Tag Archives: Politics

What IS the Common Core?

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

Here is an admission I am loath to make: I do not know what the Common Core State Standards are.

I have read them. Not only have I read the parts relevant to the grade and subject I teach, I have been slogging my way through the entire thing as well. I have read the blogs and the papers and the speeches. Not only have I been interested in how the CCSS might impact my classroom, I have been interested in how it was conceived and adopted. All of these elements, combined with its purported aims, constitutes what the Common Core is.

There are people, very intelligent people, who speak about the CCSS strictly in a vacuum. They look at its content and judge its merits based strictly on what is in black and white. Our old friend Leo Casey did something along these lines recently in his latest post on the Shanker Blog. Overall, Leo is in favor of the CCSS because he believes it has the potential to help equalize the quality of schooling across districts. His major bone of contention is with the way it has been implemented so far which, in his opinion, has been too much and too fast. Along the way, he labels some of the most vocal opponents of the CCSS as cranks and conspiracy loons. He quotes people who he dubs “fringe” characters on both the right and the left as a way to contrast them with the reasonable center who accept the merits of the CCSS, a center which he assuredly occupies.

For example, Mercedes Schneider is a conspiracy theorist because she has written articles that trace the money fueling the CCSS movement. Leo does not necessarily refute what she, or any of the “cranks” he quotes, actually say. Instead, he infers that these people are caught up on irrelevancies that merely distract us from the task at hand, and the task at hand is figuring out how we can use the Common Core to erase over 200 years of educational inequality in the United States. As a student of rhetoric, I do appreciate and respect what Leo Casey set out to do in his piece. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would make the likes of Roger Ailes over at Fox News proud indeed.

Yet, it is not just Leo Casey who attempts to put a velvet rope around the content of the Common Core. I have been in meetings with teachers, administrators and even savvy parents who get into hair-splitting discussions over the letter of this or that particular standard. However, the way my mind works will not allow me to separate what is in the CCSS from how it was conceived, ratified and implemented. To me, all of these things are what Common Core is.

The Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Common Core is its mission statement:

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Like many things that pass themselves off as “school reform” in this day and age, the assumptions that lie underneath this statement are downright reactionary. The goal of public schooling is to prepare students for “success in college and careers” so that we can “compete successfully in the global economy.” In this view, our schools are not so much civic institutions as they are places in which to develop the nation’s human capital. They are places that cater to the needs of the marketplace rather than promote the free association of citizens in a democracy.

After reading the mission statement, one can either turn the page forward to learn about the standards that are necessary to keep America economically competitive or turn backward to learn about the interests that have concocted and promulgated such a mission for our schools. For those who are interested in the former, you can immerse yourself in the Common Core State Standards by clicking on the link to its website. For those interested in the latter, you can read the accounts of people far more erudite than me.

Leo Casey does mention the abortive movement in the 1990s to implement national standards for our schools. American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker had been a major proponent of national standards as a way to equalize the quality of education for all students while also introducing a new form of accountability for school districts that had long neglected their most underserved children. In this he was joined by several progressives who wanted so-called Opportunity-to-Learn Standards whose goal was to de-link property taxes from school districts. Instead, school districts would be funded equally across the nation. Proponents of OTL believe that raising standards must be accompanied by providing more resources to poorer school districts. In the end, the national standards movement of the 1990s was defeated in Washington mostly by Republicans who saw it as a violation of federalist principles.

While many Republicans still oppose the Common Core on the same grounds today as they did in the 1990s (Leo Casey labels all of these Republicans “Tea Partiers”), enough leaders of both parties support it so that it has become a reality in 45 states and the District of Colombia. So what changed between the 1990s and today?

The first thing that changed was our president. While the Clinton Administration was toying with a program that would merely foist national standards on the states, the Obama Administration came up with a scheme that helped many states’ rights advocates overcome their compunctions about violations of federalism. That scheme is Race to the Top and it has worked by tying federal funding of public schools to participation in, among other things, the Common Core.

The second thing that changed was that the Common Core is a completely different animal than Opportunity-to-Learn Standards. Common Core aims to raise standards without even hinting at equalizing resources across school districts nationwide. It does not leave itself open to shrill denunciations of “socialism” from the right like OTL did. Politically, it plays well with a certain segment of the population that not only abhors so-called “socialism” but also believes that “those” children who go to public schools have been coddled for far too long. Instead, all “they” need is a swift kick in the pants so they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No excuses.

Third, the litany of textbooks, exams and other classroom “resources” aimed at getting schools ready for the CCSS has been a boon to the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons of the world. It is another case of public dollars flowing into corporate pockets. This sits well with politicians on both sides of the aisle, since many of those bucks will eventually come back to them in the form of campaign contributions. It is a win-win if you are a politician or a publisher, lose-lose if you are anyone else.

Finally, faux progressives of the 21st century like Barack Obama and even Leo Casey himself can freely support the CCSS whilst brandishing their progressive credentials. Leo Casey makes much of the idea that the Common Core will help bring some form of equality to public schooling.

It is a curious equation. By mandating that all teachers in all schools teach to the same “standards”, teachers will somehow magically do so, accomplishing equality of education for all. It does not matter that the standards are generally nebulous. It does not matter that school budgets are shrinking. It does not matter that childhood poverty is out of control. It does not matter that our children’s brains are pickled in pop culture, Facebook and text messages for most of the day. A few black and white standards will do the trick. The Common Core is the “no excuses” mantra writ large. It is an expression of the vapid “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” trope that has been used to avoid serious solutions to inequality for the past four decades.

Yes, I am loath to admit that I do not know what the Common Core is. However, I know what it is not. It is not a recipe to bring equality to schooling in America. It is not a way to make participation in our democracy easier. Leo Casey accuses the critics of Common Core of ignoring its content in favor of tinkering around its edges. Yet, it is Leo Casey and the rest of the Common Core’s supporters who are tinkering around the edges. A focus on the content of the Common Core State Standards turns our gaze away from the material issues of poverty and inequality that have been proven, time and again, to be the biggest determinants of “success” in school and the job market. Any type of school “reform” that ignores these material issues is not really school reform at all.

As far as what the Common Core is: it is much more than the sum of its parts. Aside from being a list of standards for different grades and subjects, it is also a political program that helps Democrats pass themselves off as progressives and Republicans as friends of market-based school reform. It enshrines in law the idea that schools are nothing more than factories for human capital whose widgets exist to serve the imperatives of corporations. It is an exercise in self-serving lip service for the likes of David Coleman and Bill Gates who believe that standards can be raised without the messy work of raising material conditions.

I might not know what the Common Core is, but I do know that it is impossible to understand it without examining its antecedents.

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What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.

A GENERAL STRATEGY?

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Two of the keys to victory in this amorphous war over public education are being religiously practiced by the progressive Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The first key to victory lies in their website. Every paragraph is festooned with reformy language. Their aims seem to be indistinguishable from those of Students First or any other privatizer-friendly “research council”. By speaking in glittering generalities in order to hide their agendas, the reformy crowd has thrown out the rope by which they will eventually hang.

Everyone is for “improved outcomes” and “bridging the achievement gap”. The incessant need for reformers to assure us of their genuine desire to accomplish these things have made these terms tropes with no real meaning. Any group, organization or movement can slip snugly under the covers of this rhetoric to hide their own respective agendas.

The public has become so accustomed to these terms that no organization who hopes to truly affect education policy can afford to not use them. “Closing the achievement gap”, for example, is an idea that a deft rhetorician can use to mean equalizing resources among all schools around the country, just like the reformers usually use it to mean boosting test scores.

In the end, all it really takes is for us to repeat and aver the purity of our intentions  using these terms as frequently as the reformy crowd.

Of course, this rhetorical approach should be coupled by truly progressive action. Annenberg recently kicked off an initiative called A+ NYC aimed at lobbying the mayoral candidates in the name of what parents want for public schools. They recently sent a battered school bus around the city to reach parents who wanted to share their voices.

Not surprisingly, the biggest concerns turned out to be the disappearance of extracurricular activities and over-reliance on testing. This is a far cry from the manufactured clamoring of parents for more charter schools. It goes a long way towards explaining why Eva Moskowitz and her ilk have to get signatures of out-of-district parents to petition for charter schools.

What really needs to be done, and what Annenberg seems on the verge of suggesting, is the creation of the idea of parents as voting blocs. Parents are used to having their names invoked whenever one group or another wants to push some sort of privatization or censorship. Yet, they have never truly been framed as a voting bloc.

A voting bloc needs to be united behind at least one common idea. For parents, “great schools” are not enough, since that is a trope and not an idea. This is where the reformers fail and from whence the next great school movement has to start. Parents as a voting bloc must be connected to the idea of a “better school day”. An idea like this, on which the Chicago teachers put their fingers during their strike, is general enough to unite a wide swath of parents while having enough specific connotations to mean something.

And these specific connotations would be decidedly at odds with the reformy agenda. Instead of equalizing “outcomes”, the focus needs to shift towards equalizing resources. What will be important is what we as a society put into the schools, not what we can get out of the schools in terms of trained labor, higher test scores and no-bid contracts.

Who would be able to argue against an idea that wants great schools for all children?

Discarding the vapid terminology utilized by the reformies is a mistake. Instead, true public school advocates have to flay the reformer beast and walk around wearing its skin.

THE LEGACY OF LYNDON JOHNSON

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

Lyndon Johnson, the last truly homespun president.

It was announced over the weekend that Robert Caro has won yet another literary award, this time for the fourth and latest volume in his majestic biography of Lyndon Johnson entitled The Passage of Power. It covers Johnson’s non-campaign in the 1960 Democratic primaries through those first heady months of his presidency. Even though I bought the book the day it came out, I did not start reading it until last week. I have had a fascination with Lyndon Johnson before I started devouring Caro’s volumes. Caro’s work has served to deepen my fascination and understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial presidents.

Being born in the post-Vietnam era, I never inherited the knee-jerk hatred that many Americans from the previous generation seem to have for him. It is a shame that the Vietnam War will follow Johnson’s legacy throughout history, even though it is a shame that Johnson brought upon himself. Scared to death of looking weak in the face of what he perceived as communist aggression, Johnson  was the president most responsible for leading the nation into the war for which the term “quagmire” seemed to be coined.

Looking at Johnson’s pre-presidential career, it seemed unlikely that a war for independence halfway around the globe would be the thing that ended up destroying him. Born in the Texas Hill Country in 1908, Lyndon’s focus had always been local. Whether local meant rural Texas, Capitol Hill or the United States of America, matters of foreign policy rarely ever drew his attention. Maybe this was the problem. He was so domestically focused that he was ill-prepared to deal with Cold War geopolitics when forced to do so as president.

His father was once an important man who had fallen from grace and died penniless. Word got around the Hill Country that Old Man Johnson was a failure.  Lyndon, by all accounts, very much resembled his father physically. For his entire life, he strove to ensure that he did not end up resembling his father in any other way. He was going to be somebody. He was going to be the President of the United States, not a failure. Ambition would be the driving force of his entire life, but it was by no means the only driving force.

The Hill Country was not only cruel to his father. It was a large pocket of rural poverty and backwardness where most people lived as they had since the 19th century. It was one of the last places in the United States to have electricity. Johnson had seen how poverty affected his neighbors. During his brief stint as a teacher of children of Mexican migrant workers, he had seen up close how poverty affected people of other races as well. He would take these experiences with him throughout the rest of his life. If he ever got the chance he was going to do something to help people in need, no matter their race.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he idolized Franklin Roosevelt. He came of age when FDR just started implementing his New Deal, the first real effort by the federal government to help people who had fallen on hard times. When the opportunity to be part of the New Deal presented itself, Johnson jumped at the chance. It was his involvement with the federal programs of the New Deal that helped him cut his political teeth. Few politicians in American History have cut their teeth so well and so successfully.

It was not only the New Deal that drew Johnson to FDR. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. More than any other president, he was able to be all things to all people. Running in his first presidential campaign in 1932, FDR promised a “New Deal for the American people”. History now shows that FDR did not really have much of an idea of what this would mean. However, to a country wracked by the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced, a “New Deal” sounded pretty good. Roosevelt was convincing because he knew what people wanted to hear. Johnson would take these lessons with him too, much like he took with him the lessons of the Texas Hill Country. It was Roosevelt after whom Johnson tried to pattern himself by using his initials LBJ. While tuning up for his abortive presidential campaign in 1960, he would tell his aides “it’s important the people start thinking of me in terms of initials: LBJ, FDR, LBJ, FDR, get it?”

It is little wonder then that FDR took a shine to LBJ. If they were peas in a pod it was because Johnson was making the effort to be so. His relationship with Franklin Roosevelt helped propel him into national elective office. He spent several years in the House of Representatives where he forged an alliance with Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn would be one of the most powerful men in the United States, certainly the most powerful southern politician and the most important ally in Lyndon Johnson’s career.

LBJ spent 12 years in the House of Representatives but it was in the Senate where he forged his reputation as one of the shrewdest politicians in the United States. Shortly after he was elected, LBJ strolled into the Senate chamber after hours to look over his new work place. He muttered the words “it’s the perfect size”. As a Representative, Johnson was one of a crowd. As a Senator, he was part of an elite club. More importantly, the Senate was small enough for him to work his powers of persuasion. He could hit Senators one-on-one with the “Johnson Treatment” until he got the votes he needed.

Johnson was a tall, lanky fellow. He would always be impeccably dressed: tailored suits, hair slicked back, “LBJ” cuff links glistening in the light. That is why when he cornered a Senator, leaned his face into theirs and threatened, promised, flattered or cajoled, the Senator would usually give him what he wanted. This was the “Johnson Treatment”. Thanks in part to this tactic, Johnson would go on to be the most powerful Senator in the United States.

In a very short time he would be the Senate Majority Leader, gathering into that job powers that it had never seen before. LBJ would say “power is where power goes” and he certainly knew which people held the power. To the men of the Beltway who could do him harm (or favors), he was sickeningly obsequious.  To men and women who he did not need or who needed him, he was sickeningly rude. Stories of LBJ treating his staffers, and even his wife, with cruelty have become legendary.

Like when his wife, Lady Bird, would host parties for the Washington elite. Johnson would have no problem ordering his wife around like a maid, yelling out “Biiirrrrddd” in a high-pitched voice very much resembling a “Suey” call on a hog farm. It caused Bird a great deal of embarrassment and indignity to the point where many Washington wives pitied her.

Then there are the times when he would require staffers to take dictation while he was sitting on the toilet. He would open the door to the bathroom, lean his face out so a staffer could see him and then motion the staffer over with a “come here” motion of his index finger. All the while his face would be stone cold, letting the staffer know he was indeed serious. It was a way to test their loyalty, as well as test how far he could push his subordinates before they would push back.

Even around men of power he could be incredibly crude. At state dinners, where foreign dignitaries would dine, he would scarf down his food, let out a loud belch and leave the table all in the course of 10 minutes without saying a word. As majority leader, when his seat was in the front of the Senate chamber so that everyone could see him, he would turn to them and administer his eye drops in the most histrionic fashion possible. Or, with his back to them, he would dig out his wedgies and scratch his butt in the same dramatic way. When swapping tales of womanizing with his fellow Senators (LBJ had several extra-marital affairs), he would often brag about the size of his penis, saying things like “Old Jumbo sure got a workout last night.” He was caricature of himself on the Hill.

It is amazing that a man like this ever became president. Of course, it almost never happened thanks to his ill-conceived run at the Democratic nomination in 1960. He ended up accepting the Vice Presidential nomination when it was offered by John Kennedy, even though he disliked Jack and absolutely hated his brother Robert. However, in LBJ’s calculations, the Vice Presidency was the best road to the White House. Without it, he would have to wait another 8 years and probably run against men who had been in the national spotlight more than him. With it, he would be in the national spotlight himself and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, although nobody expected the young Jack Kennedy to die in office.

His 3 years as Vice President were probably the most miserable of his career. JFK surrounded himself with Harvard-educated men who had no use for the homespun LBJ. They gave him the unflattering nickname of “Rufus Cornpone”, made fun of him behind his back and isolated him from most of the important decisions. For his part, LBJ had no use for them. Before the election, he said that JFK was not a man’s man, which was one of the worst insults LBJ could throw at someone. He saw JFK’s inner circle in general as a bunch of spoiled brats who had everything in life handed to them.

And then the impossible happened. The young president was shot dead in Dallas. All of the sudden, Lyndon had the job he had always wanted, the job that meant he was a somebody. He had beaten the odds by becoming the first truly southern president since Zachary Taylor, and the first from the state of Texas.

The rest is history. He deftly attached himself to the dead president’s legacy by using his ample parliamentary skills to get JFK’s programs pushed through Congress. Part of this program was enacting the first substantial civil rights law in 100 years, a law that went on to become one of the crowning achievements of the entire Civil Rights movement. The biggest irony of all was that it was done by a southerner, one who never had a good reputation in liberal circles. His actions led to the biggest political realignment of the 20th century. Southerners bolted the Democratic Party for good. Minorities, liberals and other northeasterners would forever hitch their wagon to the star of the Democratic Party. Much of what we take for granted in the political world today is a direct legacy of President Lyndon Johnson.

Then, when running for election in his own right, he trounced Barry Goldwater. Sure, Goldwater was seen as a reactionary and ran one of the worst campaigns of any presidential candidate ever. But Johnson deserves credit for running a great campaign, one that included a television ad that set the standard for all future presidential campaigns:

Johnson went on to win in a landslide, the first elected president from Texas, the first elected president from the south since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

With Johnson reaching the height of his ambition, and with new elections another 4 years away, he was able to give reign to his sense of justice. He declared a War on Poverty and promised America that he would help lead them to a Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid are direct descendants of this promise. LBJ expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (what would be known as “welfare”) through expanding the rights of poor people. He hired a Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, to head up a War on Poverty. Federal funds started flooding the poorest areas of the nation. The idea of community control allowed these areas to spend the money as they saw fit. Not since the New Deal had the federal government gone to such lengths to help the most downtrodden people in America.

If Johnson’s life taught him that the federal government had the ability and the duty to help the poor, it also taught him that he needed to keep the rich and powerful on his side. Johnson was a friend of big business  and big business had been lobbying the government for years to institute meaningful immigration reform. They wanted to rewrite many of the laws that had closed off the borders since the 1920s. Johnson gave them the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened America to an extent not seen since the late 1800s. Unions had been fighting this type of immigration policy for decades out of fear that it would lower wages. Business had been fighting for this policy for the same reason. The law would end up being the Rosetta Stone for the New Democratic Party, one less reliant on labor unions, more compliant with the whims of big business and anxious to brandish its liberal credits by fighting for “diversity”.

All of these things would be overshadowed by Vietnam. Johnson had lived through McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had seen how being “weak” on communism both destroyed political careers and led to international embarrassment for the United States. When the forces of Ho Chi Minh seemed poised to take control of Vietnam, both north and south, LBJ was determined to prevent it from happening. Using his skill at getting Congress to bend to his whim, he got them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) which gave him full control over the U.S. response to the Vietnam conflict. When asked by his advisors if America was able to fight a war on poverty at home on top of a war against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, LBJ responded “we’re America, we can do it all.”

This quote, more than anything else, represents the type of optimism permeating the United States since after World War II. LBJ was expressing the common assumption at the time, one that put stock in both the righteousness and omnipotence of America’s role in the world.

And it is a shame that this quote, more than anything, signaled America’s pride before the fall. Johnson started his presidency like a house of fire, making progress on civil rights, poverty and immigration. He would end his presidency in disgrace with the country mired in Vietnam, riots in every major city and a youth culture thoroughly alienated from authority. Johnson’s presidency is the hinge between America’s golden age and America’s downfall. The quote that “we’re America, we can do it all” would be unrealistic today. Our leaders would never say this now. We are living in an age of limits.

America had been able to interfere in Korea, Berlin, Cuba and a million other places without embarrassment or losing a tremendous amount of face. Vietnam put a black eye on all of this. It made the U.S. afraid of getting involved in any large-scale conflict in the future, lest the government lose credibility and another generation be bled white. Instead, the U.S. would relegate itself to small-scale conflicts with limited aims. Or, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. would expand its aims without giving away too much to the media lest they stir up opposition at home.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Americans were still poor after the War on Poverty. Civil rights leaders were still dissatisfied after LBJ’s laws. Riots broke out in every major city during the 1960s. “Black Power” became the watchword of black leaders. Native Americans at Wounded Knee were gearing up to defend their way of life and battle centuries of mistreatment. The government was doing more than ever to help people and yet people were still unhappy. LBJ, watching the riots on TV in the Oval Office, mouthed the words “what more do these people want?” It was a question that many people would ask. A backlash started brewing which contended that poverty and racism could not be solved by the government. The next generation of leaders, represented by California Governor Ronald Reagan, gained popularity on the idea that people would have to solve their own problems through rugged individualism and the market. The nanny state that took care of its people would be dismantled after the supposed failure of the 1960s.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Before becoming president, Johnson was always sure to keep his distance from the oilmen who ran Texas. He knew that he would never get elected to the White House if voters thought the oilmen had purchased him. Yet, Johnson was a fan and a friend of big business. Moreover, he never had a good relationship with labor. Labor leaders threatened to bolt the Democratic Party when JFK chose LBJ for his ticket. Johnson would slowly lead the party away from labor and towards big business. The Immigration Act was a taste of what the Democratic Party would become in the future, what the Democratic Party is today, which is a pro-business, luke-warm-to-hostile towards labor party.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

Finally, Johnson’s personal hatred for Bobby Kennedy would split the Democrats. The two men had hated each other since the day they met in the 1950s and that hatred had grown since that time. When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1968, LBJ from behind the scenes was determined to prevent it from happening. He threw his full support behind his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be seen as the “establishment” candidate (even though he had a track record just as, if not more, liberal than RFK). Kennedy, through his compassion for the poor and opposition to Vietnam, was the choice of the younger generation. The Humphrey(LBJ)/RFK split would tear the Democrats apart in 1968. RFK was killed before he could officially get the party nomination. The candidate who claimed his mantle, Eugene McCarthy, was no RFK . When Humphrey was chosen at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it led to a full-scale riot that became the symbol of the excesses of the youth movement and counterculture. Never again would young people be as involved in, or as successful at, shaping the political landscape.

This is LBJ’s legacy.

There is no telling what the world would have been like if Johnson had stayed out of Vietnam. Few presidents have possessed ambition, compassion and effectiveness as completely as LBJ. His ambition was his guide. It would be what led to his undoing, not to mention his party’s and the nation’s undoing. At the same time, if he did not have this ambition, it is doubtful he would have ever become president so he could be in a position to help right some of America’s wrongs. Maybe the U.S. would have still progressed without Johnson, although probably not as fast.

Too much, too fast, too soon, these could be the things that define Johnson’s legacy. For all of his faults, the United States has not seen a president as compassionate as him ever since. Nobody says anymore what America can do, what the government can do. Nobody says anymore “we’re America, we can do it all.” Instead, our leaders tell us what America cannot do, what the government cannot do. The Neoliberal Revolution that defined the post-LBJ era has been all about “can’t”, all about limits. Obama’s and Congress’ solution to our problems has been austerity, which is one large policy of “can’t”.

It is not at all clear that America has been better off by rejecting the policies for which LBJ stood. LBJ is a scary reminder of all that we have lost over the past 50 years.

WHAT DOES SUCCESS FOR THE UFT LOOK LIKE?

So far, this is the only seat at the table that our union leadership has.

So far, this is the only seat at the table that our union leadership has.

We saw that the New York City teacher strike of 1968 revolved around the conflict between union protections for teachers and community control of public schools. The United Federation of Teachers, in its quest to break the community control experiment, allied itself with the establishment. Since that time, the establishment has proven less and less willing to have us as house guests. It is now at the point where the establishment is throwing our clothes out of the bedroom window while we look up helplessly, begging to be let back in.

In order for our union to be viable in the future, we must repair that link to the communities we serve which was severed in 1968. It is clear that this is not the tactic of our current Unity leadership. If left up to them, we will be standing out in the cold in our underwear watching the establishment burn all of our clothes. We will continue to beg impotently to be allowed back into the house right up until the end.

Instead, repairing those ties to the community falls on the shoulders of the MORE caucus. If they can successfully do this, they have a chance of both winning some measure of leadership in the union and saving public education. How to do this is the million-dollar question.

The equation is simple. Education “reform” has gotten so much traction over the past 10 years because it is funded by the wealthiest people in the country. These wealthy people donate to political campaigns. Usually, the politician who is the best funded wins the election. Therefore, politicians bend over backwards to satisfy the reformy crowd so they can be ensured of continued campaign contributions, which ensures them of continued power.

Our union can never hope to match the campaign contributions of the reformy crowd in this age of Citizens United. What the union lacks in money it must make up for in votes. It must be able to punish reformy politicians by taking them out of power. It must be able to reward its supporters by keeping them in power. The only way the union and public education will survive is through the power of votes.

As far as NYC is concerned, this requires a grassroots strategy to engage the communities we serve. Unfortunately, those communities are being divided between those who get the “good schools” (charters) and those “left behind” in the public schools. It is certainly not the reality that charters are good schools, but it is the perception. Instead of advocating for teacher evaluation schemes and bar exams, the union should push for legislation that gives parents a measure of control over their schools. This should be a hallmark of social justice unionism.

One of the reasons why the community control experiment in Ocean Hill Brownsville failed was because the parents in the neighborhood did not vote. The politicians in Albany disregarded them without any fear of reprisal. By extension, the UFT disregarded them for the same reason.

Of course, this strategy is much easier said than done. Many of the communities in which we serve are disengaged from the political process totally. Making them engaged again would require a massive effort.

At the same time, there are communities in NYC who are somewhat more engaged. These are the communities that should be targeted first. Imagine the union pushing for legislation that would give parents oversight of the charter schools in their communities. Imagine the union pushing for legislation that would end mayoral control and empower parents to have a major say over education policy for public schools. Imagine the union being associated with measures that would give parents a true voice in the education of their students. Even if these laws fail to pass, which they are sure to do, they will at least call the bluffs of all the reformers who claim to put “Children First”.

As of now, our union has been going in the completely opposite direction. Through support of mayoral control, Common Core and Race to the Top, the union has been complicit in the progressive centralization of education policy. It has done this in the naive (and mistaken) impression that they will be allowed to have a seat at the table. And yet, despite the fact that the union has supported every measure of centralization over the past 10 years, they find themselves standing on the lawn in their jammies begging to be let in. There is no seat for us at the table after all.

Therefore, it is time for the union to hitch their wagon to the star of decentralization. Legislation is just the start. We have to knock on doors, be at community board meetings, have a presence at the Panel for Educational Policy hearings, sponsor community events, register people to vote and inform parents of their rights through both social media and printed literature. There has to be a sense that the union is on their side.

Of course, this takes a core of dedicated teachers. It requires first that the teaching force be activated. This is the stage in which MORE finds itself now. Much like our communities have been disengaged, the rank and file of our union has been disengaged as well. Unity has never had an interest in activating the rank and file. I myself never even knew that we could vote for our leadership until I became a chapter leader. An activated rank and file is anathema to Unity.

In short, MORE is going to have to compensate for decades of Unity inaction. After this, they are going to have to activate communities that have been disenfranchised while getting the enfranchised ones on their side. This requires patience. Above all, it requires pragmatism. Ideology will be MORE’s worst enemy. An irrational marriage to outdated or quaint beliefs will strangle a very promising movement in its cradle. Community means exactly that: community. The communities we serve are diverse and our thinking needs to be diverse if we wish to reach them.

In my mind, MORE has the potential to be greater than Chicago. They have the potential to bloody the nose of the reformer movement far beyond what the Chicago teachers are capable of. This is not due to any particular flaw in what the CTU is doing. This is due to the sheer fact that the NYC public school system is the largest in the country. Our thinking needs to be large as well.

Anything less will end up with us stomping out the embers of our profession while those who truly have seats at the table laugh at us.

UNION MEMBERS: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE GHOSTS OF ’68

What can we learn from the UFT Strike of 1968? How does it point the way to our future? I don't know but I pretend to in this piece.

What can we learn from the UFT Strike of 1968? How does it point the way to our future? I don’t know but I pretend to in this piece.

PART I (BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE ’68 STRIKE)

New York City was undergoing major demographic changes in the 1960s. For the previous 20 years, the manufacturing sector that had formed the bedrock of the city’s economy was being hollowed out. Jobs that employed most of the unskilled white workers of the city were moving to other states, then to other countries. At the same time, blacks from the south and Hispanics from the Caribbean were entering the city in search for those very same factory jobs. The city’s people, both white and minority, would be doing battle in a new type of economy: the service economy.

Unlike the manufacturing economy, making a living in the service sector required having an education. The city’s post-war mayors put programs in place to help people get their educations. A steadily booming economy, combined with federal programs like the GI Bill, allowed the city to invest in such programs. In a sense, this could be seen as a continuation of the old Tammany Hall tradition of providing social welfare services to otherwise underserved people. Tammany helped provide these services to immigrants, provided the immigrants voted Democrat on election day. The post-war mayors, serving in a post-Tammany New York, provided services to the children of immigrants.

These second-generation Americans were divided into different ethnic and religious camps, the two main camps being Jewish and Catholic. The education programs put in place after the war were designed with these groups in mind. They appealed to the values and sensibilities of these groups, requiring good marks on standardized exams and proof of dedication to college work. Looking back now, the city was successful in helping the children of immigrants move up into the middle class in the new service-sector economy.

On the other hand, New York’s newest minority residents were largely left out of these helping hand programs. That is not to say there were no programs in place for them. Red lining, urban “renewal” schemes and bad old fashioned racism helped isolate black and Hispanic residents in ever-expanding ghettos. While the children of European immigrants moved up into the middle class, the city’s minority population was trapped in what seemed like hopeless poverty.

By the 1960s, then, New York City was a place of upwardly mobile whites and oppressed minorities. Nowhere did these two groups converge more directly than in the city’s public schools.

Teaching had become a popular path to the middle class for these whites, especially Jews. Many of them had been educated in the CUNY system that supplied teachers to the public schools. As the years wore on, the students they served were increasingly drawn from the expanding minority population. These students, in need of an education so that they too could hope to find their way in the service sector economy, had high rates of failure, dropping out and illiteracy. Naturally, many observers blamed the teachers.

There was a sense that the teachers did not respect or understand their minority students. A clash of cultures provoked many daily tensions in schools around the city, especially schools located in the most blighted inner city areas. These tensions finally came to a head in 1968.

One of the plans for improving the performance of minority students was called “community control”. It was thought that turning over control of the public schools to local school boards would lead to an education more tailored to the experience and sensibilities of minority students. Community control was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. During the last year of his presidency in 1968, the mostly minority Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried their hand at community control of the public schools.

Right from the start of the community control experiment, the Ocean Hill school district sent letters to a several dozen teachers informing them that their services were no longer needed. The teachers that got these letters were mostly opposed to the idea of community control. They also happened to be very active in the new teachers’ union, the UFT. While Ocean Hill might not have had a need for these teachers, they were told to report to 110 Livingston Street for a new assignment. This shows that the teachers were not fired, just involuntarily transferred. It sort of sounds like a 1960s version of an ATR.

What happened next would rock the school system, the union and the city for decades to come. UFT President Albert Shanker called for a strike. In his mind, or at least his rhetoric, Ocean Hill had violated the contract. He essentially was willing to shut down the entire school system to protest a violation of the contract in one small part of the city. Shanker believed that allowing Ocean Hill to hand out involuntary transfers would set a bad precedent. The community control experiment came to an abrupt and ignominious end. Jews and blacks, groups that had been allies throughout the Civil Rights Movement, had a wedge driven in between them in NYC. According to Jerald Podair’s brilliant book about the strike, Jews would increasingly cast in their lot with the Catholics of the city, identifying themselves as “white”. Racial polarity in NYC was complete.

Shanker had flexed his muscle. The strike alienated the UFT from many of the communities they served. Instead of relying on legitimacy from community partnerships, the UFT would from now on rely on the city, the Board of Education or, quite simply, “the “establishment”. Over the course of the next few years, Shanker would win many rights for his rank-and-file. The destinies of the UFT and “the establishment” became linked as never before. In return for “the establishment’s” largesse, Shanker would have to keep quiet about many economic and social justice issues for which he had fought early in his career as a socialist.

In the years following the strike, the city was brought to the brink of financial ruin. All of the programs put into place after WWII had cost the city money that they just did not have anymore. A shrinking tax base and the unwillingness of banks to continue lending to New York City unless it paid its debts would lead to an era of budgetary belt-tightening. Indeed, New York City would practice austerity a few years before the rest of the nation. What would become a fundamental part of the Neoliberal coup of the late 1970s-early 1980s got its start in NYC.

And while everyone’s belts were tightening, Shanker’s UFT reached its zenith. Teachers would get better protections, pay and benefits while most of the rest of the city was left to fight it out in the Neoliberal world that lived by survival of the fittest. The group hurt most by this would be the city’s poor minorities. During a time when they were most in need of a helping hand, the same type of helping hand that previous groups had received, they got little more than the cold shoulder. Neighborhoods like Ocean Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx would become national symbols for urban blight, reinforcing in the nation’s mind the belief that the people who lived in these places were beyond hope and undeserving of any type of government help.

There is certainly much more to this story. However, from this we can start to pull out the lessons of the 1968 strike and its implications for the current education system in NYC.

PART II (RECKONING WITH THE GHOSTS OF ’68)

Shanker’s willingness to ally his union with management served him well in the short term. In return for being a good Neoliberal soldier, he was able to win for his union many of the benefits NYC teachers continue to enjoy. Indeed, part of the vitriol directed against teachers by the public today is the result of jealousy. You can hear it in many of the comments that are made, erroneously, about teachers: “Why do teachers get to have tenure?”,”Why are teachers not held accountable?” “Why are they entitled to a pension?” These are the words of a labor force ground down by a ruthless Neoliberal work environment, one hostile to unions and the public sector in general. Instead of asking themselves “how can I get that at my own job?” or “what’s wrong with the non-unionized workplace?”, they gain more delight in seeing others suffer just as much as they are. This is proof of victory for Neoliberal propaganda that seeks to get working people to believe that what is good for the billionaire is good for themselves or, more frequently, the billionaire’s suffering is the suffering of all of us. Americans today have been trained to “Pity the Billionaire”, in the words of Thomas Frank.

Unfortunately, the long-term implications of Shanker’s decisions have been disastrous. What the establishment giveth the establishment can also taketh away. NYC teachers would enjoy their protections as long as mayors and governors adopted a sufficiently friendly posture to the UFT, a posture born out of the union’s ability to make substantial campaign contributions. However, as time has gone on, union contributions have increasingly been drowned out by corporate contributions. Since Shanker, political leaders have seen less and less of a reason to fear upsetting the UFT. This becomes much worse if, within this environment, we get a mayor who is independently wealthy enough to not need anyone’s contribution. We have had this in NYC with Michael Bloomberg. He has shown us how easy it is for the establishment to cut off its life support for public school teachers. The uneasy alliance that nurtured the rise of the protected, decently-paid teacher has broken down.

One would think that the UFT or, more specifically, the Unity Caucus that controls it, would adapt their strategy to this changing environment. Instead, they have blindly carried on in the path that Shanker delineated 45 years ago. They continue to hitch their wagon (as well as ours) to the establishment’s star. Their justification is “well, if we don’t bend then we will be broken.” It is why the UFT supports mayoral control, charter schools, testing and other hallmark programs of Neoliberal education reform. The only problem with this is, whereas before the Neoliberals had a use for the UFT as a campaign contributor and even legitimizer of Neoliberal policies, the establishment now has absolutely no use for the UFT. That is why charters and online learning have gotten such a push. The goal is our complete destruction. The fact that our leadership continues to ally themselves with the establishment boggles the mind. They are helping guide the knife towards their own throat.

Therefore, the only other alternative is one that also might have been available to Shanker 45 years ago. The UFT has to unhitch the wagon from the establishment and start hitching it to the communities we serve. Unlike in Shanker’s day, the communities we serve today are almost entirely poor minority. Unity, not to mention every other teachers’ union with the exception of Chicago’s, have allowed the Neoliberals to beat them to the punch in dressing up their aims in the language of civil rights. The privatizers want to close the “achievement gap”, provide better “outcomes” and ensure that teachers “add value” to their students. As we know, this is merely doublespeak to mask an ongoing quest to destroy public education for good. It is the same type of doublespeak that has gotten the American worker to Pity the Billionaire.

However, the million-dollar question is how to hitch our wagons to the communities we serve. In 1968, the answer could have been to accept community control of school districts. Indeed, this seems to form part of the MORE platform. Giving parents and community members autonomy over, or at least a say in, the education of their children is a sensible approach to truly improving “outcomes” for our neediest students. At least, that is what it seems like on the surface.

Upon further reflection, community control may not be the answer. It may be part of an answer or it might not be part of it at all. Community control failed for more reasons than the UFT Strike of ’68. It failed because its justification rested on a group-oriented, tribalistic outlook about race that alienated many of its white supporters. This is the part of MORE’s platform that will cause them the most trouble. We have already seen it with the criticisms of UFTers like Chaz who fear that their social justice causes are eclipsing their teacher protection causes. Despite the righteousness of many of MORE’s stances, they will not get off of square one without the support of the UFT rank-and-file first, a rank-and-file that is still overwhelmingly white.

Furthermore, race in the 1960s is not the same as race in 2013. It is not just poor blacks and Hispanics who have been hurt by the Neoliberal school agenda. NYC schools have seen an increasing influx of Asian, Eastern European and African students, all of whom stand to lose out if public education disappears. To a large extent, these “new immigrant” groups also face tremendous poverty. With the exception of maybe Eastern Europeans, their skin colors do not allow them to benefit from the white supremacist assumptions that still undergird many of our institutions. On issues that relate directly to these students, students who represent groups that do not fit into the neat black/white dichotomy that we like to take for granted in the United States, both Unity and MORE are silent.

Community control in 2013 just might mean allowing each ethnic enclave in the city to control its own public education destiny. There can be schools for African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Filipinos, West Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Indian and so on until we are atomized into numerous cultural groups. The question is, however, do we really want to do this? This leads to another, more important question: should our union advocate for African-American causes, causes that might nobly seek to right many of the wrongs of a past with which we still live, to the exclusion of every other ethnic group?

Of course, most people would answer “no” to this question. This, then, brings up the next important question: should our union, no matter which caucus is in control, combine the interests of all of these groups into a vague “minority” platform, or do we advocate for the interests of each of these groups as their own groups? The former will cause resentment by subsuming everyone’s unique ethnic identity under an amorphous “minority” idea that might have no legs to begin with. If it is the latter, how do you balance these claims without making any one of these groups feel marginalized?

Another of the justifications for community control was that schools controlled by poor minorities would reward student behavior that the wider community valued. The values of hard-work and factual knowledge served the middle class whites of the 1960s well because society rewarded them for those traits. On the other hand, values in the minority community like peer loyalty and collaboration are not rewarded in the wider (and whiter) society. Community control would allow minority students be rewarded for the “currencies” they already brought to the table, rather than trying to force them to adopt middle class values.

Quite simply, whatever answer the UFT comes up with on how best to engage the communities we serve will have to be a “post-racial” strategy that breaks out of the simplistic black/white paradigm. This is not because racism no longer exists, since it obviously does and in even more insidious forms. This is because our understanding of race is undergoing a major shift. With the continued increase of interracial families, the lines between all of the groups mentioned above will continue to blur. Unity does not speak on race at all and MORE’s racial speech is caught in the quaint 20th century. Tribalism is and should be much less prominent now than it was in the 60s.

How to achieve a post-racial strategy without submerging all of these unique groups under amorphous rhetoric is difficult. Trying to retain that streak of ethnic tribalism without atomizing and alienating each other is also difficult.

For now, I would be happy to see my union leadership engage their communities using the language of class until a true post-racial strategy can be conceived. We live in an era when the Great Recession seems to be on a permanent low hum in the background. Poverty will continue to worsen as the economy stagnates under the weight of the low-wage jobs that the media tells us herald our “recovery”.  Failing to address issues of class continues the Albert Shanker path of acquiescence in the Neoliberal agenda.

One thing is for certain: we are still wrestling with the Ghosts of ’68. Many of the chickens from that time are now coming home to roost. Our union and our school system are unprepared for what will follow, since what will follow will be new and different. The quaint handles we use now, handles that were devised in the days of Albert Shanker, are just not going to cut it anymore.

Examining the ’68 strike shows us why so much has gone wrong over the past 20-30 years. Learning its lessons will show us what strategies and handles are useless for us now in 2013. Although it will not give us solid answers as to what needs to be done, it will perhaps point the way towards where an answer might start to be built.

THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

Most people are just doing their jobs.

Most people are just doing their jobs.

If you have ever taught in New York City then you know who the School Safety Agents are. They are the men and women dressed in police-like outfits who patrol the hallways, oversee dismissal and are generally there to protect the safety of students and staff. I used to work alongside many SSAs during my days as a dean and I still have an appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.

The SSAs are part of the New York City Police Department. Because of this, they have wider latitude than teachers or deans to physically restrain students who are acting violent or threatening. However, they have much less latitude than police officers and must take extra care to respect the civil rights of students. They are in a tough position. On one hand, they need to maintain the aura of authority figures. On the other hand, they must earn the respect of the students in order to do so. This latter imperative usually causes some teachers to criticize SSAs for being too chummy with the students. It is a rare occasion when an SSA has a reputation for being too strict, although it does happen from time to time.

There was one particular SSA at a school in which I worked who was kind of strict on yours truly. I would even go so far as to say that his behavior towards me was downright rude and unprofessional. As far as his reputation with the students or other teachers was concerned, I haven’t the foggiest idea. All I know is that this man tested the limits of my patience.

One of my many nasty habits is cigarette smoking. All schools have a de facto smoker’s corner somewhere outside where teachers congregate to indulge their two favorite habits: nicotine and complaining. While it is unhealthy to blow cigarette smoke, it is pretty healthy to blow off some steam. I justify it by thinking the two balance each other out. The teachers at the school were vigilant about going to an inconspicuous place where they wouldn’t be seen by students. During those times when there were no students around, I went around the corner to catch up on my text messages and emails while inhaling yet another cancer stick; menthol 100s of course. This had been a thing of mine for as long as I could remember and I couldn’t imagine who I might have been harming aside from myself.

Yet, somehow, a new SSA at the school informed me that this was not the place to smoke. He approached me while I was indulging in the filthy habit and said he was at a “training” recently which taught him there should be no smoking anywhere near the school. Whether this applied to just staff or any random person I did not know. Rather than make a thing out of it, I dutifully took my business elsewhere without giving it another thought. In fact, I followed his directive for several days thereafter even when he was not around to enforce it.

That all changed one day while going out to grab a late lunch. My path took me right by my old smoking spot, the one the SSA said was not a smoking spot. I saw him standing there chatting it up with the head custodian, who just happened to be smoking at the time. Whatever the topic of their conversation was, it certainly was not about how the spot in which they were both standing was off-limits to smoking. I could tell this by the hearty laughter that punctuated their conversation. They were doing everything short of slapping each other’s backs. I thought to myself, ok, maybe the smoking ban was lifted just for the moment they were standing there. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect for the time of day I happened to be caught. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect just for me. Whatever it was, the parameters of this smoking ban were bizarre indeed and riddled with loopholes. The next day, I decided to reclaim my spot.

About a week or two after the smoking ban, I once again happened upon my favorite SSA. This time, I was heading out to grab a fast lunch that I could bring back to the building to eat while catching up on piles of grading. Teachers have this weird tendency to plan out every minute of their prep time. I used to have to schedule bathroom trips lest I forget and be stuck in a classroom for the next three periods. The relative productivity of my day usually depends upon getting the annoying stuff out of the way (eating, bathroom, correspondence [w/smoking], etc.) so I could focus on planning and/or grading.

To that end, I decided to avoid the crowds of students, who were meandering out to lunch through the front exit, by slipping out through the side doors which were usually free of traffic. Despite the relative ease of getting to this exit, I rarely used it because the doors opened out into a very narrow street. Any bystander walking along outside could get a face full of steel unless I slowly inched the door open to let them know I was coming.

As I was walking down the stairs, I saw our SSA standing on the landing between the second floor and the exit which was my destination. I said hello as I passed him (to which I received his usual non-response), reached the bottom of the stairwell and, just as I pushed on the iron bar to make my exit, he says “nobody is supposed to go out through that exit.” I thought to myself, gee, it would have been nice if you told me that before I reached the bottom of the staircase. Maybe you could have worked that into the conversation after my “hello” to you. I said to him “I thought you were standing there to make sure the kids didn’t cut out of school through this exit”, to which he shook his head “no”.

Now, after the earlier smoking controversy, I saw this man’s directives as mere suggestions. I certainly was not about to run back up the stairs so I could exit through the crowded lobby and fail in my mission to get back in time to get some serious grading done. Furthermore, I never knew it to be school policy for the exit in question to be off-limits to staff. So, I inched the door open and made my escape.

I started thinking about that last “no” he said to me. If he was not standing there to ensure that students did not cut out of school, does that mean he was stationed there to stop staff from exiting? Was he standing there to make sure people from the outside did not sneak their way in? The latter was sort of an impossibility, since the door could not be opened from the outside due to the fact that it automatically locked, had no handles and weighed around half a ton. As a former dean, I am sensitive to the need for a school to have secure exits locked to the outside world. That is why I was always sure to fully close the door behind me on the few occasions I used that exit. I would lean my entire body weight on it, listen for the thud that told me it was locked and did some quality control by trying to open it up again, to no avail.

Whatever his reason for being stationed on that landing, he obviously took it quite seriously. At the next staff meeting, the administration told us that we should avoid using that exit. Our SSA had obviously saw my exiting as a transgression serious enough to inform my superiors. Whether or not he mentioned me by name to them is still unclear. Perhaps his total lack of interest in me as a human being was my saving grace in this instance, since he most likely didn’t know my name.

Sure, both of these run-ins with this SSA were pretty petty. Despite the fact that he committed one of the cardinal sins of the schoolhouse by snitching on me, I still had the ability to swallow my pride and try to smooth things over with him. However, a few weeks later, we took one step further away from doing that.

I have a very strict bathroom policy in my class. Each student receives a certain number of bathroom passes each semester. They know not to burn them unless they have an actual emergency. Of course, allowances are made for students with medical conditions. All told, between the months of September and June for all 150 of my students, there are no more than 20 instances of students leaving my classroom for any reason. In short, it is a rare occasion that you will catch any of my students in the hallway.

Yet, it is simply unavoidable in some cases. One day, one of my bright freshmen was not her chipper, participatory self. She had a sullen, ashen look on her face. Around 15 minutes into the period she asked to go to the bathroom. I could tell this was an emergency, so I told her to just go without worrying about looking for and filling out the bathroom pass. This was the only time this student ever left my room.

No more than 5 minutes later, our favorite SSA returned her to class and said to me that she was “walking the halls” with her friend. I had never known this girl to be a hallwalker. If she was in fact walking the halls with her friend, then I was inclined to believe it was pure coincidence. Perhaps she just bumped into someone she knew on her way back from the bathroom. In order to verify this, I asked the student if she had made it to the bathroom. She said she did. At this point, the SSA told me that I needed to give her a pass if she was to leave the room. This is the type of dressing down that adults are just not supposed to do to other adults in front of students. It does not matter if it is an SSA, teacher or administrator, it is unprofessional to admonish a colleague in front of students. Besides, hadn’t I earned the benefit of a doubt after years of not ever producing any hallwalkers from my room? Surely if someone from my class was “walking the halls”, there is a reasonable explanation. The most likely explanation is that the hallways are the only path from classroom to bathroom. There is no other way to reach the bathroom except through the halls. Case closed.

I really never found out what this SSAs shtick was. He was transferred to another school shortly thereafter. Whenever I think of him, I think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In short, you give someone a role, especially a role with a little power, and they will likely use it in all types of creative, malicious ways.

The other thing I think about is the movie Idiocracy. In a future where the world is as dumbed down as humanly possible, the police know nothing more than how to bark out simplistic orders and blast people with pepper spray. It can be argued that Idiocracy is already here. During my time at Occupy, I saw first hand many officers who had no affect and seemed to know nothing more than how to bark out the same order over and over again.

However, these seemingly trivial run-ins with a seemingly trivial person had me reflect on some serious lessons. Every year I take a class period to tell my students that my goal as their teacher is to develop their sense of humanity through the study of history. The school system would like me to play the role of a transmitter. It not only places me in a position to transmit the knowledge it wants me to pass down, it places me in a position to transmit a certain set of values.

It wants me to tell children that the harder they work, the more rewards they receive. It wants me to transmit the value that success means making money. It wants me to transmit the value that the goal of education is so they can go on to be the type of workers our corporations want to hire. Through these values, students will learn that hard work will eventually get them much success, which means money. The further implication of this is that those who have money now must have worked hard for it. The wealthy earned their keep and are entitled to every last dime they have.

In short, the school system is designed so that I as the teacher pass on the idea that the system that exists in the world today is not only good, but natural. No other system can be imagined. No other system is desirable. Work, work, work, work with the nebulous carrot of “success” dangling in front of you. Most of us are destined to be the hamster in the wheel: working furiously but never getting any closer to the carrot called “success”. It is really ingenuous, this school system of ours. In the end, it functions as little more than a 13-year exercise in brainwashing. It makes us all complicit in our own subjugation.

The more robotic, thoughtless people exist in the world today, all the better for the system. As the great Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt described, the Nazi state was built on thoughtless, robotic individuals. Most Germans were complicit in a murderous system, yet nobody felt any responsibility since everyone was just doing their “job”.

If I want students to get one thing out of my class, it is that a combination of critical thinking and empathy helps ward off the banality of evil of which we all seem to be capable.

Sure, the banality of evil can be a Nazi official from the 1930s. Much more often, it comes in the form of that SSA watching out for smokers and hallwalkers. He is a relatively harmless example of the banality of evil. As a matter of fact, most people are relatively harmless examples of it. Their biggest crime is the fact that they are incapable of going off the script. In the aggregate, however, so many people committing small acts of thoughtless evil amounts to one gigantic, evil system.

The best type of revolution against this sytem is not violence. The best type of revolution is the slow but steady awakening of peoples’ humanity. It is the one-at-a-time awakening that shows people that life doesn’t have to follow a script. It is the type of revolution designed to reprogram the very DNA of the system by reaching its most atomic, and most necessary, constituents: our children.

This is my most important lesson for both my students and myself. I do not want to be a teacher, not in the sense that the system defines that term. Instead, I want to be an anti-teacher.