I recently offered some uncharacteristically optimistic thoughts on why I think it will be much harder to demonize teachers during the Chicago strike. But like many, I’m confused by the widespread antipathy by educated upper-middle class people–who wouldn’t have made it to where they are today without teachers. But, as Corey Robin reminds us, we have to look at some class attitudes as well (boldface mine):
Teachers were not figures of respect or gratitude; they were incompetents and buffoons. Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I had some terrible teachers. Incompetents and worse. But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition. But among the upper classes it’s treated as the exclusive preserve of teachers….
It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.
In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.
No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.
Like my teachers, I have chosen a career in education and don’t make a lot of money. Unlike them, I’m a professor. I’m continuously astonished at the pass that gets me among the people I grew up with. Had I chosen to be a high-school teacher, I’d be just another loser. But tenured professors are different. Especially if we teach in elite schools (which I don’t.) We’re more talented, more refined, more ambitious—more like them. We’re capitalist tools, too.
So that’s where and how I grew up. And when I hear journalists and commentators, many of them fresh out of the Ivy League, talking to teachers as if they were servants trying to steal the family silver, that’s what I hear. It’s an ugly tone from ugly people.
While assholes exist in every income stratum, many middle class people (I mean that based on income distribution, not self-reporting) would be happy if their kids could teach–it beats the hell out of a lot of other jobs. But this explanation rings true. My experience has been that, unless you describe teaching as a calling, K-12 teachers are viewed as losers without drive.
The only thing I add add to Robin’s analysis is that teaching is still viewed as ‘women’s work’ and so is also not valued. It’s not ‘aggressive’ or ‘hard-charging’ or ‘energetic’ because it is feminine–it’s glorified babysitting (obviously, I think that’s bullshit). Class and sexism reinforce each other in this case.
A tangential aside while I hopefully still have your attention: I seriously doubt most of these bozos (e.g., Matthew Yglesias) have ever actually taught. If you have taught, at any level, it’s really hard. Most non-teachers, if they tried teaching, would be eaten alive. And a union card would be a sacrament.