Teaching Profession Opinion

The Feeble Strength of One!

By Deborah Meier — February 09, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Yes, Diane, we do have a few reasons for being hopeful of late. I was delighted to hear that California’s Governor Jerry Brown has spoken out about testing. I had a good conversation with him recently about early childhood. It, too, left me optimistic.

It’s interesting to speculate on why liberals are so divided on schooling issues. One consistently useful predictor of who’s on which side is their attitude toward organized labor. The shift from seeing “labor” as underdogs to “big labor” or labor “bosses” goes back a while. From World War II to the early 1980s, trade unions were all-American favorites. The Left was more mad at them, it seemed, than the Right. (I’m exaggerating.) The shift coincided perhaps with the end of the war on Communism?

The other night I found myself muttering under my breath, “and the feeble strength of one.” It took me a minute to remember where that line came from, and I decided to Google the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever.” It’s a song that’s been sung perhaps at all AFL-CIO gatherings for many years. The first verse goes:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run.
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

It seems old-fashioned now. “Feeble strength of one”? It conflicts with an equally strong message about the power of individuals to change the world. “As long as there is one, ...” I preach to kids. “You,” I say over and over, “make a difference.” Like lots of such common aphorisms—I like both. But one without the other is perhaps dangerous.

I’ve known good teachers who would tell me in disdain: “I want to succeed on my own individual merits. If I’m a good teacher, I can take care of myself. Only weak teachers ‘need’ a union to protect them.” Joining a union seems to some a way of accepting one’s “feebleness;" to others, it’s a way of gaining dignity.

A year substituting in Chicago’s public schools made me a radical/"reformer” from Day One. I saw the teachers’ union as a force for good—including the individual good. For example, two of my ‘children’ became teachers and both have had to protect themselves via union-enforced due process at some point in their careers. In the absence of due process, none of us is safe from unjust bosses or benign rulers. (It’s one reason I’m also such a fan of the Association for Union Democracy, which protects union members and staff from injustices by their “union bosses.”)

Perhaps the dividing line on reform has something to do today with our gut reaction to calls for solidarity with our peers—our identification with the powerless. And thus our devotion to due process: “There but for the grace of God goes me.”

The tension between individualism and solidarity even interacts with a puzzle I’ve been concerned with of late re. neighborhood schools vs. “schools of choice.” Can choice sometimes be good for an individual and bad for the larger community, and if so ...? It needs more discussion, but here’s my problem:

It stands as “common sense” that it’s easier to create a productive, shared culture if one is joined together by mutual choice. But it’s not synonymous with democracy. It’s too easy to say in a school of choice, “if you don’t like it, choose another school.” In a democratic community one cannot use such language because the community belongs to both winners and losers, majorities and minorities. That’s why democracy is so essential! It’s why, I think, my mentor Lillian Weber had some misgivings about my work in East Harlem’s District 4 creating district-wide schools of choice rather than tackling changing neighborhood schools.

Central Park East has a strong sense of community, but its members are together by choice. Weber feared that ultimately the “choici-est” choices would go to those best served by the existing system and that it would undermine the needed cohesion of existing besieged communities. She was prescient.

I sent my own children to our neighborhood schools despite their weaknesses because I wanted us embedded in our neighborhood. I largely avoided the politics of District 4 and was instead very active in District 3 (where my kids went to school). I served as an elected school board member, for example. Did I make the right decision? I’m not sure. My own son and his wife chose to look for the public school in New York City that they liked best. Did they make the right decision? (Of course, I didn’t have their choices.)

Is there a way to give us the strengths of both? A way that honors communities and individual choice? That promotes solidarity without sacrificing individualism? I thought District 4 had it right. In one small geographic community (East Harlem covers probably a little over one square mile) there were both neighborhood schools and schools of choice. Furthermore, then-New York City Schools Chancellor Anthony Alvarado worked hard, I thought, to be as proud of his neighborhood schools as his “alternatives.” I think his hope was that these alternatives would influence new practices in all schools.

I originally saw charters through my nostalgia for East Harlem. That was a possibility. I met some fascinating folks last week in Baltimore, where charter teachers are all union members and where progressive education has a strong hold in the charters. I visited the City Neighbors School there and fell in love with it. But, why only there?

It seems clearer than ever to me that we need to re-explore issues of choice, so that they are not used to undermine the political communities that are at the base of our political democracy or to glorify the segregation of schools by race. We need unions and public education and strong communities: for the sake of the kids. Only self-confident and respected adults can provide students with the adult company they need.

I’m just skimming the surface. Diane, readers, join me on this.


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