Assessment Opinion

‘Why Do We Teach?’

By Deborah Meier — March 28, 2013 4 min read

Today, the blog conversation between Deborah Meier and Eric “Rick” Hanushek concludes.

Dear Rick,

Your last blog post reminded me of a childhood challenge my brother put to me. It went something like this: “Would you rather be rich or famous?” It would betray our childhood friendship to tell you what our answers were. But it has something to do with what we are arguing about.

I was intrigued by your acknowledgement that you are dissatisfied with the kind of people who become teachers. So who are you looking for? Answer? People with the highest test scores from prestigious colleges. But many of those “best” graduates went on to make billions while messing up our economy and getting bonuses (merit pay?) that are clearly undeserved and enormous severance packages when they jumped ship. (I’ve had students who went to jail for less harmful activity than many bankers engage in routinely.)

Is it possible that there can be something called “too much”? Was it worth the lives of so many Egyptians to build those glorious pyramids? Should it cause a twinge that some fellow Americans make $3 an hour while others make $3,000,000 per hour? And let’s not quibble over exactly how accurate these figures are. You could even drop the last three zeros and still make my point. One single family—the Waltons—owns as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of society.

So, “why do we teach?” (I assume you went into academia for other reasons than teaching? ) For me it was having summers off, which still weighed heavily when I decided to remain a teacher for life because I believe in leisure. It was, in short, the “lifestyle” and the challenge of the work that seduced me. It was the kind of work that “rewarded” one in the very act of doing it and had everlasting impact when done well. (And great pain when not done well.) The lack of collegiality and intellectual stimulus among the adults was disturbing and, I suspected, closely related to our failure to lure more students to “our side.” I saw myself as an advocate for more intellectual collegiality among the adults in our school buildings. Every last one of them. The school itself had to be the locus of change—the community stronger than any single classroom.

I came into education assuming that our task was and always had been to produce a learned, thoughtful, and tenacious “ruling class.” Given our near-official secular religion—democracy—that ruling class now meant “everyone.” “Education for a classless society” (James Conant’s phrase) that does not yet—and maybe never will—exist is the challenge. (Full disclosure: Would I have stayed if the salaries were much lower and the work day much longer, and there was no healthcare and no due process—and maybe no summer vacation? Probably not.)

Why aren’t we more like the world of finance, business, entertainment, sports where winners are rewarded with cash—lots of it for the few at the top—and the fame and power that the cash gap offers? Because there are things I treasure even more. It’s that simple. Even sports, for example, would rise in my esteem if it weren’t so tied in with moneymaking—especially at colleges devoted to learning!

Actually, it’s a sad fact that the challenge my brother posed between wealth and fame is absurd now. Wealth buys fame, and fame buys wealth, and both buy power over others. Do you think that’s an OK solution, or just the nature of the world we live in ... Get over it, Deb? It’s not my impression that providing larger and larger cash rewards for a few, and less and less for the many has improved our society over the past 25 to 35 years. Productivity? It matters to me—depending on what gets produced. Sometimes the less the better.

You argued that no one can be considered underpaid if they are willing to work for such low pay—no one, in short, is exploiting someone’s else’s desperation. It was this mindset on the part of the “haves” that caused our fellow “have-nots” to create unions everywhere in the world, so that poorly paid people had some choice.

I’m hoping the young people I’ve taught are never that desperate. I hope each of them grow up to be someone who matters. That’s where the kids and I agree. Naturally then, they admire (and learn best from) adults who are also “somebodies,” who exercise the freedom and power to make choices, to speak their mind, to feel competent and expert at something valued by others. And to make a decent living.

Indeed, in a culture sick with money worship, my viewpoint may seem utopian. But better (I remind myself) my utopia than the dystopia we seem to be embracing. I want a well-educated citizenry that doesn’t depend on others being “down” to feel they are “up,” that helps the young value what money cannot buy. Schools do that in many different ways—including how they “reward” the students and staff of the community they belong to.

What I value most about schooling—private or public— and what I believe is missing for too many schools (especially those that serve the poor) is a culture of learning focused on the habits that democracy needs and deserves. The gap between the well-off and all the “others” damages democracy even more than the gap in test scores does. I think it’s related to my love of freedom. I have invested in the hope, but not certainty, that our best shot at freedom lies with democracy, which in turn depends upon a relatively well-functioning balance of power.

As a practical matter, I’ve spent many years playing with these issues in urban public, mostly successful schools. Everything I’ve experienced tells me that paying some superintendents or principals or teachers a lot more than others injures the school culture—and will not help test scores rise.

Does this back and forth help us (or our readers) think through the issues better, or are we both setting up strawmen?

Let’s return to this dialogue at another time. Thanks, Rick.


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