Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?

Andy Smarick has joined a growing sub-genre of Trojan Horse commentary across mainstream media with his Why Schools Must Safeguard Free Speech at Education Week.

Certainly, a plea for free speech and diversity of thought in education is something everyone can stand behind regardless of ideologies or partisan politics?

And that’s the Trojan Horse here because the veneer of calling for diversity of thought as a free speech concern thinly masks that this sub-genre of commentary is primarily a blitzkrieg by conservative pundits to further erode the public’s trust in education, especially higher education, and to dismantle what is left of evidence-based discourse.

I entered the classroom as a teacher in the fall of 1984, standing in the same classroom where I had taken sophomore and junior English taught by the person who would become my professional mentor, Lynn Harrill.

Growing up in this rural South Carolina town in the 1960s and 1970s, I was duly indoctrinated into a conservative ideology that emphasized tradition and a strict compliance to authority. Looking back, I can recognize that “tradition” was also a veneer for the less delicate realities that my hometown was deeply racist and sexist, as was my home.

Entering college, I was a recent convert to the reverse racism mantra that was growing just as Ronald Reagan was elected president after the relentless shaming of Jimmy Carter that allowed a country to seemingly forget the deep pit that was the Richard Nixon lesson then ignored.

By my junior and senior years of college, majoring in secondary English education, I had shaken off the embarrassing ignorances of my adolescence, mostly saved, I think, by my English professors, notably Nancy Moore, who introduced me to the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a list far too long including voices unlike the conservative bigotry of my upbringing.

I returned to my hometown to teach as a changed young man, not fully formed yet, but deeply changed. Often I had to check myself against Alice Walker’s warning against missionary zeal in her powerful The Color Purple, but I did have a mission.

With freedom of speech and diversity of thought in mind, I invite you to consider two moments from my high school English teaching career, both involved white male students and their parents—young men who in many ways reflected the person I was not so many years before I stood there as their teacher.

Early in my career, during the mid-1980s, one student submitted his argumentative essay on interracial marriage. He launched into a vigorous rejecting of marriage between blacks and whites (a recurring problem in my hometown throughout my youth and while I was a teacher there).

In those early years, I was developing my use of minimum standards for student work—as an alternative to grading—and this assignment allowed students to write on any topic they chose, but they were required to support their arguments with credible evidence.

This student’s essay was very brief, and he included not one sliver of support for any claim in the essay. I refused to accept the essay, prompting the student to resubmit with the required evidence.

The next submission, the student had essentially copied the earlier essay and added a perfunctory “it’s in the Bible” as his evidence. I rejected the essay again while explaining to him that if in fact he had evidence in the Bible to support his argument, he was required to quote and cite that evidence.

One aspect of my minimum requirement approach included that all work had to be submitted to pass the grading quarter; thus, this student knew that if the essay was not accepted, he would fail.

This stalemate resulted in a parent-teacher conference that included me, the student, the student’s father, and my principal (who had been my principal when I was a student). The father was a measured but red-faced man barely able to withhold his anger at me.

The principal had me explain the situation, which I did, and then the man interrupted, his anger slipping out some; he explained that he and his son had met with their preacher, who assured them the Bible did in fact reject interracial marriage. Although the three of them scoured the Bible for hours, he explained, they were never able to find the proof.

My principal brought the meeting to an end with “Well, I believe your son needs to find another topic.”

Several years later, probably around 1990, my American literature classes were starting a unit I taught most if not all of my high school teaching career, anchored in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” As I was handing out the essay copies, one male student backhanded the photocopy I placed on his desk onto the floor with an abrupt, “I ain’t reading that [racial slur].”

I picked up the essay, placed it on his desk with my hand firmly on the papers, and calmly explained to him he would never utter a comment like that again in my class and he would in fact read MLK. The class included black and white students, but these students also, as some shared with me, had been handed KKK propaganda smearing MLK in their churches.

A few brought me the crude pamphlets that represented about three decades ago that fake news is not a recent invention.

By holding the student to the same standard I held all students concerning the use of evidence in argumentation, by silencing a student who believed he was justified to reduce MLK to a racial slur and to refuse the curriculum I had provided—were these classrooms hostile to free speech, classrooms shutting the door on diversity of thought?

So let me return to Smarick’s disingenuous and frankly lazy argument. So many of these think pieces have sprung up lately, they suffer from circular reasoning because they tend to cite each other—Smarick leaps onto the easily discredited long-read on this same topic, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This commentary is a bit more ambitious than my student’s baseless and racist screed against interracial marriage, but it fails the credibility test in its use of evidence. Even more damning, these calls for free speech and diversity of thought seem to entirely misunderstand the concepts they claim to support.

These commentaries expose that conservatives think “free speech” and “diversity of thought” guarantee that people who have no evidence for their “opinions” should be afforded equal space to those with grounded and evidence-based positions. Their cries for both are cover for racist/sexist language without consequences.

Certainly as an educator, I strongly support academic freedom, but the classroom and scholarship are specifically seeking ways to navigate “thought” with discernment. To teach means to guide students toward credible and ethical thought, not to a lazy marketplace of ideas in which all speech carries the same intellectual weight.

Some ideas are simply not in debate. Typically in formal education, for example, the Holocaust is not taught as a debate that has equal sides between Holocaust scholars and Holocaust deniers. Some students are never exposed to those denials.

Some ideas remain in debate, but for education, even ideas in debate require credibility among all the positions expressed.

Conservative hand wringing about a lack of diversity of thought in classrooms are simply partisan pandering to ideologies bereft of ethical or empirical evidence—sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, and more.

Finally, another way to understand these commentaries are insincere is to note conservative pundits will not, however, have an honest and open discussion about the reality that free speech and diversity of thought are not about license, not freedom from accountability. They rarely discuss that some ideas have no place in discourse, that “let’s agree to disagree” is simply a way to maintain a status quo of inequity.

Some thought need not be aired, but it does need to be confronted and eradicated. When have you read those pleas from the right?

Conservatives cannot afford to support classrooms and academic settings that are about evidence-based, grounded discourse, but are not spaces for people just to say whatever they think, believe, or want.

Like my hometown, conservative ideology in the U.S. remains inextricably tied to ideologies the pundits dare not utter, bigotry of many kinds usually masked as “tradition” or “nationalism.”

Vapid arguments that education is some sort of liberal indoctrination are, ironically, jumbled efforts to indoctrinate, desperate efforts to maintain power by erasing the power of careful and evidence-based thinking, the very thing teaching and education must remain grounded in if we genuinely believe in freedom of thought.

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Equity and the Zero-Sum Game Mirage

A picture may be worth far more than a thousand words in today’s partisan political climate; consider this:

As Stephen Johnson reports about the 2018 mid-term elections:

  • Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
  • Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.

This image triggered for me an important realization about equity and the persistence of inequity. Consider next the inequitable representation, historical and current, in the U.S. Senate:

white men in senate

Stacey Jones also details about Fortune 500 CEOs that “[o]f those high ranking officials, 80% are men and 72% of those men are white”; for example:

gender fortune 500

These pie charts are important, I think, because they help us confront the zero-sum game thinking that impacts people with inequitable access to power: white men.

An equitable Senate would have 30-40 white men; an equitable distribution of CEOs would be about the same percentage, 30-40%.

So here is the trap—in order to reach equity, the current power structure must change and those with current inequitable power will perceive they have lost something substantial, something they believe they have earned. In fact, however, what they must lose is privilege, unfair advantages.

Is equity a zero-sun game? I think not, but it certainly must feel that way to those with the current status quo of power because, as the recent gains among Democrats shows, when we move toward equity of power, the demographics change, primarily with a reduction of white men.

The failure of zero-sum game thinking is deeply partisan, as Danielle Kurtzleben explains:

Exit polls also showed wide partisan gaps in views of gender. An overwhelming majority of Americans, nearly 8 in 10, said it’s important to elect more women to public office. Among those who consider that “important,” two-thirds voted for Democrats. Meanwhile, more than 8 in 10 of those who consider that “not important” voted for Republicans.

This gap suggests that Republicans attract those who perceive moving toward equity as a loss for the the inequitable status quo.

The tide that must turn is when we all can agree that equity expanding is a net gain for everyone, especially as we move toward our positions of power reflecting more closely those over whom they have that power.

Expanding Access to Voting Despite the Failures of Partisan Politics

It has been a strange journey for me as a leftwing intellectual having grown up and always living in the very narrowly conservative South.

Most of my voting life has been committed to voting against candidates, solidly rejecting Republicans who were uniformly elected in my home state of South Carolina.

I then about a decade ago adopted the pose of a non-voter, calling on George Carlin‘s and W.E.B. Du Bois‘s philosophies about partisan politics.

However, with the election of Trump, I have once again been tossed around in how I navigate a very political world that is mostly paralyzed by partisan nonsense.

Hillary Clinton was the best mainstream Republican in the 2016 election, and Barack Obama was a solid moderate—nothing akin to the socialist the Right tried to smear him as being. (Obama was no Eugene V. Debs, someone I could vote for.)

Even Bernie Sanders is no lefty if we frame U.S. politics against Europe or even Canada, and Sanders continues to prove himself tone-deaf on race.

However, Trump is a special kind of outlier, I fear, and as a result, I have returned to the voting booth where, again as I vote in SC, I had limited choices and a significant list of races where only Republicans were running.

I wasted my time, made something like a hollow symbolic gesture by voting:

2018 vote

I used a dramatic black-and-white filter on Instagram and thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I took the selfie.

So I was sitting with cycling friends at a taphouse after the elections, listening to two internationals—one from Argentina and one from Germany—talk about how ridiculous U.S. politics is.

Argentinians are required to vote, even prisoners, under penalty of fines if they fail to do so.

Germans have automatic voter registration.

In very real ways, despite the historical chest-thumping about democracy in the U.S., much of the world is more free than we are in terms of access to participating in a democracy.

My good German friend offered off-hand that he suspects he pays a bit more taxes in Germany, but, as he noted, he doesn’t mind because he gets so much more for that extra cost.

And since election day in 2018, races have become in doubt because of voting irregularities and remaining ballots counted, exposing that a significant number of U.S. citizens are effectively disenfranchised from the process.

Here then is the new paradox for me as well as my new commitment.

We must expand voting access for every eligible voter, even as we acknowledge that our partisan political system is horribly broken.

We must acknowledge that the wealthy and the privileged are voting, rather easily, and that those with the least power are most likely to be barred from voting—from the poor to the imprisoned.

Expanding who votes and the ease of voting, then, is a goal we must all seek even as we are disappointed in our two-party system and the inept and corrupt leaders it has spawned.

Let’s commit to some or all of the following:

  • Automatic registration of eligible voters, while also expanding who is eligible across the U.S.
  • A 5-7 day window for voting followed by a 72-hour embargo on election results until all votes are counted and verified. This includes no reporting on polls, exit or otherwise, once the voting window starts until after that 72-hour window ends.
  • Electronic forms fo voting—computer and smart phone voting, for example.
  • Online verifications of voting that alerts (email, text, etc.) each voter their vote has been cast and allows each voter to report irregularities.
  • Consideration of lowering the voting age to 16, possibly for local elections only.
  • Reinstate the popular vote in presidential elections and curtail gerrymandering.
  • Address imbalances in candidates’ representation of populations (see the House and Senate majorities versus a minority of citizens represented).
  • Full public funding of all campaigns, ending political donations and standardizing political ads and debates.
  • Vetting all political ads and debates for accuracy.

The ugly truth in the U.S. is that those with power and privilege do not trust or want a full democracy where everyone has a voice.

We may not be able to create immediately a better ruling class, but we certainly can create a more vibrant democracy by expanding access to having a voice for everyone.

If that goal is approached we may find that the ruling class changes for the better.

Liberal Higher Education Intimidating Students, and Other Baseless Nonsense

My lesson plans for my five courses on Monday changed in the wake of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and this headline in the WSJ: Most U.S. College Students Afraid to Disagree with Professors.

Yet another mass shooting provided a disturbing but effective entry into discussing, as the survey referenced in the WSJ addresses, the nature of political speech in classroom settings and what constitutes “opinion.”

Apparently a survey to be released soon shows:

More than half of those students (52 percent) said that their professors or course instructors express their own unrelated social or political beliefs “often” in class, according to the poll results that are due to be released next week, but were seen in advance by The Wall Street Journal found.

But unlike their professors, the young people find it more difficult to speak up. The survey found that 53 percent of the students polled often feel “intimidated” in sharing their ideas, opinions, or beliefs if they differ from their professor’s. That’s an increase of four percentage points from three years ago.

As a college professor for nearly 20 years (with another almost two decades prior to that as a high school teacher), I found this data pretty misleading.

I embrace critical pedagogy, which argues all teaching is political; and thus, I practice being transparent with students about my informed positions but reject that I or any teacher/professor can be objective, neutral.

My students all know this, and I think, respond quite well.

At my university, for example, students are solidly right of center, many quite conservative, in general, and the faculty is moderate, with many openly Republican and most taking the traditional view that professors remain objective and neutral about “politics.”

To interrogate this survey from the WSJ, I began classes by sharing a poem, “America Is a Gun,” and exploring the research on the extreme outlier statistics on mass shootings and gun violence when the U.S. is compared internationally.

From there, I asked students to consider the consequences of having guns in the home—the tension between the belief in gun ownership for self-defense and the contradictory data: “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

To step outside of the gun debate, I also discussed my own experiences advocating against corporal punishment while working and living in the South, the Bible Belt where spanking remains very common.

What these issues serve to illuminate, I think, is why the conservative versus liberal framing is deeply flawed, and often misrepresents what happens at all levels of education.

Support for gun ownership and spanking are primarily traditional values, and thus conservative, norms of American culture.

The research base (what primarily drives professor teaching and scholarship) run counter to those conservative values because the data encourage change, what is fairly seen as progressive.

As I have discussed recently, we are in an era when being well informed prompts charges of being liberal, a slur that is meant to discredit.

Many if not most people who attend college, then, will experience some levels of intellectual discomfort (my experience was pretty traumatic, in fact) as they move from provincialism to being well informed, or educated.

This process is one of change, not stasis (to be conservative), and thus, it is a sort of natural tension between traditional beliefs and progressive intellectualism.

None of us enjoy coming face-to-face with the fact that what we have always believed turns out to be wrong. In an extreme case, I was raised in racist ideology, but I had to come to terms with how all of that was baseless, and inhumane.

In a much different way than people express in popular discourse, all education is very much about moving from being conservative to liberal.

This WSJ-reported survey, however, is not that examination, I suspect, but more fodder for people who confuse “political” with “partisan” and pretend that everything is just “opinion.”

When I share with students that corporal punishment is ineffective and often harmful, that grade retention is also ineffective and harmful, and that the U.S. patterns of gun violence are rooted in quantities of guns and gun access (not mental illness, for example), I am not merely spewing my liberal opinions to brainwash America’s youth.

I am being scholarly and encouraging those students to also be well informed.

Those topics are no different than teaching the Holocaust without giving time or credence to Holocaust deniers, no different than teaching evolution as overwhelmingly established science without reducing it to a “both sides” false debate infused with religion.

Being partisan (endorsing candidates or political parties) is not a line educators should never cross, but all teaching is political and all educators have ethical obligations to be well informed—even or especially when the evidence refutes traditional beliefs that are harmful (from racism and sexism to corporal punishment and grade retention).

To be informed in ways that change your positions is progressive, and thus, a rejection of being conservative.

I am hard pressed to see our colleges and universities as “liberal” as the popular slur, especially if we place them in a wider context including Canada and Europe. And I also find the effort to suggest that a rising tide of partisan professors are “intimidating” students.

Class after class as we discussed these issues exposed what students have told me for many years: Students refrain from talking in class, mostly, to avoid appearing to be wrong in front of professors and to avoid tension among their peers.

More broadly and again having almost nothing to do with partisan politics, students seem overwhelmingly convinced that their grades are linked in some ways to how much a teacher/professor likes a student.

This, I think, is not an indictment of too much partisan politics by teachers/professors but of the culture of grading that does more harm than good for teaching and learning and a cultural distrust of teaching as a profession.

Current efforts to paint higher education and college professors “liberal,” as a slur, sit in a long tradition of conservatives seeking ways to maintain the status quo—which is of course what “conservative” means, as in to conserve, keep the same (traditional).

My bias, as a professor and a scholar, is projected in my classes, my writings, and my public pronouncements, and that bias is very clear, not something I hide or pretend doesn’t exist. That bias is toward the weight of evidence, even when that evidence refutes those beliefs and ideologies that people cling to in desperation.

In the current climate, I will repeat, to be informed, to express evidence-based positions is to be labeled a “liberal.” To me, this simply means “educated.”

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


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College campuses are far from radical

Understanding, Honoring Pat Tillman: A Reader

With a new Nike campaign including Colin Kaepernick, the Right in the U.S. cannot help themselves by once again invoking a false and offensive characterization of Pat Tillman, who gave up his NFL career for the military.

Tillman’s family has once again been forced to reject those who misuse Tillman’s name and tragic death for false conservative narratives. The truth about Pat Tillman is complex, but that truth is not hard to find.

Here, then, is a reader to help those who genuinely wish to honor Tillman:

 

Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.