Dana Goldstein: Study War No More

In America, when someone tells you how much they respect your work, they’re trying to get out of paying you. No matter what you love to do, somebody is determined to exploit your basic desire to wring meaning from a useful task. But the teaching profession has been particularly bedeviled by the high-minded assertion that the only effective practitioners are people who don’t need the money. And as Dana Goldstein argues in The Teacher Wars, from Catharine Beecher to the Talented Tenth to Teach for America, an elitist missionary impulse has undermined the efforts of professionals seeking to establish a middle-class career in education even (or especially) when the reformers’ intentions were pure.

That’s just one of a handful of themes forming the skeleton of Goldstein’s history, which covers almost exactly two hundred years of public education in the United States. But it’s maybe the most important. It’s the reason why Goldstein, in her conclusion, which outlines some suggestions for reform, has to actually make the argument that pay affects the quality of teaching, which you’d think all parties would be willing to stipulate.

Goldstein’s modest tone here is a healthy counterbalance to America’s incessant drive toward the broad-scale solutioneering that, despite its progressive roots, has been co-opted by corporate disruption fetishists. There is only so much that teachers can do, only so much that students can do, only so much that the federal government can do — reasonable. Abandon the language of crisis so that public education becomes is not a problem perpetually to be solved, but an existing system to be fine-tuned for best results by listening to teachers — modest. “Only then will we end the teacher wars,” Goldstein concludes — ah, now that’s something else altogether.

In the liberal version of utopia, differences are set aside so that effective public policy can operate in a space outside of politics. But public policy is always a site of conflict, with disparate interests vying for control of resources. If you see that conflict as a “war,” you yearn for an apolitical state of peace. If you see it as democracy, the question becomes how to  manage that conflict so as to cause the fewest casualties.

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  • Craig Bickle  On February 10, 2015 at 6:22 am

    I’ve concluded the problem isn’t reformers, progressives, conservatives, or liberals; it’s people. This shit is not that hard to figure out. Yet, rather than evaluate the decades of evidence, people would rather rely on what emotionally feels right. Which would be fine if what felt right is magnanimity and trust, not suspicion and jealousy.

  • usefulnoise  On February 10, 2015 at 11:13 am

    But saying the problem with society or politics is people is like saying the problem with cooking is food. You acknowledge tendencies and behavior, you look at history and culture and economics (etc.) have shaped them, and you try and figure out how to communicate with them. (Or, better yet, we try to figure out how to communicate with each other.)

  • Craig Bickle  On February 10, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I no longer think so. Certainly it’s fascinating to look back at social trends and to follow public policy as it unfolds (as only us true addicts know.) But I think debate and discourse are just as likely to lead to disastrous consequences as they are to real progress. So I’ll grant you, maybe the odds we get education right in the long run are 50/50. What I’m saying is, by now we should know how to rig the rules well enough that red wins at least 90% of the time. Yet, in the short run, I’m betting it all on black. Because… people.

  • usefulnoise  On February 10, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I guess I’m not clear on what your alternative to debate and discourse is.

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