, they hold a misguided notion of the purpose of school and there is a whole corporate industry egging them on who would like to see unions crushed and the public schools turned over for profit. There is money to back this misguided notion and enough angry people without jobs willing to buy what they are selling to strike back at those who led them to believe something that was not true.
So, while I support the teachers union in their efforts here I have to lay some of the blame for all of this on, well, teachers.