Teaching Profession Opinion

What Lies Beneath: The Morality Behind Both Sides of Friedrichs

By John T. McCrann — January 16, 2016 4 min read
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Like many college students, I spent hours in political and philosophical arguments. I yelled to try to convince friends and classmates that I was right. They yelled back.

We didn’t make much progress.

I value discussion—even ones that probably won’t lead to agreement—but this process got tiresome.

A few years ago, I watched Jonathan Haidt‘s TED Talk: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives. He presents “five foundations” of morality and explains how tests of people’s orientations on these foundational traits predict people’s social politics.

Haidt quotes Sent-ts’an, a Buddhist monk who lived around 700 C.E. (who might have been rolling his eyes if he’d been in my dorm): “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.”

The education world saw a battle of “for” and “against” this past week as the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of California law that requires non-union teachers to pay “fair share” fees for the collective bargaining the union does for them.

For me, this case is a huge deal. It taps into issues that are personally, professionally, and politically important to me and the people I care about and I must say that I’m not fully with Sent-ts’an on this one. I started my career in North Carolina where state law bans collective bargaining by public employees and have moved to New York where I am a member of and leader in the United Federation of Teachers, a large and strong union. Comparing what I’ve seen in each of these two systems has made me feel that a big part of the New York City’s better schools should be attributed to the power of collective bargaining as a support for teachers, and therefore for the students served by good public schools.

I am unabashedly “for” the union, but I want to take a page out of Haidt’s book as I begin to write and think about this case and the issues it bring up:

“everybody thinks they are right. A lot of the problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are—understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right—and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out—check in with Sent-ts’an. Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons—even if you disagree with them—everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out. And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.”

It is easy to get stuck in our existing “moral matrix” when thinking about an issue as emotional and personal as students in a school and how we treat the folks who work with them. The third foundation of Haidt’s “in group/loyalty pillar of morality” helps us to move through the stale debates and name-calling about teachers unions.

The question of whether or not to join a union is influenced by our orientation regarding the collective vs the individual.

Human societies show a great capacity to cooperate in groups; it’s hard to imagine how human beings as a species could make it in a world with tigers and bears if we had not come together. We see this tribal tendency towards collective loyalty today as we root for sports teams, read liturgies, and place bumper stickers on our cars.

Yet we should and do also value individuals within those groups. We should and do value free thinking and a willingness to break from the group when it is wrong or overly constraining. We tell stories of individual accomplishments that inspire others to reach new heights.

Ms. Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs are making an argument based in individualism. She explained her decision not to join the union this way (emphasis added): “I started wondering, what does the union represent and what am I putting my money into? I realized much of what the union does goes against my beliefs.”

The individualist talks of individual rights and freedoms. The plaintiffs and their supporters (one of whom is a right wing law group, the Center for Individual Rights) are low on loyalty/in group scale when it comes to this issue.

This contrasts to the group across the courtroom whose rhetoric and argument relies on loyalty towards a collective. Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association (emphasis added again): “We feel strongly that they should pay their fair share for their representation that they’re receiving and continuing to take advantage of.”

Union supporters talk of solidarity and shared obligations. Friedrichs talks of individual rights and values.

Two groups with two different sets of priorities. Both groups believe they are right. Both perspectives are valuable. Both have a place in our society and in our debate about schools and education.

In my next two posts I’ll address some of the thoughts and feelings that have been coming up for me as a teacher who has worked in and out of the union. The first one will be to those fighting agency fees and the following to union members and supporters. I hope that you will find these posts engaging and that you will discuss them. As we continue this discussion let’s remember Sent-ts’an and try to season our self-righteousness with a healthy dose of humility.

Photo by skeeze https://pixabay.com/en/supreme-court-building-usa-546279/

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