The death of public schools

The New York Times has a powerful opinion video up this morning, about the mounting toll on teachers of the on-going demagoguing about public education in America. If you have ten minutes today, you should give it a watch. It is worth the time, and as a public school teacher, I can tell you, it is right on in its description of the state of our schools and the teaching profession today, not to mention to things kids are facing.

Being a teacher this election cycle has been particularly hard, harder than it is usually is (and it is almost never easy.) Across the country, a fear has risen that schools and teachers are indoctrinating or grooming children, with critical race theory or gender ideology or drag queens or…. pick your politicized bugaboo of choice. We’ve been accused of it all. Politicians, especially on the right, have made teachers and public schools Public Enemy #1 this election cycle. Look at the rhetoric from folks like Ron DeSantis, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, or any other mainstream Republican politician. Teachers are a political punching bag, one that largely cannot fight back. Here in Oklahoma, it is particularly bad. After the passage of a state law earlier this year restricting what things a teacher can or cannot say to students, Governor Kevin Stitt and his handpicked candidate for state superintendent, Ryan Walters, both won re-election running on platforms against public schools and teachers. Despite the heartening news from many elections in this country, Oklahoma was a dark spot for those who care about sanity and the future of public schools. Lies and false stories about pornography in libraries, about the grooming of children by teachers, of the need to censor books and teachers, and to fire or even prosecute teachers who are supposedly hurting children: it’s been infuriating and terrifying and disheartening, all at once.

This comes on top of the on-going after effects of the pandemic and Covid shutdowns, which were hugely damaging to student learning and social-emotional development. The gaps kids are facing in their knowledge, personal skills, and emotional bandwidth are borne by teachers, and we often are getting the blame as well when kids fail to succeed. Teaching, it hardly needs to be said, is a thankless profession almost like no other.

And it is starting to have an effect. As that NYT piece says, a recent survey of National Association of Education member teachers1 found that half of all teachers in America are looking for a way out of the profession. Take difficult, increasingly disrespectful kids; add in overbearing, unreasonable parents; layer on inane amounts of paperwork and documentation and monitoring, along with rapid cuts to school budgets and stagnating teacher wages and a shortage of materials and crumbling school infrastructure; and top it all off with the active animosity of half of our nations leaders and the voters who support them, and the question becomes not why are so many teachers quitting, but instead, what the hell is wrong with those of us who are still here? It is a fair question.

Lets be clear about something: the rapid decline of public schools and loss of teachers is not an accidental outcome of rational policy making. It is the deliberate strategy of an entire political movement in this nation over the last 30 years, to discredit, defund, and destroy public education, in favor of private religious instruction and for-profit education benefitting not the students, but the shareholders and elites behind those systems. Public education has been under attack for decades; the rise of charter schools and school vouchers has long been touted as a system of “parent choice” or “school accountability” or some kind of rightful reclaiming of tax dollars by those who feel entitled to not taking part in our shared commitment to educating children. What these things actually are, though, are ways for tax dollars to be siphoned out of public schools and into the pockets of those who still, despite their ever increasing wealth, feel like they don’t have enough wealth and control.

I am always reminded of this wonderful scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when I think about the greed and rapaciousness of wealth. In this watching, imagine as if George Bailey is defending the local school instead of the Building and Loan, and Mr. Potter as a greedy financial entity who sees a profit opportunity in the funds that should be used for educating our children, I think you’ll get my point:

The powers behind wealth and accumulation in this country see the meager public budgets of schools in every community, and they itch because they see dollars and cents that don’t belong to them. And so, they have found arguments and lies and scary stories that rile up community members, and discredit schools, and lay the groundwork for them to extract those dollars and cents. Its disgusting, and infuriating, and a microcosm of the American public sphere over the last 30 years.

The moral panics about schools and books and curriculums that have swept the nation over the last year are not some grassroots movement of concerned parents. Again, it is a deliberate strategy aimed at discrediting schools and laying the ground work to pull funding. And the ones who end up suffering the most? Teachers, and students. But it works because everyday people, regular parents and tax payers and community members, instead of getting positively involved in public schools and talking to teachers and becoming part of the PTA and other community groups, spend their time online listening to the lies and then spreading those lies and stoking fear and anger and doing the dirty work for those who are using their fear against them. That’s the most depressing part, for me: logging into social media, and seeing people who I know and love and who I thought cared about my family and children and schools, spreading rumors and lies and absolute bullshit about what us teachers are supposedly doing in our classrooms. Even though many of these people have never stepped a foot in a school or attended a PTA or Board meeting, or tried to take a positive role in really helping schools succeed.

Here’s the important thing to remember: teachers are not some scary “Other” existing out there somewhere. We are your neighbors, your friends, your family. When you share that scare-mongering video or meme about CRT in classrooms, or Drag Queen story hour, or groomers in classrooms, you are talking about people you know and who your purport to love and respect and care about. Teachers are normal, everyday human beings, doing our best every day to do a demanding, thankless job, and to do it well. When politicians and parents and community members work so hard to tear down schools for some abstract, ideological fear stoked in the fever swamps of the most extreme right, they all forget that what they are really tearing down is human beings, adults and children, who live our lives day in and day out in these school buildings together. Schools are more than just brick buildings down the street, or faceless bureaucracies and school boards: like any institution, schools are the sum of the human beings who live and work and cry and laugh and learn in those buildings. And when you try to tear a school down, what you end up doing is tearing down people.

1 Full transparency: I myself am a member of NEA, and its Oklahoma branch, the OEA, as well as the Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association.

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social guardrails

This post follows on from my previous one, as another response to the Freddie DeBoer-Parker Milloy back-and-forth. Today, I want to respond to this section from Parker’s Letter #3:

If you go to see a movie, there are some general expectations you probably have going into it. You expect there to be a seat for you to sit, the screen to play the specific movie you paid to see, and for others to remain quiet as the movie plays. Understandably, there will be moments where the audience isn’t perfectly quiet, and I think we can all understand that. People laugh, they gasp, and there may even be a few people who break the cardinal sin of the theater and exchange a few words here and there. All-in-all, that’s fine, even if the people who talked were mildly disruptive. Overall, that’s a fine experience. People who bend the rules beyond a reasonable amount will likely be shushed or glared at by others in the theater, and if necessary, asked to leave by someone who works there. Why? Because we all agreed to these rules, both written and implied, when we bought our tickets.

Social guardrails (shushes and glares) serve as mild corrections with actions by authority (theater employees asking someone to leave) serving to handle the more serious violations. Without those things, without any way to nudge people to follow the rules they agreed to abide by — if, for instance, people who shushed or judged others for talking were accused of trying to “cancel” the talkers; if theater employees wouldn’t intervene even in the most severe instances — then this leaves the people who just want to enjoy a movie in a pretty difficult position, doesn’t it? And what would happen if, for some reason, the people who spoke throughout the movie as if it were their own personal Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, actually benefitted from their rule-breaking, financially or socially? Well, that would likely encourage others to do the same. Pretty soon, you’ve got a theater full of people talking, and suddenly you’d find yourself wanting your money back and never planning to make a return trip.

I am really intrigued by this concept of social guardrails, and the role they play in our culture that right now so seems to value extremism and being the loudest/craziest/most shocking voice. Parker is absolutely right that, by and large, we have long had a series of social guardrails that operate in our shared spaces. Whether that is a movie theater like this illustration, or in Congressional norms, or in the way we interact with the grocery clerk, there is just generally a way that things have been expected to be done. Its kind of a necessary element of being a social being; we have to navigate so many interactions on a daily basis, these kinds of norms and guardrails have been socially constructed as a way to streamline and optimize our interactions in ways that benefit those involved. Now, obviously, a lot of these norms were culturally contingent, and at times benefitted certain groups and consequently, penalized others. This is true in terms of race, gender, and class.

It feels like that in the present, a lot of these norms and guardrails are being dismantled, in a way that isn’t healthy and isn’t strategic. I think folks on both sides of the political divide are doing, especially those out at the extremes. On the left, a concern for social justice has paved a way for some of this dismantling in the name of a better world. But there is also an element that takes a gleeful and almost perverse pleasure in taking apart our social norms, in seeing those that they identify as problematic or toxic squirm as they come up against a more free wheeling way of interacting.

On the right, however, I think there is much more a destructive and nihilistic glee about taking apart social guardrails. I don’t really identify a positive or good intentioned strain on the right like I do the left, because inherently, serious conservatives are inclined to preserve (or conserve) social structures like these. But, as I have been writing about more and more recently, there is a large portion of the right that is not “conservative” in any meaningful way, but it instead quite extreme and radical in its pursuit of remaking the world. The contempt for and destruction of social guardrails is just another example of this tendency. We see it embodied most visibly, of course, in the Trump movement and those associated with much of the modern Republican Party at the national level. There is very little interest in maintaining some form of a status quo; rather, modern political conservatives are more interested in tearing things down – the social safety net, public education, democratic norms, and most frighteningly, institutional norms associated with the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court.

I keep harping on this point, but we are really in a moment of time in which extremism and radicalism are the most common political ideologies at work, across the classic left-right divide. I may be a leftist and a liberal politically, but I am temperamentally pretty conservative, in that I’m not really a fan of wholesale, rapid change. So watching the glee with which so many in our national conversation seem to derive from taking a hammer to our shared way of life is very concerning to me, and I think it is to most regular people too. Again, I stand by David French’s observation: our politics seem destined to become less a battle between left and right, and more of a clash between two extremisms as the rest of us figure out how to shove them all in a cage somewhere. I’m pessimistic about the ability of our democratic institutions to facilitate such a scenario.

a cultural norm of free speech

In their Substack newsletters, Freddie DeBoer and Parker Milloy recently had a 6-part back-and-forth exchange of letters about free speech, cancel culture, college campuses, the media, and a bunch of other things. It was a fascinating exchange, and you should read it in full if you share any of these obsessions with them and me. I come down more on the Freddie side of the debate overall, but I thought they both made a bunch of good points, and more than anything else, it was nice to see these ideas being discussed, rather than just one voice railing against them. As Andrew Sullivan observed, it was almost a return to the good ole’ blogging days of yore!

I’ve got a couple of posts planned here in response to some points they both made, starting here with just a quick observation on free speech and the First Amendment. In Letter #2, Freddie wrote,

Culture war is like being locked in a closet with your dark mirror image. For every bit of overreaction to cancel culture, there’s an attendant dismissal of the lurking problem of our technological and governmental overlords gradually eroding our basic ability to say what we want to say. Yes, platforms like Twitter have the right to establish the rules that they want. But I think society flourishes best under a norm of free speech, not just the limited legal rights as dictated by the First Amendment but from a broader cultural commitment to the belief that we best determine the truth through the constant adversarial trading of ideas.

I used to be a person who saw a platform like Twitter or a corporation like Starbucks or a media entity like MSNBC punish someone for something they said – whether it was a bad tweet or an unpopular political position or whatever – and say, “Well, that’s how it goes. Free speech only means the government can’t restrict your speech, but private companies can do what they want.” Which is technically a legally true position to take, but is also a very pro-capitalist way to approach employment, and also, as Freddie points out here, not a very good way to cultivate a culture of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. I think he is right, that we need a consistent culture of free speech, and that means one where people are allowed to say noxious or annoying or even racist things, and where we overcome those attitudes not through forbidding their utterance, but through showing their ridiculousness.

Can Twitter ban you for saying racist things? Yep. Should they? I have concerns. Not because I like racist speech. I very much don’t. But I also don’t like private companies – all of them helmed by some of the worst people in the world – making decisions about what is good or not good to say. Do you want to give that kind of power to tech capitalists?

More broadly, I think Freddie does a good job in the exchange of addressing the critique of so-called “free speech bros”, and the bad rap they (we) get from others on the left. As he writes later,

I have this great old document, a copy of a speech that was given in honor of my paternal grandmother receiving the Illinois ACLU’s lifetime achievement award. What strikes me reading it, some 50 years after the speech was given, is that her work in both civil rights and civil liberties are represented as one and the same – that her fighting against segregation and racism was not seen as in tension with her defense of free speech and association, but that they were the same fight, that they were permanently entwined. Academic freedom was particularly dear to her because her husband, my grandfather, had been targeted by McCarthyite attacks in the Illinois state legislature. In the speech her efforts against restaurants that would not serve Black diners are not represented as a contradiction with her free speech efforts but as a natural match with them. Now, I fear most people would counterpose anti-racism and civil liberties against each other.

Free speech is not in tension or opposition to social justice, and it shouldn’t be portrayed that way. Free speech, free expression, and free association are the bedrocks upon which the victories of social justice and civil rights are built. We have to foster a broad culture that encourages people to say what they think, and when we disagree – even vehemently – the instinct shouldn’t be to silence, but to provide an example of better speech. To quote Freddie one last time, “as I have argued at length, the history we have of attempts to shut down right-wing extremism through censorship are not inspiring, with countries like France and Germany having watched for 75 years as harsh anti-extremism laws have failed to meaningfully prevent the spread of those ideologies.” Banning speech doesn’t reduce hate or extremism. It just adds another grievance to those who are inclined to hate. Let them say their bullshit. And let the rest of us look on and laugh at their foolishness. That’s how we push it out.