Thursday, September 13, 2012

In Solidarity with Teachers

Guerrilla Press stands in solidarity with the striking teachers in Chicago. Having worked as an educator myself, I understand their grievances. I have also witnessed, firsthand, the degradation of our nation’s education system.
But first, it is important we fully understand the nature of the strike. It is not, as many media pundits have insisted, exclusively about teachers’ salaries.
While pay and job security are certainly two pressing concerns, the teachers are also protesting rigid teacher evaluation procedures, narrow curriculum in which teachers are essentially forced to teach to the test, overcrowded classrooms and the overall nationwide degradation of teachers in recent years. (You can read the Chicago Teachers Union’s complete list of demands, here.) The teachers are not, as New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera claims (9/10/2012), striking to maintain the “status quo.”
However, in keeping with their pattern of anti-union bias, the corporate media have instead glossed over the teachers’ detailed and articulate demands, reducing the strike to little more than a battle of wits between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis.
A front-page article in Wednesday’s New York Times (“Teachers’ Leader in Chicago Strike Shows Her Edge,” 9/12/2012) focuses more on the two figures’ caustic personality traits than any of the substantive motives behind the strike. It reads:

She [Lewis] is biting, pushy, witty, unwavering. He [Emanuel] is biting, pushy, witty, unwavering. Like him, she appears to hold almost nothing back… She has called Mr. Emanuel a “bully” and a “liar,” someone whose “billionaire friends” are driving his educational philosophy. And that was only last week.

Based on the Times’ account, one gets the impression the strike amounts to little more than the “toxic relationship” between two egocentric public officials. As it is, that last part of the second sentence quoted (about Emanuel’s “billionaire friends”) is probably the most accurate of the paragraph. Keep in mind, this is the same former Obama Chief of Staff who, a few years ago, publicly derided progressives within his own party as “fucking retarded.”
Our nation’s education system is a travesty.
The traditional goals of education—to create informed, engaged citizens, and foster in young minds a thirst for lifelong intellectual inquiry—are rapidly being replaced with utilitarian, strictly skills oriented curricula. The lofty aims of a traditional liberal arts education—the idea, as Socrates famously put it, that the “unexamined life is not worth living”—are now viewed as superfluous, impractical, even elitist. The only knowledge worth having, this new corporatist educational attitude insists, is that which can get one a high-paying career.
Schools, in other words, no longer teach students how to think—they train them for work. And with the increasing reliance on privately-owned, for-profit charter schools, and trade-oriented community colleges, this degradation of education is only likely to continue.
Schools—both high schools and colleges—now routinely churn out what journalist Chris Hedges calls “systems managers.” Students are trained in narrow, highly specialized skills (nursing, business, public relations, journalism), but remain ignorant of great art, literature, music or philosophy.
These staples of the Humanities allow us to ask the big questions about life and think critically about society, politics, and the world around us. Great books like King Lear and Lord of the Flies along with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sinclair Lewis allow us to reflect upon our own lives and our place in society. They hold up a mirror to the universal truths of human nature. Students denied such a liberal arts education, according to Hedges, become “products of a moral void.”
“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life,” media critic, Neil Postman, writes in The End of Education, “which is quite different from how to make a living.”
When I worked as an adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, I received no health care, no benefits and no job security. I was paid $35 an hour which is low in comparison to most adjunct rates. I had to sign a new teaching contract every semester—that is, assuming I was able to get any courses in the first place. During the summers adjunct faculty members were forced to fight over the few courses that were offered, with preference always going to those with seniority.
Since adjuncts are essentially contract workers, they can be fired at any time for any reason. And, since CMCC, like all community colleges, is first and foremost a for-profit business, student (read: customer) satisfaction is paramount. Therefore, if a student complains to the dean that he does not like a professor’s class, the dean is all but contractually obligated to side with the student. In order to avoid this scenario, most adjuncts at CMCC simply do not require anything of their students. As long as the work-load is light, easy and devoid of any intellectual rigor, students will not complain. Witness then, the complete degradation of education into entertainment.
For these reasons, as well as a variety of others, I quit CMCC in January. I love teaching. Education has been for me a source of liberation. But I refuse to compromise my educational standards. So I know where the Chicago teachers are coming from. I understand their grievances and their desire for meaningful education reform.
“Education,” Yeats famously proclaimed, “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
Here’s hoping the Chicago teachers can light the spark for real educational reform.

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