Why do so many members of the 99% oppose the 99% movement? (Teacher’s Edition)

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, explained how conservatives have managed to enlist working Americans to vote against their own economic interests by punching their tickets for the Republican Party. By running on divisive “culture war” issues like abortion, conservatives take the focus off the fact that they are essentially screwing the working class. It has been a winning game plan for the Republican Party for the past 35 years. It is a well-known argument and Frank makes it in a compelling, erudite way. As a history teacher in a New York City public school, I have come across other types of answers to the question of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” or, more relevantly, “why do so many members of the 99% oppose the 99% movement?” The answer starts with how we explain American history to our children.

American history textbooks are known to be fact-heavy (as much as a textbook can possess such a quality) throughout most of its march through time. It is only when  one gets to the final chapter or so, the one dealing with the period of time roughly from Ford’s inauguration to the present (if you have a recent edition), that the facts become much lighter. Important topics like globalization or the environment are treated as new developments that we do not quite understand or know how to deal with. The sections on these topics tend to be long on jargon and short on specific events or important players. You do not get a chronological presentation of how this guy (or gal) did this thing at this time which led to this other thing later that these people over here got upset about, which is the norm for all the other sections. Instead, you get vaporous descriptions of how the internet brings people closer together or how business operates on a global scale. There might be a glossy picture of a computer chip or a McDonald’s in China, signs of our age. However, what you will not see are how corporations pretty much control our political system, how the media has fallen into the grasp of 4 or 5 large corporations, how globalization is built on union busting and slave labor or how Wall Street has managed to take control of 35% of our total economy. Rather, whatever is happening today is natural. Things just ARE. There is no connection with that computer chip and the speculation it caused on Wall Street or that Chinese McDonald’s and the fall of labor unions in the United States. There is no questioning of how we got here, why we got here and what it all means. Nothing that might raise the slightest moral doubt in a child’s mind is offered, like how Americans work longer hours for less money in this chapter than they did in the previous chapter. On the other hand, textbooks are careful not to extol the virtues of the modern age too fervently either. Pointing to the good qualities of something tend to get skeptical types sniffing around for the catch. This is why our wondrous modern age is portrayed in dry, objective language. It is what it is and it is called “progress”.  It cares not for your admiration or derision. It will march on, indifferent to your desires.

It is not only reflected in what is being taught but how it is taught. Those of us who have been through teacher training programs in college know that we were taught to sit kids in groups. As time has gone on the group factor in education has become more stressed, while teachers now are taught to think of themselves as “facilitators” rather than educators. The ideal model is for the classroom to be self-regulating. The teacher should hypothetically be able to leave the room without changing the tone of the class. Of course, this reflects the very corporate-inspired trend of deskilling the teaching profession, in hopes of lowering their value and their salaries. After all, if a teacher does not even have to be in the classroom, anybody can teach. However, this group work, non-entity-of-a-teacher model is a perfect reflection of a corporate culture. Young teachers are often told that group work is good for kids because decisions are made in groups in corporations, but this is not totally true. Joe Cassano at AIG Financial Services made an individual decision to start selling credit default swaps, and it brought down the United States economy. Most public school students will not go on to work for corporations anyway and those that do have a slim chance at being in any major decision-making role. So why have a generation of public school teachers been trained to educate kids for jobs they will not have?

Group work can be a fine method for some teachers. Even I admit to using it occasionally. If you have ever seen teenagers hanging out, that is pretty much what group work in school is like. One kid, through force of personality and charisma, establishes themselves as the leader. The meekest among them falls into line and, instantly, you have a plurality among the group. That becomes the nucleus around which the others revolve. Before you know it, it has happened: Group Think. This is the real impact of group work. Individuals question too much and too many extraordinary individuals have changed the course of history. Group think puts a stop to all of that. It allows kids to find confirmation with their peer group, just like looking around and seeing everyone wearing the same brands of sneakers or reciting the lyrics to the same songs. Group think is when a kid knows a toy is fun because they see a child actor having fun with it on a television commercial. We are not training the next generation of executives. We are training the next generation of consumers. In the age of the Great Recession, there is no job out there besides consumption. Since the start of the Reagan Era, very few jobs require brains at all. Consumption has been the only job worth being trained for over the past 3 decades.

Our “facilitator” teachers do us no favors either. Teachers are trained to avoid being authority figures, despite the fact they assign grades and help determine a large part of their children’s futures. Teachers are educated, some are extremely proficient in their subject areas, yet they are trained not to share any of that with their students. Adults bring children into a world created by other adults, yet adults are expected to absolve themselves of any responsibility for helping kids understand that world. And all of this is the point. There is no responsibility. Kids are being trained to live in a world where their supposed leaders take no responsibility for them. Corporations have no responsibility to them, only their bottom line. Their future bosses will not have any responsibility for them, since our economy has been based on constantly changing jobs. Their political leaders take no responsibility for them, since nobody votes and corporations pump billions into campaign coffers. But, despite the fact that nobody will take responsibility for them, somebody will always rate them. The invisible teacher is really nothing more than a credit rating agency that tracks your debts, a police radar that measures your speed, a faceless supervisor that estimates your productivity. The invisible teacher reflects the invisible mode of discipline in a corporate world.

Is it any wonder that so many members of the 99% still do not support the 99% movement? Our textbooks train us to think of our corporate age as natural. So when we at Occupy Wall Street call for a reduction of corporate power, it is like calling for the sky to be less blue. Group think instills consumerism. So when young people protest at Occupy Wall Street, it is tough to recognize them outside of Urban Outfitters. Invisible teachers instill corporate discipline. So when Occupy Wall Street looks the corporation in the face and tells it where to get off, people see it as a breach of the natural order. While the media, politicians and Republican sympathizers have all done their part to bamboozle people about what is really going on around Occupy Wall Street, I submit that our education system has also had a part in getting the 99% to oppose its own movement.

8 responses to “Why do so many members of the 99% oppose the 99% movement? (Teacher’s Edition)

  1. This is first-rate analysis David, and very well said. Thank you.

  2. Great analysis.

    However, I would like to offer some counter-examples. A lot of my friends based in GA are very liberal on social issues (they support abortions, gay marriage, more open immigration etc.), but are vehemently conservative on economic issues. They don’t want to raise any taxes, many want to “end the fed”, they want less regulation, want the “government to get out of the way” of business etc. Many are not particularly enchanted with OWS either. The only reason they hate the tea-partiers and the republicans is because they are so intolerant on social issues.

    BTW, they are all in their late-20s.

    My question is – why this dichotomy in their minds?

    It seems, to me at least, they have this firm belief that someday they will be a part of the 1% too. That is just how it is for them. May be it’s the “Secret”. May be it’s some highly intelligent manipulation by the conservatives.

    No matter how much data I show that regarding income inequality and mobility. No matter how many statistically sound arguments I make that at the current rate, their probability of making it to the top 1% is very, very small. None of that matters. They really defend the rich like they are one of them. For them, the rich deserve their wealth because they were more creative and worked harder, while poor people should quite whining in the streets and work harder. At the same time, they strongly support gay rights, abortion, immigration etc.

    What do you have to say on that?


    • For whatever reason, your comment has been in my spam queue for weeks, undeservedly so.

      I totally agree with this analysis, I do not think it is a counter-example to my thesis at all. The Ron Pauls of the world hold out the promise of more freedom on social issues, which appeals to the 20-somethings. But Ron Paul followers follow the freedom thesis to its ultimate conclusion, thinking freedom means freedom from government intrusion. This is what I mean when I say that they get inculcated with free market rhetoric via the back door and end up supporting policies that result in the inequality that you pointed out.

      It is just like the Civil War. Most Confederate soldiers fought for a slave system even though they never had slaves and could never hope to have slaves. They had bought into a system of white supremacy where the possibility of slave ownership was always theoretically open to them. It is the same idea with the 99%. We teach our kids that the current system is natural and they have the chance to be part of the 1%, even though those chances are slim to none.

      Freedom is not just freedom from. That is the negative type of freedom proposed by libertarians. They think government intrusion is the source of all oppression. But there are positive freedoms that more liberal people believe in, which is the freedom to do things like have healthcare, raise a family and generally pursue happiness . The government and really only the government can actively promote positive freedom by ensuring that large corporations do not infringe on our lives.

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  4. I am so enjoying your posts…it’s like a breath of fresh air…finally I’ve encountered someone awake! The memories you brought back to mind…part of my “U” rating had to do with my lesson being “Too teacher directed, as children learn best from one another” I digress…if I had to choose a theme song I guess it would be Eminem’s “PUKE.” The only criticism I have would be that I believe your description of textbooks is slightly flawed, perhaps wishful thinking? The other part of my “U” rating which was of course NOT included in the evaluation paperwork probably had more to do with the fact that while YOUR textbooks BEGAN with Ford’s inauguration ‘to present,’ the five copies I was able to secure via dumpster diving actually had Ford’s inauguration as the end point. Oddly enough I had this strange idea that somehow the principal cared about education and so I made the grave mistake of opening my mouth to request textbooks for students…today I am willing to confess my arrogance and grandiosity for daring to think that somehow they were entitled and deserving…and gracefully own my shame…

    • Hey Betty, thank you very much. How dare you try to actually teach! Your job is to facilitate. It has been so long since I have used or opened a textbook, it could end with the Lincoln assassination and I would not even know it. May I ask how long ago was this “U” rating? What grade/subject did you teach?

      I guess one of the good things about the school I’m in now is that they don’t force any particular style of teaching on the staff. But I remember my first school and all of the PDs we had telling us how to sit kids in groups since they “learn best from each other”. What, pray tell, can students learn from each other? Certainly not any content.

      Sorry you had to run into such a vacuous, close-minded administrator. Too many good teachers have been ruined because of them.

      • 2000-2004 5th and 6th grade back then we had three years to obtain the Master’s Degree; however, I was an alternative Cert. Candidate so I also had the 30 undergrad credits in Ed. to make up and of course the workshops and all that other ‘best and brightest’ repetitive indoctrination they subject you to. My schedule for three years as a single parent to a four year old was to rise at 5am, back then the salary was maybe 30k, so also taught after school and summer school every chance I could…I’d get home around 11pm four nights a week and of course no one just falls asleep as soon as they’re through the door, I lived in a duffel bag as the baby sitter lived in the Bronx, my classes and my residence in Queens and my job was in Manhattan…I also went to school all day Sunday from 8-4. Friday nights I’d come home and collapse in the rocking chair…Saturday did the mad dash to get things done at home, lesson plans, college coursework…it was insane. One day late in 2003 I woke up and could not move…they symptoms were like MS, discovered I had sleep apnea, it was a long journey but ended up permanently disabled. Ultimate diagnosis – Fibromyalgia, CFS and Sleep Apnea amongst other things. 911 the Principal did not feel I needed to know we were attacked until lunchtime…it was an all around sick situation and to think I actually ‘tried’ to meet their standards. I believe the job caused my disability – all the stress and the truth, satisfying the requirements in three years in addition to having a 93 percent passing rate was really not humanly possible but for so long. I ended up not really being able to walk so as an ‘accomodation’ he placed me on the fourth floor as a cluster teacher (I then had to deal with the whole student population). The school did not have an elevator but I could not just take a leave without approval. They waited 90 days to schedule me for the Medical Review, I did put my papers in; however, in that condition they decided to conduct an evaluation – I had only been doing the cluster job for two weeks and it was’t a bad lesson, much of the critique outright fabrications…Union did not want to represent me, I had to file charges against them with the EEOC as well, they still did not do anything, simply showed up told me to stay silent, it took maybe a year or so? When the last hearing took place, the principal had been pressured to retire, a NEW principal I had never worked with answered for him: “We stand by the record”…that Europe idiot was there…it was a kangaroo court but by that point cancer was also a possibility and I had nothing left in me to fight…that is why I am so convinced they are truly pathological…as in on the spectrum…no empathy, nothing and lie like rugs they do…and this is what is in charge of our educational system…I loved teaching, I loved the children but it’s a cesspool…

      • Wow Betty, have you written about this on your blog(s) at all? I don’t know how women raise children, teach and go to school in NYC. The workload in NYC is treacherous and the requirements (i.e. hoops) they make people go through now are ridiculous. I was lucky enough to get into the system just before they started instituting all of these crazy requirements to get a permanent certification. It would make sense if, after they make people work themselves to exhaustion to maintain their position, they would then treat teachers with some respect. But no, they expect people to get all types of advanced degrees and pass all types of ludicrous exams just so they can cram 40 kids into a classroom and bash us every chance they get, That is a real fun job, is it not? I’m sorry about all of the health problems it caused you. Really though, it is best that you are no longer in the system now. Principals like the new one you described are the norm now. Theresa Europe has been moved to the incompetency unit because, with the new evaluations coming down on us any day now, she will be able to swing the meat axe and ruin people’s lives which is her specialty. The system doesn’t deserve someone like you anyway.

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