Wednesday, January 07, 2015

In Which the Targets on Our Backs Are Tattooed

 by special guest blogger Harris Lirtzman

Dana Goldstein, author of "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession," argues that the United States has entered a full-blown moral panic about "the vampiric ineffective teacher who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care."

According to Goldstein, this moral panic--the last real ones were over "welfare queens" stealing food stamps and before that actual or suspected members of the Communist Party--requires policy makers and the media to focus on a single group of people (teachers) as emblems of a large, complex social problem (socioeconomic inequality and educational achievement gaps). The media repeats, ad nauseum, anecdotes about the most despicable examples of this type of person so that the focus on the "worst of the worst" comes finally to misrepresent the true scale and character of what may be a genuine problem.

Teachers of America, awake.  You are at the epicenter of a moral panic.

Moral panics are very hard to stop once they have been activated by the people whose interests they serve.

Sunday's Daily News includes an editorial "Listen to Mrs. Tisch," written by publisher Mort Zuckerman, himself, that is a Hall-of-Fame example of a media-generated moral panic.  According to Mr. Zuckerman:

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin on Wednesday delivered--with an aggressive and specific battle plan for improving teaching and learning from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Buffalo.  They would scrap the part of the teacher-rating system that allows teachers to juice their scores, and change the law so poorly performing teachers can more easily be removed from the classroom. And, of great importance, they would once and for all eliminate the union-controlled arbitration process that has protected from termination thousands of teachers, from those who engage in intimate conduct with students to those who can't write a lesson plan to save their lives.  The state Legislature no longer has any excuse but to send [Governor] Cuomo reform measures he can sign.
Note the required elements of "moral panic."  An "aggressive battle plan" against vampire teachers who "juice their scores" as a way to hide their fecklessness and incompetence from real Americans. The threat that endangers every part of the state from "Brooklyn to the Bronx to Buffalo." The call to final victory in a "once and for all" elimination of the subversive organization that coordinates all this heinous activity and harbors all these vampire teachers, the powerful and dangerous "union." The malefic forces that prevent the eradication of  "thousands" of vampire teachers among us who prey on their charges by engaging in "intimate conduct" with them.  The infectious incompetence of teachers who cannot write "for their own lives" even the very lesson plans that are the hallmark of their profession. Finally, the summoning of public courage and virtue to do the right thing by having the governor act with "no excuse" or mercy to reform the culprits or banish them from the community.

Unless you and your representatives--the same unions who are selling you out to education reformistas in New York State and across the country--find a way to stop, or even slow down, the rising crest of this moral panic you will find yourselves the vermin cause for the imminent breakdown in the fiber of American society, even as many of your students and their parents bring you some version of a red apple because they love what you do for them every day.

Moral panics occasionally run themselves out just as fevers do but mostly they continue until something or someone stops them.

In 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy took the moral panic about American communists to its highest level during what were called the "Army-McCarthy" hearings, when McCarthy accused the Army of harboring and promoting Communist Party sympathizers. After more than a month of televised hearings, an attorney for the Army named Joseph Welch looked up at the senator and said, "Senator, you've done enough.  Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?  You have brought it all out.  If there is a God in heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good."

The moral panic broke.  Within two months, Senator McCarthy's personal approval ratings collapsed and six months later the Senate censured him by a vote of 67-22.

Moral panics are stopped by courageous people speaking truth to power. The moral panic now enveloping public school teachers in New York will not be stopped until someone like a Joseph Welch speaks fearlessly to someone like an Andrew Cuomo. Our Mr. Welch will not come from the United Federation of Teachers or from the New York State United Teachers.  They have no Mr. Welches.  They are afraid of Andrew Cuomo and do not have the words to call him to account.

But we, the teachers of New York State and New York City, do have Joseph Welches among us and our allies.  We must find our Joseph Welch very quickly, because if we do not find him soon we will be washed away by a moral panic that serves many purposes but certainly not the purpose of good education in public schools by trained professionals who change the lives of their students every day.
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