Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump, Education — March 9, 2017

East Coast elites, intellectuals, and “smug liberals”: Oh My!

by


I’m tired.

Specifically, I’m sick and tired of being made to feel that my fellow “East Coast elites” and I are somehow to blame for the continually unfolding and horrifying mess our country finds itself in these days. My phone tweets CNN “Breaking News” updates on the hour, alerting me to the new atrocities being introduced to our nation by President Trump (I still involuntarily shudder every time I hear or say those words)–Muslim refugee bans (2 and counting) that target millions based purely on their faith, health care plans designed to limit access to health care and kick millions off their insurance plans, $20 billion private and religious school voucher plans, roll backs of protections for trans* children, a slow-motion dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency by climate change deniers, and a general sense of anti-intellectualism, anti-education, anti-science, anti-research, and anti-tolerance.

I’m over the Democratic “strategy” of trying to “reach out” to “disaffected white voters.” When the books are written about this era, and they will be, the story won’t be about how Democrats couldn’t connect with these voters–it will be about how stunningly wrong these voters were and how they couldn’t even identify why they were “disaffected.” When you’re against “Obamacare” but for the Affordable Care Act, I’m not sure your opinion on the matter really merits much consideration. And I’m also having trouble generating much sympathy for those Trump voters who are about to lose their health care insurance. When someone tells, and shows, you who they are, believe them.

I’m also really tired of the Quixotic quest for the mythical “rural white voters” who could be lured back to voting Democratic. If these folks really did vote for Trump, having heard him say the same awful things the rest of us heard, I just don’t see how there will ever be any common ground upon which to base a coalition. You can call that elitism, or intellectualism, or even “smug liberalism“–I couldn’t care less. And while we’re talking about smugness…

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

But I digress…

Here’s another thing I’m tired of: “Bubbles.” Do I live and work in a “bubble”? Of course I do. And so do you. And so does everyone else in this country. West Virginia coal miners live in a bubble, just as Georgetown lawyers, nurses in Montana, and Wall St. investment bankers do. The whole “bubble” narrative isn’t about how we isolate ourselves, or fall victim to “confirmation bias” by seeking out news sources that align with our belief systems. It’s about privileging and elevating some “bubbles” more than others. And the bubble you really don’t want to be caught dead in these days is the one surrounding the members of the so-called elites and intellectuals.

Maybe I’m so tired of this rhetoric because I’ve never considered myself much of an elite, or an intellectual. I grew up solidly middle class, in a family of five children, in a part of Upstate New York that was, and remains, much more Midwestern in feel than it felt like New York City, in the same state but a world away to the East. I never even visited “The City” until I was in college, and even then just for a quick day trip.

I attended an outstanding public school, was encouraged to work hard and participate in a variety of school activities, and was expected to bring home excellent grades. Neither of my parents had a college degree, but there was an unspoken expectation that all five of us would attend college and earn a degree. And we did, with several also earning masters degrees, and 2 of us going on to be granted PhDs. Education wasn’t ever discussed as a “way out”–we weren’t trying to escape anything. It was simply expected that we would pursue as much education in our chosen fields as possible–because that’s just what intelligent, successful persons did.

My career goals were never “elite” either. I had no dreams of becoming a “captain of industry,” and for whatever reasons, the lure of a high salary was never that alluring. All I ever wanted to do was to be a teacher–in my case, music. And thanks to state and federal school loans, and state-supported universities back when we actually had such things, and the support of a loving, caring mother who encouraged me to follow my passion, I was able to pursue that goal.

But even then, there were those I’ve encountered along the way who seemed to view following this career path to be a curious choice. During the obligatory “career counseling session” with my high school guidance counselor, I was asked what I wanted to do for a job. I told her I wanted to become a teacher; her response: “Oh no, that would be such a waste! Your SAT score is so good, why not consider medicine, or law?” I left her office even more convinced of my choice.

Four years later I was sitting in a sweaty office on my first job interview. The high school principal, who doubled as the school’s bowling coach, had his feet propped up on the desk, and his tie was pulled down against the sultry August heat. The school was looking for a band director, but he was having trouble, he said, “seeing you down on the football field with your shirt sleeves rolled up. I suspect that you fancy yourself as some sort of intellectual.” He spit the final word out as though he had just bitten in to a rotten egg. Stunned, I stammered out the first words that sprang to mind: “Well, heaven forbid we have too many intellectuals in the teaching profession.”

I didn’t get the job.

So, you’ll forgive me if I’ve just about run out of patience for the approach of the current administration to set about the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Because it was that same “administrative state” that has allowed me, and countless others like me, from middle and lower class backgrounds, to pursue our personal and professional goals. And what was the mechanism that made this possible?

It was public education–not private or religious schools. Over 90% of children attend public schools, and yet our current “leaders” seem obsessed with tinkering with the 7-10% that don’t–as if this will effect some enormous positive change on society. So instead of asking me, and my “elite” colleagues on the political Left, to reach out to Betsy DeVos in an effort to find areas of agreement, perhaps we could start by appointing a Secretary of Education who had actually attended a public school, or sent their children to a public school, or who had ever taught anyone anything.

And instead of harebrained schemes requiring public school teachers to do internships with local businesses in order to renew their teaching licenses, how about requiring every state political office holder, from dog catcher to governor, spend a day in a local public school shadowing a certified teacher doing her or his job?

So, while I might have been feeling tired, and a bit down in the dumps lately, here’s the good news: I’ve been on Spring Break for the last four or five days, have been getting plenty of sleep, and am feeling remarkably rested, restored, and refreshed. And as sick and tired as I, and all of my friends who work in schools, are about what’s happening politically and policy-wise in our schools and our country, we are not about to give up.

Because while we may not be “smug liberals” or elites, we are committed. We know our profession, and our students, are worth fighting for. And the fight is just starting.

  • leggink

    Amen.

  • judyms9

    Last I knew those university schools of education were happy to have potential teachers with conservative as well as liberal views. That there seems to be some kind of occupational-political divide suggests that conservatives are not generally keen on dealing with the rangy and inquisitive young in public schools. The private and parochial schools have always been there for them and they were the elite.
    We have a president who doesn’t read and perhaps can’t, so non-readers must now be the new elite. It’s where we are as a nation.

    • Mark Mudry

      Judy –
      I haven’t exactly been doing word counting, but I’m pretty sure our President has a total vocabulary of <200 words. Its not exactly "bigly" (this word processor just flagged "bigly" as not a recognized word).
      I went through the parochial school system here in Michigan; actually Catholic schools. In my days there I can attest that from the priest to the school janitor, it was a liberal oasis. On the walls hung pictures of JFK an unchallenged Apostle of Jesus. Except for theology class, the teachings were pretty routine being more secular than religious. Religion was injected more as moral guidance.
      Let me say, things have changed. There is a big push by the Bishops for a strict conservative viewpoint. #SAD

      • (He’s actually saying “big league”, not “bigly”.)

        • Mark Mudry

          OK, OK, I will concede since professional linguists were brought in to prove the point. I guess I will also have to increase his vocabulary count by one word, “league”. He’s still under 200.
          My problem evidently is with my Midwest upbringing vs the Brooklyn spoken word. I could have 4 years to tune my ear and use CC when viewing the President on TV. I have no professional linguists here.

  • Thanks, Mitchell. Part of the problem is reflected in the US Department of Education’s mission: “The US Department of Education’s (ED’s) mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

    The focus on achievement (rather than learning), competitiveness (rather than sustainability), educational excellence (rather than engagement), and equality (rather than equity) reflects a societal disposition towards educational functionalism, if not neoliberalism.

    I prefer the more hopeful #OptionB: “The US Department of Education’s mission is to promote student learning and preparation for global sustainability by fostering educational engagement and ensuring equitable access.” I wonder how that mission could become a reality.

    Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) recently proposed H.R. 899, which is designed to eliminate ED. I don’t think HR 899 will get out of committee, but it is callous and brazen. ED does many good things, regardless of DeVos.

    But I wonder if it could be just as easy to propose another H.R. along the lines of #OptionB. That’s a step in the right direction. What would that take? What would it mean if people actually thought about ED’s mission more deeply, and the extent to which it had lead to high-stakes testing, deprofessionalization of teachers, “accountability” schemes, and the dismantling of a our civic infrastructure.

    • Jeff Gaynor

      Thank you, Gamal. Your second paragraph is brilliant.

  • Chris Gill

    Me too. Midwestern, grounded parents who expected us to go to college as the next step they never had to take to be successful. Three for three with one MA + School Counselor License. We’re all in public service.

  • Rose Nicholas

    Fantastic article.

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