Taking "Special Interests" into Account(Wherein We Consider our K-12 Colleagues, Post-secondary Education, and Liberty)


First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

- Pastor Martin Niemller

It is not necessary to detail the natural consequences of the principle of democracy, it is the principle itself, simple yet copious, which deserves to be developed.

- Robespierre

In the 1999 thriller, The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker who discovers that everything he knows is an illusion created by cyber-intelligence. The computers are fighting for domination of the world and have created the ruse of day-to-day reality to keep human life distracted while siphoning off its life's energy as fuel. As the plot develops, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, must contend with Brown, Jones, and Smith, computerized agents who are endlessly replicable, the stereotypical "accountant" ad infinitum. In the end the humans win because, if for no other reason, the audience would still prefer that the human spirit triumph over the machine.

Today we see the congregating matrices of outcomesbased accounting, of statewide accountability, of No Child Left Behind, of "perfect" transfer patterns, and we bear witness to the victories of corporate/political/legislative efforts to standardize and measure everything. We are told that we will comply or be taken over by the government. We are aware of the ever-increasing line of accountants that feed upon and shape our labors to their appetites and wonder who will hear our appeal. I think of another movie, one I saw as a child, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Though I didn't understand everything, even as a youngster I knew that it was about Liberty and a willingness to stand up and fight for the preservation of an America that is by, of and for the people.

So, here I am, a product of my childhood lessons-and here we all are, embodying the legacy of Robespierre, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and sharing a common anguish that Liberty may yet become standardized silage for a line of accountantagents who stand flanked between "We the People" and our America.

We are living in the Information Age, an age every bit as much as was the Age of Enlightenment. More than that, we are slipping into a high-tech dark age of global feudalism, and if the islands of light that are our schools, colleges and universities are to endure, we must not go softy into this gathering dusk, for as surely as line items are soulless, this new accountability is in the service of big money interests. Let us consider the words of our Governor.

When Schwarzenegger delivered his State of the State Address on January 5, he referenced "special interests" to describe those in his "new era of reform" who would be held accountable for California's budget woes. Was he referring to the large tax-exempt corporations referenced during Lieutenant-Governor Bustamante introductory remarks? Was he speaking of those corporados who rerouted California's energy plans into their private portfolios? Indeed, who would the Governor target as "special interests"? It was teachers.

I thought about this, the way the Governor used logical fallacies to attack teachers. He began by referencing our "many wonderful and dedicated teachers," but then he concentrated his remarks on systemic failures that he blamed on educators. Blaming teachers because "we still have 30% of high school students not graduating" is like lambasting the police because the crime rate has gone up. Could poor graduation rates have anything to do with the fact that K-12 is funded on Daily Average Attendance? Could it have anything to do with impoverished schools? Could it have anything to do with societal changes and the challenges of shifting demographics and overpopulation? Could it have anything to do with the soul-shriveling grind of accountability and it deleterious effects on the teaching profession?

The Governor slipped in another logical fallacy and said, "The more we reward excellent teachers, the more our teachers will be excellent." We, of course, reject such simplistic nonsense, for as educated people we know that we reward certain behaviors at the expense of other behaviors, behaviors that may yet resist conscription by such automatons as agents Brown, Jones and Smith and the hollow people of their ilk. The Governor's voice rolled on, undeterred by such fineness of thought, and assumed a determined righteousness: "We must financially reward good teachers and expel those who are not." As always, the position of the Academic Senate is that if evidence must be provided, let it be for reasons that help students-not to embolden some central intelligence data reservoir and not for the aggrandizement of consultants who don't know the first thing about teaching. Evidence should never be an instrument for revealing the identities of our students, our colleagues or individual class sections, not anywhere within the K-PhD continuum. Evidence must never be used as a lash to ensure the duplicitous lie of "continual quality improvement." Yet such abuses are a reality for our K-12 colleagues, and such duplicity is a growing menace within our community college and university systems.

So, I ask: "Who will speak for the people?"

In The Matrix, victory was secured through teamwork and devotion to the rightness of their cause. The enigmatic leader, Neo, served primarily as the spearhead of the assault against the Matrix, but as with our own founders, the strength of Liberty is derived not from our leaders, but our representatives, those who are the spearhead of our collective will. Today, then, as in all epochs, education remains the central battleground for the preservation of an informed Liberty. Yet, alarmingly, research suggests a love of Liberty is waning among our nation's young. The University of Connecticut, with Knight Foundation grants, conducted in 2004 a survey of more than a 100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools. The results indicate that 75% of students are unaware of the protections afforded by the First Amendment. When asked if people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97% of teachers and 99% of school principals agreed. Fewer students did, only 83%. More lamentable, when told the exact text of the First Amendment, more than 33% of the students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

I believe that fighting to save Liberty is far less daunting a challenge than fighting to restore it once it's been disassembled. American Liberty is like an old growth ecosystem, a culture of interconnecting values that once sacrificed cannot be easily replicated. Even yet, while it is possible, we can still use our remaining freedoms as a foundation upon which to take our stand, for once Liberty is gone, in its wake will grow impenetrably dense networks of insidious logic, edicts that behave as though we are at war and speak of the "common good" and the evil "other" as reasons to stifle "undesirable" opinions. The new world order will require a "culture of evidence" because accountability equates with external domination, a stifling of Liberty's essential dynamism. Today, we must educate our children about the spirit of Liberty and encourage them to understand that while deliberative and critical thought is difficult, it yields greater returns than unexamined slogans. Today, we must be willing to inconvenience ourselves, teach up, and question authority in the name of Liberty. Today, as never before, tenure must remain Liberty's shield; that is its function. That is why tenure exists, to safeguard our essential freedoms. Patriotism must be reclaimed as a love of Liberty and not permitted to degrade into a rhetorical and jingoistic ploy by the powerful for domination of the unsuspecting.

The Governor said, "And we all know what's going to happen. The special interests will run TV ads calling me cruel and heartless. They will organize protests out in front of the Capitol. They will try to say I don't understand the consequences of these decisions." He added, in a tone that displayed his fettle, "My colleagues, this is going to be a big political fight." And then his voice, het up on the passion of message, crescendoed on an applause line, a hideously ironic false dichotomy: "This is a battle of the special interests versus the children's interests. Which will you choose?"

Whoever is telling the Governor what positions to hold is not, in my estimation, a patriot.

As the Office of the Governor seeks to quiet the voice of the people by engaging in rhetorical sleights-of-hand, what shall we do? Though the Governor had intended the term "special interest" to be understood as a pejorative, shall we agree that a "special" interest may be a pretty good thing in some instances, the object of one's love and devotion? Shall we stand up for our special interests? Indeed, we educators view our students as our special interest, as we do Liberty, and we defend both by perpetuating a critical awareness of the principles upon which America was founded. We do so by teaching critical thinking skills, by working to instill a love of learning, by helping them to understand that education is about more than jobs, and by demonstrating a resolute willingness to walk-our-talk. Every generation must face down its own challenges to Liberty, and now is our time to move out from behind our desks and to enter the field of public discourse. Now is the time to gather in public meetings, to write to newspapers, and to attend local senates and union meetings and statewide conferences and proclaim for all to hear that we will not surrender our classrooms and our country to the machine and its "culture of evidence."

At the conclusion of The Matrix, the Oracle is asked if she had always known how things would turn out, if, in effect, she had known that Liberty would triumph, and she replied, "Oh no, but I believed. I believed." And so must we-but we must act.