Business, Conscience, and Teaching

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In counseling my children as they enter careers in society, I have urged them to give priority not only to the nature of work in a field, but also to the nature of the workers in that field. In other words, it matters little whether certain activities appeal to you, if you are not compatible with those colleagues who populate your world of professional activity. In this, I feel most grateful: Living my career among teachers and other educators has been inspirational to me.

This personal satisfaction can be largely explained by the fact that I think of educators as a subculture within the larger society. My hope is that we stand for something at variance with the norms of today’s society, something emergent and of special value that is helping create a more realized world for tomorrow. We are not needed solely for our ability to teach in classrooms and convey formal instruction. There is a larger, more indirect, and as vital a role for us as examples of this other, better way of life in our postmodern world.

I think of our minority status each time I hear our work described in economic terms. Whenever I hear the purpose of schools and teaching defined as “providing workers” and “sustaining competitiveness,” I feel wonder at how our calling can be so misunderstood and undervalued.

There is a tone-deafness in much of the contemporary discussion of society—a deafness to our humanity.

Jonathan Kozol, perhaps the most poetic of contemporary writers on teaching, comments on this theme in his book Letters to a Young Teacher. Kozol writes: “But teachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way. I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations.”

At times and places throughout history, the mission of education has been labeled a religious one, in service to God or gods; or it has been called a civic one, preparing citizens for the polis, the kingdom, the nation-state; and it has been designated in economic terms, as we so often hear today. There is a tone-deafness in much of the contemporary discussion of society—a deafness to our humanity. It is a wonder to me that any informed person would see education in such minimal terms as to designate it primarily as an economic undertaking.

This underestimation of formal teaching and learning is more astonishing because it occurs in a world so affected by nonmaterial motives. The yearning underlying humanity’s wars in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere derives from issues deeper than careers and material abundance. We observe our Western democratic societies shaken by a rage from the Mideast that is fundamentally noneconomic. In the face of these events, amateur observers of education still direct us toward the viability of our students as cogs in the national economy; they seek to box us into this pursuit by “accountability measures” that trivialize, deracinate, misdirect, and depersonalize our work.

Originally, it seemed heuristic to employ business metaphors in schools and universities. Open to new associations and understandings, we entertained the thought of students as “customers” and evaluation as “accountability.” But as time has gone by, the new symbols have for many consumed and distorted education’s original pursuit. What was heuristic, employed for expansion of understanding, has instead, in the minds of many, co-opted the essential meaning of education.

Enlightened moral action is our highest calling as human beings, and formal education aspires to inform our understanding of ethics while arousing in us the strength to act on our best judgment. The news this past fall in British Columbia, where I now live, has been replete with the story of Kathryn Sihota, a teacher who exemplified these standards by engaging in an act of professional conscience and civil disobedience when she refused—after consideration and due process—to administer an external reading test to her 3rd graders. Thus far, she has been disciplined by a letter from her school board.

The point is not, of course, whether we agree with the particulars of Kathryn Sihota’s stance. The point is that her professional conscience was definitive for her, and gave her the courage to act in the face of public disapproval, disciplinary measures, and economic risk. Essential to societies we consider “free” is the right and responsibility to engage in civil disobedience, that is, to follow the dictates of one’s conscience in nonviolent ways when called upon to do so. When our conscience is stirred professionally, though, we are summoned to an even higher standard: We are obliged to act. For educators, the essence of professional identity is the obligation to protect our students, not only from bullets or brutality, as we have seen teachers do regularly, but also from psychological and educational vandalism against their spirits. Part of this identity is also to protect the primacy of the teacher-student relationship. And this is what Kathryn Sihota has sought to do.

Such moments represent more than solitary acts. In Fresno, Calif., where countless poor and unskilled immigrants come to work and live, Silvio Manno rose from Italian immigrant and laborer to become an elementary school bilingual education teacher. His 2nd graders spoke only Spanish, yet he was mandated in 1998 to administer California’s high-stakes Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition to them in English. Believing they were too young to comprehend any rationale for this classroom activity, and that it would have damaging effects on them, he refused. Subsequently, Manno was suspended for five days without pay (later reduced to one). There was little public support for his action.

As time went by, however, the courts and the state department of education moved in Manno’s direction. Testing of this type was disallowed, and a system of waivers has been strengthened, allowing parents greater choice in such matters. If all professionals passively accepted regulations that conflicted with their considered judgment of best practice, would needed reforms ever occur?

Throughout early human history, teaching was seen as a conservational pursuit done in the name of transmitting existing knowledge and perpetuating societal values. Gradually, since the dawn of the modern era, the rise of science and rationalism, has come a new, progressive ideal for the profession that is associated with John Dewey. This concept is that education also must involve the reconstruction of experience and knowledge. In other words, that a coequal goal of teaching, along with conveying the status quo, is to inspire inquiry, imagination, vision.

Educators who break the mold are often responding to this mission. Along with others in society, they have imagined equality unimpeded by race, gender, or disability, even when the laws did not. They have doubted orthodoxies about science and social science, only to be told what fools they were. They have envisioned a world without want and a citizenry of peacekeepers and river-keepers, often in the face of anger and ridicule. A spirit of hope has inspired their work, and we benefit from their wisdom.

Vol. 27, Issue 17, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: January 9, 2008, as Business, Conscience, and Teaching
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