John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Shall We Tell Them?

John Gardner
President

I have returned to the US and something remarkable has happened: the same people who brought us the political party and dominant national ethos which gave us the financial meltdown, the huge deficits, an unnecessary war, have miraculously persuaded many of my fellow citizens that the folks to blame for our economic woes are—stand by: public employees. You know, the $50,000 dollar or year cops, firepersons, teachers, civil servants who have been living the high life as over paid government workers. It is they who have caused our state fiscal crises, and not the economic recklessness of Wall Street which led to huge lay offs and declines in tax revenues. History is being rewritten. And the most unsuspecting villains of this piece—who would have ever thought it would come to this: the teachers. And not the well treated university types like me, no, the rank and file classroom teachers. I have returned to mass layoffs of teachers and threats to cut Head Start and other programs for pre-school children. Talk about class warfare? This is truly class warfare against the poor and less fortunate. But then, they can’t hire lobbyists. As I once heard Vernon Jordan say in a speech in Columbia, S.C, when he was President of the Urban League: “If you ain’t in the room, you ain’t part of the action”. And it is the public servants who aren’t in the room. Even those in unions. They aren’t allowed in anymore as we race to take away their rights of free speech and collective bargaining.

So what are we going to tell our students?

For some decades now, public sector employment has become more attractive and compelling to many of our students. The reasons, of course, were multiple: an outlet for their idealism; an opportunity to be of service and to return the gift; greater employment security (or so they thought) in return for much lower wages; secure predictable benefits (or so they thought); the opportunity to retire at a younger age; and more.

We have been making all kinds of strides in enticing some of the best and the brightest into teaching. After 9/11 who had become our national heroes? Fire fighters and police officers. It wasn’t the Wall Street bankers and brokers who rushed into the Twin Towers never to emerge again, trying in vain to rescue our innocent life threatened citizens. A decade later, one political party actually demanded a drastic reduction in the damage settlements to be awarded to those rescue workers who had acquired long term illnesses in that heroic rescue effort, a heatless attack against our heroes set back only by the crusade of a television commentator and talk comedy host.

Our students in the main think that college has something to do with getting a job, a better job, a well paying job. So what are we going to tell them? Why would any thoughtful student now consider entering the career of teaching? With reductions in wages and retirement benefits. With a proposal to close half the schools in Detroit and to increase class size up to 50. Just who would want to teach in this context? Maybe we should just eliminate schools and send these urban kids straight to jail.

I am being serious: what are we going to tell our students? Should they pursue civil service occupations in spite of these dimmed prospects for a decent middle class living? Are the psychic rewards sufficient? What are their other options to be of service? How can we persuade the students to discount the criticism being heaped upon these occupations, the scapegoating? What else can we say other than: “Forgive them, for they know not what they think and say?”

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