Teachers as Culture Warriors? …Really?

Have you hung out with a schoolteacher lately? In general, we are a pretty mild-mannered set. Sure, there’s the occasional Thursday-night margarita/gripefest, but by and large the teachers I know are mostly interested in doing their jobs well and eventually paying off their student loans. So why, oh why, have teachers always been at the forefront of our educational culture wars? For at least a century, teachers have been the darlings of the Left and the demons of the Right.

Gillum

Love em…

We see it again in the recent surprise victory of Andrew Gillum in Florida. The mayor of Tallahassee, Gillum was far from the front runner in the state’s democratic primary for governor. How did he score the surprise win? For one thing, Gillum has promised to boost pay for Florida’s teachers. As Gillum told his story,

We didn’t have much money, but my parents and grandmother made sure we took our education seriously. I was blessed to have great public school teachers who poured their energy, time and love into me.

Without them I wouldn’t be running for Governor today — and next year as Governor, we’re going to give all of our teachers and support staff the raise they deserve. From setting a statewide floor for new teachers’ salaries of $50,000, to bringing every public school instructional teacher up to the national salary average of $58,000, and making sure veteran teachers are compensated for their years of service, it’s time our teachers get paid appropriately for doing some of the important work in our society.

Right now, they’re woefully underpaid, and many are struggling to provide for themselves.

For Mayor Gillum and other lefties these days, public-school teachers represent all that is good and hopeful in American politics. By maintaining strong unions (maybe) and striking for better conditions, teachers have come to serve—for some—as a symbol of socialist promise.

For once, conservative pundits agree. Unlike Gillum, conservatives hate it, but they agree that teachers are a powerful force for the Left. As one conservative writer described, teachers are

spending time promoting a left-wing agenda and bullying conservative students rather than teaching the subjects they are paid to teach.

It was ever thus. As I argued in my book about the history of conservative educational activism, I looked at culture-war thinking about teachers throughout the twentieth century. In every decade, in every school controversy, teachers were beloved by progressives and despised by conservatives. The assumptions were usually the same—wild-eyed leftist teachers were trying to warp their students’ minds, to get kids to embrace the latest versions of amorality and socialism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

… or hate em, both sides agree that teachers are progressive culture warriors.

For example, in 1935 US Communist Party leader Earl Browder took to the pages of Social Frontier journal to encourage teachers to fulfill their potential, to serve as a “special sector of a common battle-front” for progressive ideals. In the same era, right-wing education pundit Allen Zoll condemned precisely the same goal for teachers. Too many teachers, Zoll denounced, only wanted to promote the “inculcation of currently popular herd ideas on a mass basis.” The ultimate goal of teachers, Zoll believed, was to produce

a tragically misshapen generation . . . without the ability to think for themselves, filled only with the desired herd ideas—fit only to be citizens of the authoritarian state?

Both Zoll and Browder were extremists, but they shared this vision of the power, promise, and plausibility of large numbers of teachers who see their main goal as promoting leftist politics.

And, of course, the stereotype sometimes fits. I know teachers who see their primary mission as political. Some teachers hope to push their students toward a leftist viewpoint. But most teachers are mainly trying to help students do as much as well as students can.

So here are my questions this morning:

  • Do many teachers really fit the culture-warrior stereotype?
  • If not, why are those stereotypes so powerful and so enduring?
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