Teacher Fired for Heroic Incompetence

I’m no cynic. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that schools serve a range of purposes. We see depressing evidence today that one of their primary functions is to contain and control young people. How do we know? Because a teacher in New York City was fired, according to her, for talking about structural racism in a way that would “rile up” her African American students. Yikes.

Lee Walker Fired

Fired for heroic incompetence…

The story is grim. Jeena Lee-Walker has sued New York schools for her termination. Beginning in 2012, school administrators asked her to tone down her teaching about the Central Park Five case. As all New Yorkers remember, a group of young men were falsely convicted of raping a woman. They were eventually freed, but only after spending long years in prison.

Lee-Walker taught her students about the case. Many of them, she thought, “should be riled up” about the deep injustice done, as well as about continuing injustices in American society.

Her administrators thought differently. They gave her several bad evaluations and eventually fired her for “insubordination.”

Let me be crystal clear here: I think all teachers should be like Ms. Lee-Walker. All teachers should “rile up” their students about injustices in our society.

But we need to recognize two complicating factors. Though I’m a big fan of his, I think Curmudgucrat Peter Greene misses the boat here when he says Lee-Walker was “fired for competence.”

She was fired for two other reasons, reasons central to the successful functioning of any school. Even as we praise Ms. Lee-Walker’s bravery and integrity, we need to be a little more clearheaded about what was really going on. In short, Ms. Lee-Walker’s unwillingness to go along with the school system really DID make her incompetent as a teacher. Heroic, yes, but not willing to do the job.

That might sound odd, so let me offer two long-winded explanations.

First, teachers are not simply private citizens. Ms. Lee-Walker will not have luck protesting that her First Amendment rights have been breached. And, by and large, none of us want to cede to teachers such rights. Consider, for example, what we might think if she had been accused of promoting political or religious agendas with which we don’t agree. What if she “riled up” students by denouncing abortion? Or by denouncing evolution?

In principle, then, we need to acknowledge that teachers are bound to stick within curricular guidelines established by the school and community. I’ll repeat: in this case I think those guidelines are utterly bogus. I think we should encourage all New York City high schools to emulate Ms. Lee-Walker’s decision to teach the Central Park Five case. It is the truth and young people deserve to learn about it.

But if and when a heroic teacher decides to go against her superiors, she should be prepared to be kicked out. That is equally true whether we agree or disagree with the teacher’s ideas. I’m going to say this again, just because I think it could be misinterpreted: In this case, I side wholly with Ms. Lee-Walker. Her protest, however, should not be taken as a simple case of good teaching vs. evil administrating. Rather, this is a heroic attempt to push the curriculum in New York City schools toward this sort of teaching. Ms. Lee-Walker should have expected to get fired—even WANTED to get fired—because that was her only chance to take her appeal to a wider stage.

We don’t have to like it, but I think we need to be clear about our terms. In this sort of case, the closest analogy is that of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses. To some, she was a hero, to others a poorly coiffed villain. In the end, however, she was a government bureaucrat who refused to do her job. Whatever we think of her politics or religion, no institution can function if it doesn’t purge such folks.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson Kentucky

Fired for heroic incompetence…

That brings us to our second point. This story drives home the depressing custodial role schools and teachers play in our society. We tend to think of schools as educational institutions—and they are—but they are also holding pens of varying levels of pleasantness.

As a result, a big part of the job of school administrators is to keep the students relatively calm. With a dizzyingly high student-to-teacher ratio, most schools rely on passive and compliant students. When and if students choose to throw off schools’ restraints, there is not much administrators can physically do to coerce them into submission.

In some schools, this results at worst in hijinx such as food fights. In other schools, we get a prison-like atmosphere in which students are continually monitored and physically controlled.

Is that a good thing? Not at all. But if we want to make sense of this case and the many other cases like this, we need to understand the many things that schools do in our society. Teachers are not merely Socratic wisdom-peddlers in the agora. They are street-level bureaucrats who help process large numbers of young people in educational containment systems.

The point of Ms. Lee-Walker’s actions—if she was acting intentionally—was not merely to teach children something true. The point was to make a public spectacle of the fact that New York City schools do not regularly include that sort of teaching. She was not “fired for competence,” but for her stubborn insistence on principled incompetence, her brave unwillingness to go along with a system that fails students so miserably.

Conservatives against Kim Davis

Which side are you on?

That’s the question that fuels most of our culture-war animosity. Instead, the question we should all be asking is this: What’s the right thing to do? In the case of same-sex refusenik Kim Davis, some conservative intellectuals and pundits are willing to break ranks and see the bigger picture.

In case you’ve been milking the last warm days of summer and haven’t seen this story, Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk who has been jailed and released for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Opportunistic conservative politicians such as Mike Huckabee have promoted Davis as a conservative Christian hero, stage-managing Davis’s release as an American triumph, equal parts Christianity Triumphant and Rocky III.

Governor Huckabee’s shameful pandering to frustrated Christian voters should be an embarrassment for every conservative out there. But progressives also could stay a little classier in this case. For those like me on the progressive side of things, the furor and venom over the Kim Davis case burst onto our Facebook feeds like a sweaty middle-school pimple. I don’t agree with Davis’s refusal to do her job, but I also think it is counter-productive and petty to attack Davis’s hairstyle.

Missing the point...

Missing the point…

We could all learn a lesson from a few conservatives who refuse to conform to their culture-war scripts. Fox News anchor Shep Smith, for example, earned the ire of conservative viewers for pointing out the obvious hypocrisy in the case. Critiquing the Huckabee rally, Smith commented,

They set this up as a religious play again. This is the same crowd that says, ‘We don’t want Sharia law, don’t let them tell us what to do, keep their religion out of our lives and out of our government.’

Predictably, conservative Fox News viewers reacted furiously, calling Smith a “puke” and accusing him of “anti-Christian bias.”

But Smith was not alone. Conservative intellectuals also took issue with Davis’s brand of publicity-hogging culture-warriorism. Writing in the pages of The American Conservative, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher warned that Davis had ignored the central point of civil disobedience. Dreher argues,

It’s clear that there are many Christians who support Kim Davis because she’s doing something, even if that something is arguably counterproductive. This is unwise. . . . If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously. Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant.

Writing from the conservative bastion of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker made a similar point. While Moore and Walker bemoaned the “judicial overstep” and “government inaction” that led to this situation, they did not excuse Davis’s reckless behavior. “We must recognize,” they note,

the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancing test is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

For these brave conservative commentators, agreement with Davis’s opinion of same-sex marriage did not mean an automatic endorsement of Davis’s actions. All of us could learn from their example.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressives should commit to examine every case with the same gimlet eye. Just because we agree with someone’s position in general does not mean we must agree with their actions in every case.

Conservatives should be reminded to differentiate between today’s headlines and the big picture. Civil disobedience is a right and duty of us all, at times. But not every act of civil disobedience is equal, and civil disobedience has never meant simply flouting the laws we don’t like.

More important, we must all be willing to speak up against our own “side” when it is in the wrong. The first question should not be “Which side are you on?” but always “What is the right thing to do?”

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.