Sunday, May 8, 2011


May 8, 2011:

It's been hard recently not to think about education. The Wisconsin business started it all, laws being passed in that state having eliminated the collective bargaining rights of the state's teachers, with the uproar that followed, and the same thing going on in other states as well. Here in New York the legislature is apparently going to cap property tax increases at two percent a year, and since it is property taxes that pay for education, i.e. for teachers' salaries mostly, our local teachers are unhappy. To be sure, our local teachers tend to be unhappy in general, which is odd considering their situation. The local parents are quite fierce about getting the best possible education for their kids, and they invariably approve the school budgets, however large, driving up the tax rate, and they can do that because in Sag Harbor more than half the houses are second homes, occupied only in the summers, the people who own them vote elsewhere, mostly in New York City, and they thus have no say in what they pay in property taxes. You get the picture. It's like a blank check for the locals with kids, and the result is a cost-per-student per year of about $28,000. The national average is a little over $8,000.

So why are the teachers unhappy? Because recently the school board has been getting a little less generous, the teachers worked without a new contract for more than two years, and they want more. Everybody wants more, no?

So the question this raises is: just what is a teacher worth?

I ask this question as a highly educated person, with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and all the course work for a Ph. D. finished, many years ago, just before I ran out of money and had to leave academia behind and get a job. Toward the end of all that education I taught a year myself, freshman composition at Hunter College in New York. I think I made, what, $2000 for the year. But things were different then. Two grand was not the nothing that it is today. It was a fair price, and I discovered in the process that I was, first, a poor teacher, second that you can't teach freshman composition, and third, I am not suited to institutional life. I don't follow rules. If the class was over ten minutes before it was due to be over, I let them go. They went out in the halls and made noise. Very bad. It was 1961; in Korea, for reasons everyone has forgotten, students in the universities were in the streets protesting. Why don't you go out and protest, I asked my own students. There seemed to be a lot to protest about at the time. They just stared at me. Obviously I was from another planet.

OK, I was not a good teacher, but how many good teachers had I had over the years? I can name them. Gregory Vlastos, who in a philosophy seminar asked the six or seven of us probing questions about the nature of reality (the same questions Thales and Parmenides and Socrates and the rest of the Greeks had asked) and taught me that I could think, asking me to contribute more because I had interesting things to say. He was the best. Miss Grimler in high school, who was the music teacher and directed our choir and was tough and demanding and knew teenage kids well enough to turn an unruly bunch of us into a choir that won state championships. She taught us to sing from the gut, in every sense of the word. Mr. Bright in junior high, the aptly named Mr. Bright, who taught American history and knew how to dramatize it and bring it alive; he would act out scenes, he would make the people seem real. And Miss Bush, in sixth grade, who was always threatening to hang us out the window by our thumbs; she taught English and she was good at it, and also demanding, and lived in an apartment on Summit Avenue near town and it must have been a spare and lonely life. And Russell Fraser, who taught a seminar on Christopher Marlowe in college. For him I read all three parts of Henry VI, one of Shakespeare's early efforts, and he told me I was probably one of the fewer than a hundred people in the country who had read all three parts of Henry VI. He was really good. You had to apply to get in his seminars, and you came out of them having written a long essay and knowing something about the complexity of a period and the context in which the main events in that period took place.

Context, in fact, is key. I have an old friend, very bright, very successful, whom I'm very fond of, but he will be the first to admit that he's not that well educated; anyway, he thinks somebody else besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. How is it possible, he wants to know, that a glover's son from the provinces with just a grammar school education could know as much about life, about kings and their courts and Roman history and all the rest that Shakespeare knew so well? But he doesn't know what a grammar school education meant in Shakespeare's time; he doesn't know the context. An Elizabethan grammer school education meant learning Latin, and some Greek, and reading the classics, Plutarch, Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Aristotle, Plato, in the original, and translating as an almost daily exercise from Latin into English and English into Latin. And that's just for starters. There's much more context to the situation than just this, too: the money factor, the fact that Shakespeare collaborated extensively, the fact that to pull off a deception like that, i.e. somebody else writing the plays, would have required the cooperation of hundreds, really hundreds of other people. No serious scholar of the period takes this issue seriously. It is only those who don't know the context.

Which is, I think, part of the point I'm trying to make. We are not a well-educated country. We tend not to think context is important. We barge into the Middle East without bothering to make any enquiries about what kind of context we're barging into, who these people are, what they believe, how their belief systems are structured, their social systems, what they want out of life and what they don't want. We literally can't speak the language. So with my friend. Because he doesn't know the context, he doesn't understand that when Shakespeare was writing his plays nobody thought plays were literature and playwrights were not intent on preserving the plays in print, nor was anybody else. Hundreds of Elizabethan plays have been lost. Literature was not the drama; literature was poetry. Shakespeare took care to see his poem The Rape of Lucrece through the press, but he made no effort at all to get King Lear into print. The plays, which we think are sublime, he wrote for money, and he became relatively prosperous doing it, but the poems he wrote for reputation. That's the context, or part of it; and Iraq and Afghanistan each has its own context, its own history and attitudes and interests, all very different from our own. Human beings are not everywhere the same. Much of what we take for granted as natural are in fact social inventions. Even basic feelings. Romantic love, for example, is an invention of the twelfth and thirteenth century troubadours in the south of France. I can cite you chapter and verse. Nostalgia was once a medical disease, invented in the late sixteenth century. This is what education does, it complicates the world, it gives you the key to the prison of received ideas and mindless prejudice that the mass of mankind inhabits. But most Americans don't care to know these things. They're not interested.

So what is a teacher worth? He or she is worth everything if he or she can awaken your interest in the context, lead you, for example, into history, help you see the history of the West and where we fit into it and how it is that we are who we are. You can do it on your own if such teachers don't exist, but it's hard. And the problem is, such teachers are rare. They're rare because the culture doesn't care. It is content to bounce around inside the prison walls. The culture has very little respect for intellectual things, for depth of knowledge, unless it's obviously useful in some material way. Parents want their kids to go to college because they'll get a better job and make more money, but it would never occur to most Americans that college can change your inner life as well as your outer, that it can actually make you think, pique your curiosity, make you want to read books and rethink your assumptions and understand the world around you in greater depth. How many Americans see learning as a passion, a way of life? How many even go to the dictionary and look up the words they don't know?

If our teachers could do that, really educate us, wake us up from our dream world, I would be glad to see them all millionaires. But they can't do that because they're not well-educated themselves. Most of them are just doing their jobs. And far too many children--it's well-known in the teaching business--lose their curiosity by the time they hit high school. Their educations are essentially over. So all the statistics point one way. Other countries, some developed, some in the third world, score much better than we do on the tests that matter. The end result is a George Bush or a Sarah Palin, both of them pathetically ignorant and proud of it, or all the others like them who live in worlds without context, without the depth of knowledge that is essential to understanding what is actually going on, in both their country and their lives.