"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, March 02, 2012

GUEST POST: Tenure Perches in the Soul

Tenure Perches in the Soul
by Douglas Storm

I.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

***

“I eat the air, promise crammed.”  Hamlet

II.

This piece intends to speak about tenure, finally, if you will bear with me.

Let’s set the stage a bit.

Here’s the situation we’re in, and I’m sure you’re aware of much of it: business owners like to do what they want whenever they want as they deem appropriate to their interests.  This is why they are anti-regulation and anti-tax and why they are very keen to always vote yes for more deference to property in the law.  Regulation and tax, whatever else you think of them, must be considered requirements for managing systems of organized living.  This is a direct tension with the sense that one’s property and/or business interests are extension of a “self” that wants no fetters.

It is a dream of the child to always be free of strictures of parents while always knowing the security of the parents’ love and strength.  This seems a perfect analogy to the mind of the business owner when confronting the regulatory and legal power of the State.  Business owners throw tantrums constantly.
Consequently, the idea for employees is, do what your told: if you don’t you’re fired; make X widgets in X time or, your fired, or docked pay; deny coverage in any way possible and get a bonus; lie to investors and hedge against a market, win on both gains and losses, ta da, success.

I think that folks playing economics will make many arguments with numbers to hide the rudimentary principles at play–that’s often what they’re hired to do.  One “best practice” for industrial owners is “maximize profit by minimizing costs”–this is called “efficiency.”  It is a very wide net.

You must know that the largest threat to an expanding bottom-line is expanding personnel costs.  That’s the cost of hiring, training and maintaining employees.

It is a responsibility no one wants.  I promise.  Think about it.  If you were a caring person and you owned a business and people relied on the success of that business to give them stability in their lives you would be racked with constant worry and tension about their welfare.

Now, watch the transference.  The health of the business and the health of the lives of employees is a burden that can hardly be borne by the owner.  It seems sane and advisable to try to detach from that responsibility as a personal burden.  One might imagine that since the social safety net programs of the FDR administration that burden was shared with the state.  If things went badly, there were social programs that could help a family.  But the burden remained as a going concern.

The final sloughing of human care and responsibility has come about by imagining that there is a “system” that, when left alone, will balance these concerns and create an equilibrium of cash and product flow.  We call this the Free Market.  If we only let it alone, it will make us whole and set us in our proper places.

(I can’t help pointing out the obvious religious narrative there–but I’ll leave it to you to imagine this passion play and try to stick to my task.)

In either case one wishes to relieve oneself of the burden of responsibility.  Our economic and technological models of progress have created a kind of “natural” propensity to detachment.  I can only care about me and mine.  (I’ve had a friend say he was only interested in his kids because they were “of him” and that he was “selfish” for this.  Seriously.)  We live isolated in homes or rooms and transact “life” digitally; we work in cubicles and buildings of artificial environments.

You can see my mind drifting here into social issues of community organization and I think that making the economic system, making the business “self” interest, the primary motivator of social organization has been destroying what we were, what we are, what we might be.  It is redesigning mind to fit a particular idea of a “whole species” moving into an “extra-biological” space.  It is not an idea for the whole of us.  It is one that suits a very small number of “next” beings.  I judge this as a horror and a terminal motivation.

III.

Not long ago I was privy to a Facebook comment by a lawyer in Indianapolis stating that “teacher tenure is evil.”  I cannot spend time trying to understand that other than by saying it is a sin against the Randian Objectivist idea of capitalism.  Thus, not so bright.  But, as Kurt V. would say, so it goes.
This one is easy to talk about.  Folks that don’t work in fields with tenure likely wish they did.  Workers and managers alike–not owners.  In short, all of us want job security until our dying day.
The only way to think this is wrong is to privilege a world outside the home and its sustenance.  You must abstract social ideals to make tenure an “evil.”  You must privilege a cold abstraction.
Otherwise, what can lead you to agree with a statement meaning that a life free of worry over sustenance is “evil?”

Owners don’t need “job security.”  They have a de facto tenure.  That is what ownership is.

IV.

We are in a period of great “unmooring.”  That is to say, our social managers are forcing us into greater insecurity.  That is what “terror” is.  That is what “competition” is.  That is what sub-prime lending is.  That is what corporate fraud is.  That is what Iran and Iraq are.

V.

What is “home?”  At one point this was synonymous with the common dwelling for a clan or tribe.  The geography can change, but the hearth moves with you.  Rome made “home” into architectural recognition.  Go anywhere in the empire and you would see domes, arches, columns…Rome.  Identity by design.

America is self-consciously modeled on Rome; not only the capital buildings, but its ideas of empire and government as well.

Architecturally, perhaps the McDonald’s arches are our equivalent.  It is true that this offers a continuity.  But it fails to offer a sense of permanence.  We are not a culture of monuments but one building altars to oblivion.*

VI.

What are public institutions but  expressions of the ideas of moments?  They embody a national ethos.

VII.

Public education is one such institution.  More locally, the public school supported by a public education idea.  What do we embody?

A home?  A state? An altar to oblivion?

VII.

We have been building altars at which we pray to the Unmooring.  I have a book in front of me that participates in this.  These altars might be called Interest; Detachment; Efficiency; Measurement; Objectivism.

This book, Teachers Matter by Manhattan Institute acolyte Marcus Winters, offers a preface by a current priest of Unmooring, Joel Klein in which Klein writes:
…Winters trains his sights on the twin reforms that the defenders of the current public-school system most resist: paying the good teachers more and getting rid of the bad ones.  He shows that, currently, the best economic reason for going into teaching is that, regardless of performance, it is almost impossible to get fired.  You get steady raises with seniority, which are then followed by exceptional post-employment lifetime pension and health benefits.  In short, while teachers don’t get rich, once they start teaching, typically in their early twenties, they are reasonably set for life.
Expanding on his concerns about post-employment benefits, Winters further demonstrates their unfortunate lock-in effects on employees.  After a decade or so spent teaching, employees would be irrational to leave the system until their rights to these benefits fully vest.  This incentivizes teachers to stick around, sometimes for decades, whether or not they are engaged or effective.  A better idea, Winters argues, is to pay teachers like most people are paid: fairly during the time they actually work, while letting them decide how much to set aside for their retirement.
That is the reality of the book that follows.  One does not have to read further to know what it will present and that it will offer statistics and research as evidence of its soundness.  Listen to what will be shown as “evil” listed above: the exceptional benefits of lifetime pension, steady raises (huh?), health care–being set for life.  What does this yield?  A satisfied long-term employee.  Or, if you have a mind of winter, a rising and constant cost.

How does Klein cast this zombie movie called public education?  These are wastrels, disengaged, ineffective (“sometimes for decades”) and “locked-in” (as if they would prefer the freedom of being released, one dandelion puff among billions, on the winds of free markets).  I love that Klein says Winters “trains his sights”–he is indeed out to assassinate the very idea of “public teacher.”

Now you must realize, with such a great gig, folks like Klein and Winters have to work very hard to make the rest of the employees of the world know how horrible these people are and how that evil system locks them into, at best, ineffective mediocrity.  And my favorite resentment–if you can get fired, why shouldn’t they get fired!?

Again, wouldn’t you honestly prefer we created more occupations and employments organized in the manner of this public trust?


VIII.

What is this hiding and what is this imagining as an ideal “employee” who happens to be “teacher?”
Teachers are costly and literally, their success, or lack thereof, is immeasurable.  There are so many variables to human being, and human learning, and human social development that it is indeed unrealistic to measure one’s “doctrinal” success via content exams.
This book, and these men, are not concerned with the human institutions of learning as an aspect of human development.  The goal here is to release this renewable resource into the hands of the masters of markets.  The methods of doing this are somewhat akin to fracking.  All of its effects are damaging and the profit released is realized by a tiny minority.  Its effects are an oblivion.

IX.

It has been expressed to me that parents hope their children will be their support in old age.  This seems far from a reasonable hope for so many now because we have come to define support as one of fiscal responsibility.

How do we regain the definition of support that means human care and responsibility to each other?
I read today further horrifying comments by financial traders whose bonuses were not as monumental as they’d hoped: how will we maintain our lifestyles, our private schools, our vacations, our multiple homes?

Can they not hear what they are saying?  Their lifestyles are propped up by foreclosures, starvation, bankruptcies, pollution, toxic products…and on and on.

X.

An occupation like teaching is structurally important to us.  We have devoted our economic lives to material gain and in so doing have reduced our familial obligations such that they must be supplemented if not entirely given over to our systems of education.

Tenure is stability.  Tenure is security.  Tenure is trust.

This is not just about teachers.  This is about community and about an idea of home and human care and responsibility.  Tenure creates continuity of community institutions.  That is a primary function of our schools.  Destroying publicly funded institutions by defunding them and degrading them through the disingenuous and “targeted” use of testing paradigms aimed to denigrate and fail teachers, students, and schools will erase community further and make permanent our unmooring.

Teaching is indeed a very good job if it can be maintained with tenure and stress-reducing benefits. 

We should all aspire to this model of employment.

Teaching is an extremely difficult job to do well.  It is physically and emotionally exhausting.  Without support structures it can lead to a self-protecting disengagement, of that there is no doubt.

Teaching is not about content knowledge replication–that is robotic.  It is about creating a space of trust such that the human mind can explore freely in order to discover what one might become.  One must feel secure in self-sustenance in order to share that self and that freedom with hundreds of children.

We need to create deeper structures of human caring in these public spaces.  We should not dismantle them further in order to fix a bottom-line goal and serve an objectivist-capital agenda.

You reap what you sow.  Or is that agrarian apothegm too archaic for modern ears?

photo credit: kevin dooley

*Section V borrows from the BBC program In Our Time, “Architecture and Power.”

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