Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teachers Are Not The Enemy!

By Keith McDowell

Innovation! It’s the dominant pathway to more jobs, economic prosperity, and wealth generation for Americans, but it’s also a hard taskmaster requiring a steady pipeline of inquiring and prepared minds, ready and able to create the next wave of innovation at the frontier.

And it’s not a happening guaranteed to occur spontaneously and of its own accord at a level sufficient to optimally drive the growth of American industry. It takes a sustained societal investment. It takes a trained and educated workforce. It takes scientists, engineers, inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, risk takers, venture capitalists, English majors, writers, and a host of other inspired people. And at the core, it takes teachers!

Where would we all be in our lives without those dedicated teachers who worked tirelessly for long hours and rose to the challenge of shaping and molding us into a better person?

I will never forget the endless and terrifying drumming of the rules of grammar into me by my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Highfill. Or the excitement and explosiveness of chemistry as taught by Rachel Roberts. Or the competent and efficient unveiling of physics by Mrs. Dockery. Or the incomparable Flossie Shaw’s algebra class. Or Betty Welch, Mrs. Holder, Louise Hunter, and the many other teachers too numerous to name who “made my day” as a teenager. I remember them all! They were my friends and my mentors.

So when did these paragons of society and the ultimate force behind innovation suddenly become the enemy? Who decided that we as a nation should redefine one of the fundamental strengths of America and turn the best of us into THEM? And why would anyone be so stupid?

Unfortunately, it’s the oldest and most often repeated mistake of humankind   It’s the game of power and control played by a few over the many under the guise of principled dogma and founded on the delusion that exploitation and plunder of the many can be sustained indefinitely. But as the Rev. Al Sharpton is fond of saying, “A lot of things were acceptable – until we stopped accepting it.”

So what does it mean for America when we turn the principle of a balanced budget, one that we all agree with, into a plan for austerity, low taxes, and little or no government in order to eliminate those who would disagree with us or vote against us in an election – whether members of a teacher’s union, those who believe in gay rights and gay marriage, those who believe in equal pay for equal work, or even those who believe in the rights of gun owners?

For the teaching profession, it means lower pay, fewer benefits, and doing more with less. It means using teachers until they have nothing else to give and then casting them aside at retirement. After all, why should tax payers front the bill for the retirement of public teachers goes the argument? It’s the same old self-centered and greedy storyline of “you’re on your own, buddy!” And who among us truly believes that the best and brightest will become teachers under these conditions?

But it’s not just the teachers themselves that will be impacted by the draconian austerity measures being served up to America these days. It’s the entire infrastructure of our modern education system that will be put at risk including the following potential outcomes:

  • Larger number of students per teacher.
  • No fine arts, music, or other extra-curricular activities – except football in Texas.
  • Fewer essential supplies and older, out-of-date, well-used textbooks.
  • Reduced maintenance and repair or upgrade of physical facilities.
  • Less usage of expensive high technology tools and information technology.
  • Lack of exposure to cutting edge knowledge.

And the list goes on. Is this the right formula for teaching the next generation of innovators?

Even worse, it’s not just the impact of budget austerity that should concern us, but also austerity in both the content and the manner in which teachers teach. On the curriculum side of the equation, the extremists and right-wing conservatives want a scripted and dogmatic curriculum that conforms to their rigid notions of truth, even if contrary to the facts. It’s a cookie cutter version of education guaranteed to produce obesity of the brain with fat and lazy minds, not the lean and agile minds with the necessary analytic skills required for innovation. Conservatism as a doctrine and practice is fine, if that’s what one comes to believe and accept, but it can’t be force-fed to our young unless we want stultification as the end result.

Lest you think counterfactual and anti-science based curricula are a thing of the past, let’s review a few recent events. In Texas, we have the State Board of Education continuing in its attempt to insert intelligent design into our textbooks as a scientific theory equal to the theory of evolution. How is that going to work for young Texans who want to pursue innovations in the fields of health and bio-technology where evolution reigns supreme and knowledge of the nanoscale and molecular biology are essential?

What about women’s health and, most especially, how we deal with sex education in our classrooms? Come to a Texas classroom and learn all about abstinence as the singular solution to practicing safe sex and the failure of condoms as a prophylactic. That’s right! Condoms don’t work in Texas. Thank goodness for Gail Collins who has uncovered some of the more bizarre and antiquated notions about sex being taught as truth in Texas.

And it’s not just in Texas! In my birth state of North Carolina, the Legislature is considering a bill to limit planning for the expected rise of the ocean levels due to global warming. Maybe, we should also outlaw gravity while we’re at it! It might help with our nation’s obesity problem. Folks, ignorance is the bane of innovation.

And how would you like being a well-educated teacher standing in front of a classroom of eager minds knowing full well that learning is as much a process of discovery and independent thinking as it is a process of knowledge accumulation. Good luck to you on that one and woe unto any teacher who challenges pupils to think and analyze. You’ll be on your own if modern conservatism has its way!

Making teachers the enemy is nothing more than a cynical ploy by a few who want to exploit fear and ignorance of the facts and use sloganeering – “union busting” being a prime example and “anti-abortion” another – to pursue their own selfish and personal goals. Don’t be fooled by any of this nonsense. Teachers are not the enemy! Instead, they should be nurtured and respected for they are the very heart and soul of our future as a nation of innovators.

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