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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, Teaching America a Lesson

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

At almost 74, of all the people in my life, it may be the teachers I remember most vividly. Mrs. Kelly, my first grade teacher (who began it all); my fourth grade teacher Miss Thomas (who, when I approached her that initial day in class and said "Hey, you," assured me in the kindest possible way that I would never call her anything but "Miss Thomas" again); Mrs. Casey, my sixth grade teacher, who inspired such an urge to read, to learn, to explore that I've never forgotten her (nor the way I madly waved my hand in class in my excitement to have her call on me); and finally, Mr. Shank, who, in high school, turned me on (a phrase of which he wouldn't, I suspect, have approved) to literature, to journeys into worlds I would never otherwise have known and might never have stumbled upon. What would my life have been like without them? I can't begin to imagine or to express my gratitude all these decades later.

To a child, each of them seemed so important, so self-possessed, so almost regal, how could I ever have imagined that they, like the teachers walking out of classrooms or going on strike in protest today across red-state America, were actually workers, proletarians, members of a class that made, at best, modest salaries and stood not at the peak of our world but somewhere toward its bottom. In recent weeks, both students and teachers from America's embattled schools have stunned the nation by taking to our schoolyards, streets, plazas, and squares, to the press, TV, and social media to protest an ever more weaponized version of America and a new gilded age country in which the 1% are always the winners and, tax cut after tax cut, there is invariably ever less funding for peripheral matters like schools or infrastructure. It's been inspiring to watch the way those students and teachers grasp just how they've been confined in our society and how they are refusing to accept their places in the present scheme of things or the world that goes with them.

Today, Steve Fraser, author of the just-published book Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion, takes a look at how confused so many of us have been when it comes to the realities of class, in and out of the classroom, in an American world that seems to be growing more unequal by the moment. It's time for all of us to go back to school and learn again from this country's teachers (and students) about how that world actually works. Tom

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Class Dismissed
Class Conflict in Red State America
By Steve Fraser

Teachers in red-state America are hard at work teaching us all a lesson. The American mythos has always rested on a belief that this country was born out of a kind of immaculate conception, that the New World came into being and has forever after been preserved as a land without the class hierarchies and conflicts that so disfigured Europe.

The strikes, rallies, and walkouts of public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, soon perhaps Arizona, and elsewhere are a stunning reminder that class has always mattered far more in our public and private lives than our origin story would allow. Insurgent teachers are instructing us all about a tale of denial for which we've paid a heavy price.

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Professionals or Proletarians?

Are teachers professionals, proletarians, or both? One symptom of our pathological denial of class realities is that we are accustomed to thinking of teachers as "middle class." Certainly, their professional bona fides should entitle them to that social station. After all, middle class is the part of the social geography that we imagine as the aspirational homing grounds for good citizens of every sort, a place so all-embracing that it effaces signs of rank, order, and power. The middle class is that class so universal that it's really no class at all.

School teachers, however, have always been working-class stiffs. For a long time, they were also mainly women who would have instantly recognized the insecurities, struggles to get by, and low public esteem that plague today's embattled teachers.

The women educators of yesteryear may have thought of their work as a profession or a "calling," subject to its own code of ethics and standards of excellence, as well as an intellectual pursuit and social service. But whatever they thought about themselves, they had no ability to convince public authorities to pay attention to such aspirations (and they didn't). As "women's work," school teaching done by "school marms" occupied an inherently low position in a putatively class-free America.

What finally lent weight to the incipient professional ideals of public school teachers was, ironically, their unionization; that is, their self-identification as a constituent part of the working class. The struggle to create teacher unions was one of the less heralded breakthroughs of the 1960s and early 1970s. A risky undertaking, involving much self-sacrifice and militancy, it was met with belligerent resistance by political elites everywhere. When victory finally came, it led to considerable improvements in the material conditions of a chronically underpaid part of the labor force. Perhaps no less important, for the first time it institutionalized the long-held desire of teachers for some respect, a desire embodied in tenure systems and other forms of professional recognition and protection.

Those hard-won teachers' unions also paved the way for the large-scale organization of government workers of every sort. That was yet another world at odds with itself: largely white collar and well educated, with a powerful sense of professionalism, yet long mistreated, badly underpaid, and remarkably powerless, as if its denizens were" well, real life proletarians (which, of course, was exactly what they were).

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Rebellion in the Land of Acquiescence and Austerity

Despite their past history of working-class rebelliousness, the sight of teachers striking (and sometimes even breaking the law to do so) still has a remarkable ability to shock the rest of us. Somehow, it just doesn't fit the image, still so strong, of the mild-mannered, middle-class, law-abiding professionals that public school teachers are supposed to be.

What drives that shock even deeper is where all this uproar is happening. After all, for decades those "red states" have been the lands of acquiescence to the rule of big money and its political enablers. The state of Oklahoma, for example, had a legislature so craven, so slavishly in the service of the Koch brothers and the oil industry, that it prohibited the people's representatives by law from passing new taxes with anything but a legislative supermajority. (A simple majority was, of course, perfectly sufficient when it came to cutting taxes.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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