Schools and Politics: Reflections on the Occupy Movement and Teachers

Intuitively the conditions of economic imbalance that have spawned the Occupy movement and the condition of school bureaucratic inertia have similarities worth taking a look at.

Currently both systems, our schools and our economy as a whole, are dysfunctional, or at least poorly functioning, in important dimensions.

Certainly one difference is that the Occupy movement, like the Tea Party, has been vocal and active, if not well organized or even coherent, while no such notable outcry originates in educator ranks. Each phenomenon, Occupiers and Tea Party, has served to raise awareness of their respective grievances, toward wealth and economic hegemony on one hand, and toward perceived government oppression and infringement on traditional liberties on the other. I am aware of no parallel insurrection on the part of teachers, unless we include normal union activity, which at best too often manages a stalemate rather than asserts an articulate agenda for change in the order.

Neither teachers nor Occupiers has established identifiable leadership and a coherent agenda. Yet the Occupiers, by their sheer gut stamina, have managed to spotlight economic inequalities that have stimulated sympathies widely in the political spectrum. Teachers elicit sympathy, because most citizens have good memories of interactions with a teacher or two, but that sympathy is moderated when the question of greater pay enters the picture as a function of higher taxes. Citizen perception that teachers’ unions put status quo protection before reform may also limit teacher effectiveness in building the kind of constituency Occupiers enjoy.

Parenthetically, Tea Party folks have elicited would be leaders, perhaps false prophets, but individuals who seem to lack the vision to articulate a bill of particulars that would resonate with other than the core faithful, despite a sustained vein in American political history suspicious of large government. Mainstream professional politicians of a conservative bent seem to keep their heads down where the Tea Party is concerned, and are reluctant to challenge Tea Party orthodoxy – when they do, they pay for it – but have also seemed either unsure how to step into vacant leadership traces, or hesitate to do so because they know their political fortunes lie in an appeal to a broader base.

The conditions that vitiate teacher professional progress and those that have left the many with a dwindling share of the whole to the benefit of the few have other similarities. The most obvious is the structure of the systems that govern each. A top down hierarchical order that is chronic throughout American public schools lacks a counter balancing teacher professional voice that might balance the power structure. Similarly, the regulatory and tax structure of our economy, as well as the political and even judicial climate of the times have served to strengthen the hegemony of corporate interests and those of wealth in general. Various brakes on these powers have been weakened, and even transfer of wealth that might balance and favor the interest of workers, and other denizens of the “99”, have been rendered less effective by successfully targeted political onslaughts from the right.

A second comparison flows from this first power imbalance. Just as one might argue that some transfer of wealth, via taxes, educational supports, and government investment in research and development might stimulate greater consumer buying power, which is the engine of our economy, so it may be true that some incubation of a true professionalism on the part of teacher cadres might counter the imbalances in the educational hierarchy and lend creative juices to the reform effort.

In both instances, the American dream is revived, economically as the middle class again becomes a viable stage in upward mobility, and educationally as schools serve more capably as a vehicle for immigrant and lower and middle economic class aspirations.

The bottom line, however, is that Occupiers speak to deeply felt and very widespread fears of the pocketbook and lack of access to upward mobility, more fundamental than any movement, teacher led or otherwise, can hope to tap into for schools. The Occupy movement may yet lend inchoate strength to chosen politicians in upcoming elections, while hope for any insurrection around school reform will take a backseat to lunch bucket issues.

In any event, my attempt to compare educational reform to the more broad and deeper instincts in the Occupy movement comes down simply to my own frustrations and those of people elsewhere in schools with our own energies underutilized, and so to a sensed brotherhood with the frustrations attested to by those in the streets and squares of many American cities.

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2 Responses to Schools and Politics: Reflections on the Occupy Movement and Teachers

  1. Zack says:

    I think there is more here than you might think. One other key difference is that the Occupy and Tea Party movements are inherently political and schools are not. That is to say, the success of these movements consists in awareness and publicity. Schools don’t have any advertisement. In a liberal democracy, I think it is fair to say the thought is that one cornerstone of such a society’s success is the idea that the public educational system should level the disadvantage that comes with low socio-economic status. It is no great leap to assume that the probability of succeeding to one’s educational potential is greater up to a certain threshold of wealth. It is just more likely that a wealthier family will provide the support a struggling student needs that schools lack the means to provide. In other words, it is a societal problem, just like the problems these movements are attempting to address.

    • schooldog says:

      Thank you for your comment.Though you are correct that the Occupy and Tea Party movements are highly political and characterized by success in publicity, I would argue that there is nothing so political as what we do with our children in our public institutions. School boards are often elected, school bonds and levies are voted on, and successful schools are at least in part characterized by the quality of the relationships they maintain with their parent constituency. Honestly, it is baffling that there isn’t greater furor from the public over the relatively low success rate in our schools by comparison with other first world nations — it is on the difference in strident political pressure that your comment is apt.
      Perhaps some clue is in the fact that the public downgrades our schools as a whole, but as a general rule are happy with their kids’ own schools. What are we doing wrong, we people of schools, that we cannot generate the kind of passion both Occupiers and Tea Party folk have mustered? I suppose bread and butter issues, fundamental to personal security, and even the American dream, inspire more vocal action. Also, the financial hegemony that Occupiers decry and the government oppression that the Tea Party fear both diminish the power of people, and so tap into a primal fear of annihilation.
      On the your second note, you are again correct that schools are a societal problem, just as overabundant government or an imbalance in riches are issues that need address. The parallels and differences between the various issues are complex and not perfect, but the comparison between them I have found useful.

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