There has been a long, though declining, tradition in the United States in which public school teaching was embraced as an important public service. It was assumed that teachers provided a crucial foundation for educating young people in the values, skills and knowledge that enabled them to be critical citizens capable of shaping and expanding democratic institutions. Since the 1980s, teachers have been under an unprecedented attack by those forces that view schools less as a public good than as a private right. Seldom accorded the status of intellectuals that they deserved, they remain the most important component in the learning process for students, while serving as a moral compass to gauge how seriously a society invests in its youth and in the future. Yet, teachers are being deskilled, unceremoniously removed from the process of school governance, largely reduced to technicians or subordinated to the authority of security guards. Underlying these transformations are a number of forces eager to privatize schools, substitute vocational training for education and reduce teaching and learning to reductive modes of testing and evaluation.
Indications of the poisonous transformation of both the role of the public school and the nature of teacher work abound. The passage of laws promoting high-stakes testing for students and the use of test scores to measure teacher quality have both limited the autonomy of teacher authority and devalued the possibility of critical teaching and visionary goals for student learning. Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content, at best; and, at worst, put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test taking. Subject to what might be labeled as a form of bare or stripped-down pedagogy, teachers are removed from the processes of deliberation and reflection, reduced to implementing lock-step, time-on-task pedagogies that do great violence to students, while promoting a division of labor between conception and execution hatched by bureaucrats and “experts” from mainly conservative foundations. Questions regarding how teachers motivate students, make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, work with parents and the larger community or exercise the authority needed to become a constructive pedagogical force in the classroom and community are now sacrificed to the dictates of an instrumental rationality largely defined through the optic of measurable utility.
Little is said in this discourse about allocating more federal dollars for public schooling, replacing the aging infrastructures of schooling or increasing salaries so as to expand the pool of qualified teachers. Nor are teachers praised for their public service, the trust we in part to them in educating our children or the firewall they provide between a culture saturated in violence and idiocy and the civilizing and radical imaginative possibilities of an educated mind capable of transforming the economic, political and racial injustices that surround and bear down so heavily on public schools. Instead, teachers are stripped of their worth and dignity by being forced to adopt an educational vision and philosophy that has little respect for the empowering possibilities of either knowledge or critical classroom practices. Put bluntly, knowledge that can’t be measured is viewed as irrelevant, and teachers who refuse to implement a standardized curriculum and evaluate young people through objective measures of assessments are judged as incompetent or disrespectful. Any educator who believes that students should learn more than how to obey the rules, take tests, learn a work skill or adopt without question the cruel and harsh market values that dominate society “will meet,” as James Baldwin insists in his “Talk to Teachers,” “the most fantastic, the most brutal and the most determined resistance.” And while the mythic character of education has always been at odds with its reality, as Baldwin noted in talking about the toxic education imposed on poor black children, the assault on public schooling in its current form truly suggests that “we are living through a very dangerous time.”
As the space of public schooling is reduced to a mindless infatuation with the metrics of endless modes of testing and increasingly enforces this deadening experience with disciplinary measures reminiscent of prison culture, teachers are increasingly removed from dealing with children as part of a broader historical, social and cultural context. As the school is militarized, student behavior becomes an issue that either the police or security forces handle. Removed from the normative and pedagogical framing of classroom life, teachers no longer have the option to think outside of the box, to experiment, be poetic or inspire joy in their students. School has become a form of dead time, designed to kill the imagination of both teachers and students. For years, teachers have offered students advice, corrected their behavior, offered help in addressing their personal problems and went out of their way to understand the circumstances surrounding even the most serious of student infractions. Couple this role of teachers as both caretaker and engaging intellectual with the imposition of a stripped-down curriculum that actually disdains creative teacher work while relegating teachers to the status of clerks. Needless to say, the consequences for both teachers and students have been deadly. Great ideas, modes of knowledge, disciplinary traditions and honorable civic ideals are no longer engaged, debated and offered up as a civilizing force for expanding the students’ capacities as critical individuals and social agents. Knowledge is now instrumentalized and the awe, magic and insight it might provide is stripped way as it is redefined through the mindless logic of quantification and measurement that now grips the culture of schooling and drives the larger matrix of efficiency, productivity and consumerism shaping the broader society.
One current example of the unprecedented attack being waged against teachers, meaningful knowledge and critical pedagogy can be found in Senate Bill 6, which is being pushed by Florida legislators. Under this bill, the quality of teaching and the worth of a teacher are solely determined by student test scores on standardized tests. Teacher pay would be dependent upon such test scores, while the previous experience of a teacher would be deemed irrelevant. Moreover, advanced degrees and professional credentials would now become meaningless in determining a teacher’s salary. Professional experience and quality credentials are now made irrelevant next to the hard reality of an empiricism that appears divorced from any semblance of reality. The real point of the bill is to both weaken the autonomy and authority of teachers and to force the Florida teacher’s union to accept merit pay for teachers. But there is more at stake in this bill than a regressive understanding of the role and power of teachers and the desire to eliminate the very conditions, places and spaces that make good teaching possible. The bill also mandates that the power of local school boards be restricted, that new teachers be given probationary contracts for up to five years and then placed on a contract to be renewed annually. Moreover, salaries are now excluded as a subject of collective bargaining. This bill degrades the purpose of schooling, teaching and learning. It is not only harsh and cruel, but educationally reactionary and is designed to turn public schools into political tools for corporate dominated legislators, while depriving students of any viable notion of teaching and learning. This bill is bad for schools, teachers, students and democracy. It lacks any viable ethical and political understanding of how schools work, what role they should play in a democracy and what the myriad forces are that both undermine critical teaching and critical learning. Moreover, it turns the curriculum into a tool box for ignoramuses.
We need a new language for understanding public education as formative for democratic institutions and for the vital role that teachers play in such a project. When I first wrote “Teachers as Intellectuals” in 1988, I argued that education should be viewed as a moral and political practice that always presupposes particular renditions of what constitutes legitimate knowledge, values, citizenship, modes of understanding and views of the future. In other words, teaching was always directive in its attempt to shape students as particular agents and offer them a particular understanding of the present and the future. And while schools have a long history of simply attempting to reproduce the ideological contours of the existing society, they are capable of much more, and therein lay their danger and possibilities. At their worst, teachers have been viewed as merely gatekeepers. At best, they are one of the most valued professions we have in educating future generations in the discourse, values and relations of democratic empowerment. Rather than viewed as disinterested technicians, teachers should be viewed as engaged intellectuals, willing to construct the classroom conditions that provide the knowledge, skills and culture of questioning necessary for students to participate in critical dialogue with the past, question authority, struggle with ongoing relations of power and prepare themselves for what it means to be active and engaged citizens in the interrelated local, national and global public spheres.
Defining teachers as public intellectuals and schools as democratic public spheres is as applicable today as it was when I wrote “Teachers as Intellectuals.” Central to fostering a pedagogy that is open and discerning, fused with a spirit of critical inquiry that fosters rather than mandates modes of individual and social agency is the assumption that teachers should not only be critical intellectuals, but also have some control over the conditions of their own pedagogical labor. Academic labor at its best flourishes when it is open to dialogue, respects the time and conditions teachers need to prepare lessons, research, cooperate with each other and engage valuable community resources. Put differently, teachers are the major resource for what it means to establish the conditions for education to be linked to critical learning rather than training, embrace a vision of democratic possibility rather than a narrow instrumental notion of education and embrace the specificity and diversity of children’s lives rather than treat them as if such differences did not matter. Hence, teachers deserve the respect, autonomy, power and dignity that such a task demands.
The basic premise here is that if public education is a crucial sphere for creating citizens equipped to exercise their freedoms and learn the competencies necessary to question the basic assumptions that govern democratic political life, public school teachers must be allowed to shape the conditions that enable them to assume their responsibility as citizen-scholars, take critical positions, relate their work to larger social issues, offer multiple forms of literacies, debate and dialogue about pressing social problems and provide the conditions for students to conjure up the hope and belief that civic life matters, that they can make a difference in shaping society so as to expand its democratic possibilities for all groups. Of course, this is not merely a matter of changing the consciousness of teachers or the larger public or the ways in which teachers are educated. These are important considerations, but what must be embraced in this recognition of the importance of public schools teachers is that such an investment is an issue of politics, ethics and power, all of which must be viewed as part of a larger struggle to connect the crisis of schooling and teaching to the crisis of democracy itself.
Teachers all over America now labor under the shadow of a number of anti-democratic tendencies extending from a ruthless market fundamentalism that mistakes students for products and equates learning with the practice of conformity and disciplinary mindlessness. On the other side are those anti-intellectual and residual religious and political fundamentalists who view schooling as a threat to orthodoxy and tradition and want to silence critical forms of pedagogy as well as eliminate those teachers who value thinking over conformity, teaching over training and empowerment over deskilling. What all of these anti-democratic tendencies share are a disregard for critical teaching and a disdain for the notion of teachers as critical and public intellectuals. Against these anti-democratic tendencies is the challenge of redefining and reimagining teachers as public intellectuals and the schools as a democratic public sphere, both of which provide an invaluable resource in reminding the larger society, if not teachers and everyone concerned about education, of their responsibility to take ethical and risky positions and engage practices currently at odds with both religious fundamentalism and the market-driven values that dominate schooling.
Educators now face the daunting challenge of creating new discourses, pedagogies and collective strategies that will offer students the hope and tools necessary to revive education as a political and ethical response to the demise of democratic public life. Such a challenge suggests struggling to keep alive those institutional spaces, forums and public spheres that support and defend critical education, help students come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents, exercise civic courage and engage in community projects and research that are socially responsible. None of this will happen unless the American public refuses to allow schools and teachers to surrender what counts as knowledge, values and skills to the highest bidder. In part, this requires pedagogical practices that connect the space of language, culture and identity to their deployment in larger physical and social spaces. Such pedagogical practices are based on the presupposition that it is not enough to teach students how to read the word and knowledge critically. They most also learn how to act on their beliefs, reflect on their role as engaged citizens and intervene in the world as part of the obligation of what it means to be a socially responsible agent. As critical and public intellectuals, teachers must fight for the right to dream, conceptualize and connect their visions to classroom practice. They must also learn to confront directly the threat from fundamentalisms of all varieties that seek to turn democracy into a mall, a sectarian church or an adjunct of the emerging punishing state. What the concept of teachers as public intellectuals references, once again, is that the most important role of teachers is not only to educate students to be critical thinkers, but also prepare them to be activists in the best sense of the term – that is, thoughtful and active citizens willing to fight for the economic, political and social conditions and institutions that make democracy possible. The reason why public education has become so dangerous is that it associates teaching and learning with civic values, civic courage and a respect for the common good – a position decidedly at odds with the unbridled individualism, privatized discourse, excessive competition, hyper militarized masculinity and corporate values that now drive educational policy and practice.
There are those critics who, in tough economic times, insist that providing students with anything other than work skills threatens their future viability on the job market. While I believe that public education should equip students with skills to enter the workplace, it should also educate them to contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of work and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality and respect for all people who constitute the global public sphere. Moreover, public education should be about more than learning how to take a test, job preparation or even critical consciousness raising; it is also about imagining a more just future, one that does more than replicate the present. In contrast to the cynicism and political withdrawal that screen and mainstream media cultures foster, a critical education demands that its citizens be able to translate the interface of private considerations and public issues; be able to recognize those anti-democratic forces that deny social, economic and political justice; and be willing to give some thought to their experiences as a matter of anticipating and struggling for a better world. In short, democratic rather than commercial values should be the primary concerns of both public education and the university.
If the right-wing educational reforms now being championed by the Obama administration and many state governments continue unchallenged, America will become a society in which a highly trained, largely white elite will continue to command the techno-information revolution, while a vast, low-skilled majority of poor and minority workers will be relegated to filling the McJobs proliferating in the service sector. The children of the rich and privilege will be educated in exclusive private schools and the rest of the population, mostly poor and nonwhite, will be offered bare forms of pedagogy suitable to work in the dead end low skill service sector of society, assuming that these jobs will be available. Teachers will lose most of their rights, protections and dignity and be treated as clerks of the empire. And as more and more young people fail to graduate from high school, they will fill the ranks of those disposable populations now filling up our prisons at a record pace. In contrast to this vision, I strongly believe that genuine, critical education cannot be confused with job training. At the same time, public schools have to be viewed as institutions as crucial to the security and safety of the country as national defense. If educators and others are to prevent this distinction between education and training from becoming blurred, it is crucial to both challenge the ongoing corporatization of public schools, while upholding the promise of the modern social contract in which all youth, guaranteed the necessary protections and opportunities, were a primary source of economic and moral investment, symbolizing the hope for a democratic future. In short, those individuals and groups concerned about the promise of education need to reclaim their commitment to future generations by taking seriously the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s belief that the ultimate test of morality for any democratic society resides in the condition of its children. If public education is to honor this ethical commitment, it will have to not only re-establish its obligation to young people, but reclaim its role as a democratic public sphere and uphold its support for teachers.
Defending teachers as engaged intellectuals and public schools as democratic public spheres is not a call for any one ideology on the political spectrum to determine the shape of the future direction of public and university education. But at the same time, such a defense reflects a particular vision of the purpose and meaning of public and higher education and their crucial role in educating students to participate in an inclusive democracy. Teachers have a responsibility to engage critical pedagogy as a an ethical referent and a call to action for educators, parents, students and others to reclaim public education as a democratic public sphere, a place where teaching is not reduced to learning how to master either tests or acquire low level jobs skills, but a safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students. Education, if not teaching itself, in this reading, becomes the site of ongoing struggles to preserve and extend the conditions in which autonomy of judgment and freedom of action are informed by the democratic imperatives of equality, liberty and justice, while ratifying and legitimating the role of teachers as critical and public intellectuals. Viewing public schools as laboratories of democracy and teachers as critical intellectuals offers a new generation of educators an opportunity to understand education as a concrete reminder that the struggle for democracy is, in part, an attempt to liberate humanity from the blind obedience to authority and that individual and social agency gain meaning primarily through the freedoms guaranteed by the public sphere, where the autonomy of individuals only becomes meaningful under those conditions that guarantee the workings of an autonomous society. The current vicious assault on public school teachers is a reminder that the educational conditions that make democratic identities, values and politics possible and effective have to be fought for more urgently at a time when democratic public spheres, public goods and public spaces are under attack by market and other ideological fundamentalists who either believe that corporations can solve all human problems or that dissent is comparable to aiding terrorists – positions that share the common dominator of disabling a substantive notion of ethics, politics and democracy. The rhetoric of accountability, privatization and standardization that now dominates both major political parties does more than deskill teachers, weaken teacher unions, dumb down the curriculum and punish students; it also offers up a model for education that undermines it as a public good. Under such circumstances, teacher work and autonomy are not only devalued; learning how to govern and be a critical citizen in a fragile democracy are hijacked.
As Baldwin reminded us, we live in dangerous times, yet as educators, parents, activists and workers, we can address the current assault on democracy by building local and social movements that fight for the rights of teachers and students to teach and learn with the necessary autonomy, resources and dignity. Democratic struggles cannot overemphasize the special responsibility of teachers as intellectuals to shatter the conventional wisdom and myths of those ideologies that would relegate educators to mere technicians, clerks of the empire or mere adjuncts of the corporation. As the late Pierre Bourdieu argued, the “power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual – lying in the realm of beliefs,” and it is precisely within the domain of ideas that a sense of utopian possibility can be restored to the public realm. Teaching in this instance is not simply about critical thinking, but also about social engagement, a crucial element of not just learning and social engagement, but politics itself. Most specifically, democracy necessitates quality teachers and critical pedagogical practices that provide a new ethic of freedom and a reassertion of collective responsibility as central preoccupations of a vibrant democratic culture and society. Such a task, in part, suggests that any movement for social change put education and the rights of students and teachers at the forefront of such a struggle. Teachers are more crucial in the struggle for democracy than security guards and the criminal justice system. Students deserve more that being trained to be ignorant and willing accomplices of the corporation and the empire. Teachers represent a valued resource and are one of the few groups left that can educate students in ways that enable them to resist the collective insanity that now threatens this country. We need to take them seriously by giving them the dignity, labor conditions, salaries, freedom, time and support they deserve. This may be the most important challenge Americans face as we move into the 21st century.
. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” The Saturday Review (December 21, 1963). Online: https://richgibson.com/talktoteachers.htm