Teachers Need Renewal

As I prepare to announce the summer scholars who will be working on the political theory of Hannah Arendt with me this summer at Bard College, an article in today’s New York Times about the state of public education in the U.S. gave me pause. Thousands of teachers will be notified in June that they may lose their jobs. We’ve been here before. Yet, as I am about to engage a group of 16 educators in the demanding, and also exhilarating, thinking journey that reading key works by Hannah Arendt always entails, I am disturbed by the dire circumstances that educators and their students will be continue to face next year.

In 1958, in an essay originally published in Partisan Review, Arendt wrote about what she considered an American “crisis in education.” (The essay had the same title). Her views in that essay were, like so many other things she wrote, quite controversial: she was attacking trends in progressive education and bemoaned what she considered “the decline in standards.” Yet, however much her somewhat patrician views might be criticized by contemporary educators–as I am sure we will discuss in my upcoming seminar–with at least one thing Arendt wrote in that essay today’s teachers would agree. Arendt worried when pedagogy became its own “science of teaching in general” detached from its subject matter. The effect was to create the idea, she continued, that a teacher “could teach anything; his (sic) training is in teaching, not the mastery of any particular subject.”

Today, the effect of an attempt to economize in our schools and balance our budgets, in part, by decreasing public spending on education has led to a dangerous trend. Teachers are moved from school to school and classroom to classroom with little regard for the particular needs of the students or even the subjects intended to be instructed in those classrooms. According to research cited in the Times report, in Cleveland, for instance, one study of theme schools found “teacher layoffs, carried out by seniority, had stripped Cleveland’s specialty schools of key teachers. A Spanish-English immersion school had lost its dual language teachers; a school for gifted children had lost teachers who had special training to work with those students.” (NYTimes)

To reverse this trend will require concerted effort on the part of the public to recommit to the ideal of public education with adequate funds to enable teachers to do their jobs well. And that includes continuing to fund programs like the NEH, which provide teachers with a chance to deepen the intellectual and scholarship-based dimensions of their subjects, renewing themselves and enriching their students as a consequence.

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  • lacey

    Well said Kathy!! Well said Hannah!!

  • Eric Carlson, NEH alumn

    A very thoughtful article discussing the standardization and privatization through an Arendtian lens. Begs the question, is our public school system designed to rear millions of little Eichmann’s? http://www.truth-out.org/why-united-states-destroying-its-education-system/1302418800

  • Kathy J.

    Thanks, Lacey and Eric, for contributing your comments here.

    I noticed in the comments on Hedges article, which Eric just posted, that some objected to a teacher her quoted who represented untenrued, younger teachers as “knowing nothing.” I think as we discuss such a topic as budget cuts and what seem to be attacks on teachers’ integrity, we need to be cautious about not setting up other “scapegoats.” Arendt wrote a lot about why scapegoats of all sorts preclude our thinking more deeply about responsibility at the level of the individual, in favor of ahistorical blame-gaming.

    What do others think about this??

    Comments welcomed!

  • Matt Earhart

    Great article, Eric. It’s truly sad that the most progressive schools seem to be charter schools. But I think the majority of Americans take away the wrong lesson from this fact. We don’t need more charter schools, we need more public schools that have the freedom to function like charter schools. As a public school teacher I pride myself on the fact that I can’t pick which students I educate and which ones I refuse to educate (as many charters have this option). But educators need the freedom to educate their students based on the varied needs of their populations. We are losing a ton of great educators as a result of unnecessary and counterproductive micromanagement. In Texas, 70% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. That’s awful. Meanwhile Texas is spending millions for the creation and implementation of a new standardized test. In a time of financial crisis, Texas is actually exacerbating the problem. I do think we need to be aware of scapegoats; when jobs are on the line many teachers find themselves pitted against each other for limited positions. It’s not about young teachers v. experienced teachers (but on some campuses it has become that – with campuses in the greater Austin area eliminating teachers based solely on this criteria); this issue is about teaching and what has become a mere facade of teaching – an artificial educational community. Learning is a complicated, subjective apparatus – effective teaching follows suit. One cannot fully quantify a qualitative profession. It’s a shame that our profession is being measured as if it were a factory with an assembly line. Much of our discussion last summer dealt with a motto of “do what you can, when you can.” The current climate is making it difficult for teachers to act outside the forces of conformity. We have a choice, but I worry that many are too scared or feel too helpless to do what needs to be done.

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