by Corey Robin
Like Doug Henwood, I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out why people—particularly liberals and pseudo-liberals in the chattering classes—hate teachers unions. One could of course take these people at their word—they care about the kids, they worry that strikes hurt the kids, and so on—but since we never hear a peep out of them about the fact that students have to swelter through 98-degree weather in jam-packed classes without air conditioning, I’m not so inclined.
Forgive me then if I essay an admittedly more impressionistic analysis drawn from my own experience.
Like many of these journalists, I hail from an upper middle class background. I grew up in Chappaqua, an affluent suburb of New York. My parents moved there in 1975 for the schools, which were—and I believe still are—terrific. From elementary school through senior year, I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered.
Two of my social studies teachers—Allan Damon and Tom Corwin—had more of an impact on me than any professor I ever had in college or grad school. In their classes, I read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, Michael Kammen’s People of Paradox, Hobbes, Locke, Richard Hakluyt, Albert Thayer Mahan, and more. When I got to college, I found that I was considerably better prepared than my classmates, many of whom had gone to elite private schools in Manhattan and elsewhere. It’s safe to say I would never have become an academic were it not for these two men.
We also had a terrific performing arts program. Phil Stewart, Chappaqua’s legendary acting teacher, trained Vanessa Williams, Roxanne Hart, Dar Williams, and more. We put on obscure musicals and destabilizing plays like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ronald Dunn, our choral teacher, had us singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the works of Fauré. So inspiring were these teachers that many of us went onto organize our own plays, musicals, and a cappella groups, while we were still in high school.
Despite this, many kids and their parents held teachers in contempt. Teachers were not figures of respect or gratitude; they were incompetents and buffoons. Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I had some terrible teachers. Incompetents and worse. But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition. But among the upper classes it’s treated as the exclusive preserve of teachers.
It’s odd. Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League. And if you’re an intellectually ambitious academic type like me, they’re even more critical. Like I said, people move to Chappaqua for the schools, and if the graduation and post-graduate statistics are any indication—in my graduating class of 270, I’d guess about 50 of us went onto an Ivy League school—they’re getting their money’s worth. Yet many people I grew up with treated teachers as bumptious figures of ridicule—and not in your anarchist-critique-of-all-social-institutions kind of way.
It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.
In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.
No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.
Like my teachers, I have chosen a career in education and don’t make a lot of money. Unlike them, I’m a professor. I’m continuously astonished at the pass that gets me among the people I grew up with. Had I chosen to be a high-school teacher, I’d be just another loser. But tenured professors are different. Especially if we teach in elite schools (which I don’t.) We’re more talented, more refined, more ambitious—more like them. We’re capitalist tools, too.
So that’s where and how I grew up. And when I hear journalists and commentators, many of them fresh out of the Ivy League, talking to teachers as if they were servants trying to steal the family silver, that’s what I hear. It’s an ugly tone from ugly people.
Every so often I want to ask them, “Didn’t your parents teach you better manners?” Then I remember whom I’m dealing with.
Update (September 13, 12:45 am)
I’ve gotten a fair amount of flak from liberals, on Twitter and in the comments, who claim I’m being unfair to liberal critics of the teachers union—I’m not taking their arguments seriously, making assumptions about their elitism, etc.
Part of this strike, it’s pretty clear, is that the union needed to have some theater for its members, let them blow off some steam, and that’s increasingly obvious.
Remember, he’s talking about a union led by an African-American woman, in a school district where 40 percent of the kids are black. Look at ‘em all, blowing off steam.
Yeah, I was really being unfair.
(Also on the show is the indispensable Diane Ravitch, who does a pretty excellent job — when Rehm lets her speak — of debunking the liberal shibboleths in this debate. If you’re wondering why I don’t engage the arguments more, it’s because Ravitch already has. Again and again and again and again.)
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. a contributing editor at Jacobin. His blog is here.