People Who Can’t Teach, Write About Teachers

Bhaskar Sunkara

I’ve spent the day keep­ing up with a flood of non­sense about the Chica­go Teach­ers Union. The del­uge hasn’t been com­ing from the Right, but from a cer­tain sub­set of tech­no­crat­ic liberals.

I don’t accuse them of argu­ing in bad faith, they’re just being them­selves. And in doing so they’re lay­ing bare the spir­it that sus­tains them.

On Tues­day, the New York Times ran an edi­to­r­i­al called Chica­go Teach­ers’ Fol­ly,” claim­ing that Teach­ers’ strikes, because they hurt chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, are nev­er a good idea.” The edi­to­r­i­al is stun­ning, even by the New York Times’ stan­dards. It places much of the blame for the strike on a per­son­al­i­ty clash between the blunt may­or, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chica­go Teach­ers Union pres­i­dent, Karen Lewis.”

What’s pol­i­tics and the scope of his­to­ry when we have per­son­al­i­ties to dissect?

The piece cites a wide­ly mis­lead­ing aver­age teacher salary of $75,000. Mis­lead­ing not only because the fig­ure is incor­rect, but because the strike wasn’t about wages in the first place. This last point is what also frus­trates about Dylan Matthews’ graph­ic detours about Chica­go teacher com­pen­sa­tion. It’s not that he is will­ful­ly wrong, he just shifts the debate over to some­thing that isn’t the issue.

Matt Ygle­sias also miss­es the mark with his post on teach­ers union. Though Ygle­sias believes pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees have the right to orga­nize, a belief that sets him apart from the most odi­ous of Belt­way jour­nal­ists, he makes a rather obvi­ous point about who pays them:

CTU mem­bers get what they want, that’s not com­ing out of the pock­et of the boss­es” it’s com­ing out of the pock­et of the peo­ple who work at char­ter schools or the peo­ple who pay tax­es in Chicago.

This is, con­tra cries from the Left, is qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from a stance I dis­cussed in my post ear­li­er this week:

[The argu­ment] rests on the idea that pub­lic employ­ees, since they’re fund­ed by tax­pay­ers, are some­how siphon­ing funds from pro­duc­tive” pri­vate sec­tors of the econ­o­my. Ignored is the fact that these employ­ees also pro­duce goods and ser­vices, and should have a say on the con­di­tions under which they work.

Those crit­ics see any agency by pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees as par­a­sitic. Ygel­sias, how­ev­er, just sug­gests a knee-jerk defense of pub­lic work­er demands is wrong­head­ed, even though a sim­i­lar stance may be jus­ti­fied in the cor­po­rate world. But in doing so he draws a dis­tinc­tion between pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees that I don’t think is pro­duc­tive. More­over like the New York Times, he’s implic­it­ly reduc­ing the teach­ers’ strug­gle to a bread-and-but­ter trade union dis­pute. Any­one who’s read the Chica­go Teacher Union’s lit­er­a­ture or fol­lowed how that orga­ni­za­tion has inter­act­ed with the com­mu­ni­ty at large knows the strug­gle rep­re­sents social union­ism at its finest.

This isn’t trade-union con­scious­ness. It’s class consciousness.

That’s why the con­clu­sion of the Times’ edi­to­r­i­al is espe­cial­ly wrong. It claims that the dif­fer­ences between the two sides were not par­tic­u­lar­ly vast, which means that this strike was unnec­es­sary.” But what’s actu­al­ly going on is a pitched bat­tle between those who want to fur­ther neolib­er­al­ize the social safe­ty net and those who want to keep the edu­ca­tion sec­tor, to a degree, well-fund­ed and de-commodified.

It’s telling that the Times made no men­tion of the 60 new pri­vate, non-union char­ter schools Emanuel plans to erect in the city.

The clash between unabashed­ly pro-CTU left­ists like Corey Robin and lib­er­als like Matt Ygle­sias is root­ed in some­thing far broad­er. It reminds me of a quote I bring up from time to time by Pol­ish philoso­pher Leszek Kolakows­ki. He said the Left bases itself on the expe­ri­ence of his­to­ry, while the Right is the mere expres­sion of sur­ren­der to the sit­u­a­tion of the moment. The Left can have polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy, while the Right has noth­ing but tactics.

Matthews and Ygle­sias, though on the cen­ter-left in the Amer­i­can con­text, have lit­tle his­to­ry or ide­ol­o­gy. They can’t see the beyond graphs and minu­ti­ae. Yes, rad­i­cals can do with a bit more empiri­cism, but these wonks can do with rec­og­niz­ing the impli­ca­tions of polit­i­cal dis­putes, which go beyond Chica­go and beyond even pub­lic edu­ca­tion, can’t be under­stood with­in the dialec­tic of an Excel sheet.

As for the New York Times writ­ers, they can’t see how indus­tri­al con­flicts through­out his­to­ry, no mat­ter their imme­di­ate con­se­quences of interupt­ing the func­tion­ing of dai­ly life — well actu­al­ly, pre­cise­ly because of those con­se­quences — ulti­mate­ly pro­pel soci­ety for­ward. And yes, help chil­dren and their families.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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