I was pleasantly surprised to see Richard Levin open the American Council on Education’s annual conference with a reference to the “light in our students’ eyes” in our classrooms. Like the President of Yale, when I think of our classrooms and our students, I think of our teachers.
My first rule of management and leadership is to treat people with respect. I try to facilitate a culture where people can do their best work. That applies to faculty members. I view faculty as the creative talent on campus. They are writers, thinkers, teachers, and performers. Part of my role as an administrator is to defend them, an increasingly difficult role in our culture of blame.
Over the weekend, The New York Times Room for Debate forum asked the question, “Why Blame the Teachers?” I think it is important to stop for a moment to consider the impact that a culture of teacher-blaming has on teaching and learning and ultimately, the impact that culture has on students. Teachers cannot do their best work in an environment where they are not respected or where leaders do not create a climate in which they can flourish. Students will neither receive the best teaching nor do their best learning in a school where the teachers are not respected, supported, and flourishing.
I am a big fan of Diane Ravitch, and I highly recommend her piece in the Times series, “It Started With ‘No Child Left Behind.’” Here she refers to the history of anti-intellectualism in our country as a strong force behind our current sport of teacher-bashing. Although she is referring to K-12 teachers, I would quickly add college faculty to that virtual arena. Ravitch writes that as a nation, we are basically schizophrenic to say that we want to reform education by reducing the status and rights of teachers. This is not the way a nation with a goal of out-educating other nations goes about reforming education, unless this nation happens to be one that detests intellectuals.
In his recent review of a handful of reformist books, most of whose authors are hell-bent on destroying our current version of higher education, Peter Brooks referred to this anti-intellectualism as “a vicious know-nothingism.” So true! Not only is the current sentiment toward education anti-intellectual, it is viciously so. In “Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?,” Brooks connects the current crisis in higher education (and I would say, in all of education) to a larger crisis in society, which includes the “retreat from any commitment to economic fairness”—a commitment that I see as necessary to democracy and democratic values. Just as Ravitch writes of her anger over the current attacks on teachers, Brooks provides details of a similar attack on the teachers in our universities, where professors are portrayed as: “lazy, self-serving, interested only in sabbaticals, prizing only their own research, and profoundly uninterested in teaching students.” He ends the essay on a hopeful note, turning to Martha Nussbaum, who defends the necessity of the humanities through an argument for the necessity of teaching “imaginative sympathy.”
Similarly, I am inspired by Deb Meier, Ravitch’s coauthor on the Bridging Differences blog at Education Week. In Meier’s recent post, “Solidarity With Strangers,” she links the current anti-teacher sentiment to a current anti-public sentiment and stresses that our ability to “talk to strangers” is the foundation for democratic dialogue. She adds that education prepares all of us for membership in a common community and asks us to “imagine” a solidarity with strangers. Is “imaginative sympathy” a necessary component in creating in ourselves and in our students a “solidarity with strangers”? What would it take for us to have this sympathy and solidarity with the teachers of our children?
Our overall lack of civility toward or solidarity with strangers leads to a climate in which we can easily blame faculty members for a broken system of higher education. Sympathy, real or imagined, is not easy. It is much easier to blame a stranger than to take responsibility for the problems and work in solidarity to create solutions.
It is time for us to move beyond vicious attacks and work toward a sympathetic solidarity.
Look for Mike Brown’s response later this week.
[Note: If you are interested in following the ACE conference on Twitter, I recommend following the tweets of Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the MLA at @mlaconvention. ACE is tweeting @ACEducation, and I am at @mary_churchill.]