While reflecting on the economic crisis in Wisconsin that is being played out on the backs of teachers and other public workers, I happened to remember that great film, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and the expansive, complex, and romantic creation of Muriel Spark realized on-screen by the excellent Maggie Smith.
I mused as to whether Jean Brodie, teaching today in Wisconsin, would lead the charge against loss of Collective Bargaining Rights, whether she would have earned tenure at all (after inadvertently inspiring a hapless student to join a group of anti-American terrorists), or whether she would have paid any attention to labor politics, swept away as she was in the pursuit of Beauty, Honor, and Courage, in her prime.
I don't mean to make light of the terribly desperate situation in Wisconsin. The Governor of the state seeks to cut spending, AND for some reason restrict collective bargaining rights for teachers, while Wisconsin Democratic Congressmen have fled the state in hiding in order to hold off a vote on the matter.
Amid all of this theater, there is little media attention to the students and what they stand to lose.
Adults keep brandishing the word "education" until it has become a blunt instrument.
I never forgot Jean Brodie's philosophy of education, nor her derivation of the word and how she viewed the process. I had never considered it this way before, and from then on, it came to my mind with every endeavor at learning....
JEAN BRODIE: To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root "ex," meaning "out,"and "duco..."I lead."
To me, education is simply a...a leading out...of what is already there.
HEADMISTRESS: I had hoped there might also be a certain amount of putting in.
JEAN BRODIE: That would not be education, but intrusion...from the root prefix "in," meaning "in," and the stem "trudo..." "I thrust."
Ergo, to thrust a lot of information into a pupil's head...
This is a wonderfully liberating and progressive idea...Of course, a certain amount of input is necessary; but the idea that each student can be observed so closely that the right kind of input is provided, to draw out each student's particular strength, is an educator's dream. If there were enough money and commitment, if class sizes remained smaller and guidelines for measuring progress were expanded (rather than limited by mere standardized test scores), we might produce some significant learning, and see a big return on the investment in education.
Good teachers will work closely with students, inspire them and draw out their strengths, whether they belong to a union or not, as long as they are provided with good working conditions and updated materials, fair hours, and competitive, decent wages. Good teachers deserve at the very least these things, and the ability to demand them.
But we're in the midst of a dangerous time. The pendulum has swung us back to the early 1900's, it seems.
It is ironic that Wisconsin passed one of the nation's first collective bargaining laws for public employees in 1959. The state of Wisconsin was a leader in workers' protections, including workers compensation and unemployment benefits. Here is a fascinating presentation published today by the Wisconsin Labor History Society.
Without an historical perspective, Americans are easily convinced that workers and unions are the only demons in the current economic struggle.
Of course it is unfortunate that labor laws, so hard-fought and won, are unfairly abused by the lazy and the weak. Yes, there are ineffective, even dangerous, teachers whose jobs are safe, while skilled, caring educators can't break into the classroom due to layoffs and the resultant lack of jobs. Unions need to revamp their tenure laws to create new measurements of success.
But the deadbeats should not be used as a rationale for rolling back protections and leaving outstanding educators vulnerable.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a Senate address on May 8, 1937, said: “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1962, signed an executive order giving public-employee unions the right to collectively bargain with federal government agencies. (Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club)
I suspect, in the end, that Jean Brodie would put up a fight. Whatever you think of her methods of instruction, she had an indelible and lifelong influence over her girls. She would make mistakes, but she was passionate about education. She would not be forced to resign. She would give the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker a piece of her mind.