Tenure’s Just Another Word for Liberty, So Dump It!

Ichabod Crane

Paul Thomas today at Schools Matter:

K-12 Teaching: A Service Industry

 At The New Republic, “Making the Grade” poses this about the difference between college professors (notice that term “professor,” as in “one who professes”) and K-12 teachers:

“The vast majority of states have long granted public school teachers tenure. The way it works is simple: After a certain number of years, teachers qualify—’virtually automatically’ in most states, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality—for a form of job protection that makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.

“The system is analogous to the protections that university professors receive—but with one important conceptual difference. Universities are not just educational institutions; they are our country’s idea factories. And so it makes a certain amount of sense that we would want university professors—the people our society relies on to explore ideas, including unpopular ones—to enjoy protections from ideological or intellectual retribution.

“But this rationale doesn’t apply at the K–12 level. So what is the case for K–12 teacher tenure? The truth is, there isn’t a good one.”

Diane Ravitch has confronted this argument as “bizarre,” but otherwise, I have heard little challenging of this sentiment, leading me to wonder how powerful this claim is.
Some of us in education, scholarship, and research have argued that the corporate-driven “no excuses” reform movement aims to make teaching a service industry, but I now wonder: Is K-12 teaching already considered just a service industry?
And if so, who is to blame for this?
Every professional organization, every administrator, and every teacher who have grabbed chairs at the table serving the Common Core State Standards—well, that’s a start for the blame.


When were the institutional education systems of state and federal mandate not a kind of service organization for national ideologies, primarily the business ideology?  We are reaping the confluence of a consistency of messages via our national institutions, are we not?  Recall the excerpt I offered from Kenneth Burke the other day:

Anomaly One: That even in a world highly militant, the educator may most easily set himself at peace with his fellows by subscribing to the rapacious values in authority and training his students to accept things as they are.  To be sure, he need not deny the evidences of trouble all about him.  He may parade some modicum of discontent with the present.  It is even advisable that he call for a better future, if only his pleas do not imply a basic attack upon current institutions which, if preserved, would make this better future possible.  “Futurism” of this sort may be in exceptionally good repute, if the several complimentary tributes to the forward-looking uttered by the authors of Redirecting Education are evidence.

Unfortunately, it is quite reasonable that an educator’s attempts to alter the social framework in any serious respect should be resisted.  A society which believes in itself and its values will insist that its schools be used to perpetuate these values.  A society of crooks which firmly believed in crookedness as a “way of life” would probably insist that its children be taught how to steal.  And similarly a society built around the expropriative devices of capitalism will insist that the fundamentals of expropriation be taught and hallowed.  In the natural order of events, education is a function of society.  If we imagine an ideal world, for instance, we think of a just and stable economic structure, with a system of education designed for teaching youth how to maintain this justice and stability.

Tenure is a kind of freedom that MIGHT (can, should) encourage educating “youth how to maintain…justice and stability.”  Teachers should indeed have it at every level.  Tenure is precious and ought to be the greatest gift we can give and serve as the greatest show of confidence for our particular social and political systems.  Tenure is a freedom from the coercion of the accidental power of wealth and the manipulative power of government.  If we don’t give it then we have made it clear that we do not believe in our mode of social being.

But we should be honest that folks only wish to be rid of tenure in order to serve the economic power of capital accumulation.  Tenure is a block to cost-cutting.  Pure and simple.  Any other rationale offered to undercut it as an safeguard to freedom of expression is fraudulent.


As to Common Core State Standards, here is J.S. Mill, our “progressive” progenitor, on the State, Liberty and Education (from Chapter 5 of On Liberty):

A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs. The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others. This obligation is almost entirely disregarded in the case of the family relations, a case, in its direct influence on human happiness, more important than all the others taken together. The almost despotic power of husbands over wives needs not be enlarged upon here, because nothing more is needed for the complete removal of the evil, than that wives should have the same rights, and should receive the protection of law in the same manner, as all other persons; and because, on this subject, the defenders of established injustice do not avail themselves of the plea of liberty, but stand forth openly as the champions of power. It is in the case of children, that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the State of its duties. One would almost think that a man’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of himself, so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them; more jealous than of almost any interference with his own freedom of action: so much less do the generality of mankind value liberty than power

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. Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognize and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of the parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to the child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. Unless, indeed, when society in general is in so backward a state that it could not or would not provide for itself any proper institutions of education, unless the government undertook the task; then, indeed, the government may, as the less of two great evils, take upon itself the business of schools and universities, as it may that of joint-stock companies, when private enterprise, in a shape fitted for undertaking great works of industry does not exist in the country. But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.

The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father, unless he has some sufficient ground of excuse, might be subjected to a moderate fine, to be worked out, if necessary, by his labor, and the child might be put to school at his expense. Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory. Beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate. To prevent the State from exercising through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher class of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively.


But it ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flyin’ is? Love. You can know all the math in the ‘Verse, but take a boat in the air you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her home.”  (Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of the ship Serenity in the movie of the same name)


Kenneth Burke tells us what ought to be very obvious above–if a nation of people believes the way it lives is “good” or “right” then it wants to replicate those ways, pass them on or down as it were, to future generations.  In this way it sustains itself–justifies itself–and offers a continuity of living.  If capitalism is “good” then our “ills” cannot be due to it.  If the drive for success is motivated by money and that is “good” then our “ills” cannot be due to it.  Why would we educate that money is the root of all evil if we believe it is not only a motivating force for good, but is a good in itself?

Mill gives us so much more to deal with, but it seems to me if, at bottom, he is simply saying–education should be experimental in some ways but that there really SHOULD be a baseline “literacy” for a particular class of facts.  He does not deal with ideologies and he does not deal with abstractions or the ways in which a person might come to be a “critical” thinker.  But he too says that the State should have no role in “molding” citizens.  That is anathema to his idea of Liberty.  But, JS, if we are products of the economic and political systems of the state, how would our educational systems serve to differ from those systems?  As Burke notes, why would we educate against our beliefs as a society?  Wouldn’t we always propound our actions and ideals to the good?

Burke would offer this as somewhat impossible:

But insofar as society is in disorder, and a group arises which questions the set of values in authority, we may expect at tendency to reverse the relationship between education and society.  The dissident group wants to make education an instrument of social change.  Or, in Dewey’s terminology…it wants to make society a function of education.  It would make education evangelical or reformative, rather than conservative.  To educate for socialism in a capitalist country, for instance, would be a schismatic, evolutionary, or revolutionary act, designed to make society a function of education.

To educate in that manner is to lose your job.


photo credit: Wikipedia.  Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving. William J. Wilgus (1819–53), artist Chromolithograph, c. 1856

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