Public Education, Justice, Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Refusal—is there a Common Denominator?

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the 1970s, I took a course in political philosophy.   As part of the course, I had to write a term paper.   The 1970s was a very turbulent time in America and so I decided that my paper would be about the right of protestors to engage in civil disobedience in their opposition to the Vietnam War.   When I started to research civil disobedience, I started with two premises:  One that the protestors and draft resistors were absolutely right in their justification to take over buildings, burn their draft cards and even attack police and two that I understood what civil disobedience really meant and when it was justified.   When I was finished with my research under the guidance of a true educator, I ended up having more questions than answers.

This professor taught me that a truly educated person is one who is comfortable to walk in the shoes of those you disagree with.  Only in this way can one garner a true understanding of what various concepts really mean.    Doing this increases one depth of understanding and clarifies all the “isms” that people use—more as clichés than anything else.  It also enables one to make connections and synthesize different ideas.

Originally, I planned to write about how we educators may need to use civil disobedience in order to try to stop those who want corporatize and privatize education through charters, vouchers, and de-professionalizing teaching.   Then something happened in the last week that made me rethink everything that I planned to write about.  The event was the Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage the law of the land.   All of a sudden I started to hear the word civil disobedience coming from those opposed to the ruling.  What I did not hear was the specific type of civil disobedience those on the right planned to engage in.  Then it became clear to me why the myriad of GOP presidential candidates and fundamentalist religious preachers could not describe exactly how they planned to be civilly disobedient.   It is because they do not have a clear understanding about when civil disobedience is justified or what exactly is civil disobedience.  And obviously next I began to think about whether public educators have a justification to be civilly disobedient.

We in public education and those who oppose the Supreme Court ruling have something in common.   We both believe that laws have come into existence, which are unjust.   In addition, we both believe that we are absolutely right in our world view.  Where we differ is in how we define the philosophical concept of justice. One side views justice as coming from some ephemeral being while the other side views justice as a concept that is a human construct.

Recently, I posted an article on Facebook which elicited an angry response from a friend.   It was an article from a clergyman who had a different interpretation as to what the bible says about homosexuality.   My Facebook friend believes that what a particular bible says is immutable because he/she knows that it was written by god and anything written by god can never be changed or interpreted in a different way.   Here is someone who is unable to walk in someone else’s shoes to gain a deeper understanding of the those who see the world in a different way.   Obviously, what the bible says has been reinterpreted many, many times.   One just has to look at history and see about two thousand years of religious wars and conflicts over the nature of god and the truth in three different bibles. (By the way I am purposefully not capitalizing the words bible and god for reasons that will soon be obvious).  The fact that there are three different bibles, canon law, talmudic law and sharia law as well as a myriad of commentaries on each is the evidence that our religious and spiritual understanding of god and our relationship to a possible supreme being has changed many times over the centuries.   Even the Jewish bible or old testament to Christians and Moslems changed in its spiritual understanding of the nature of god and the universe.   Biblical research reveals that different parts of the bible were written at different times by different men.  For example, there are two stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  In addition, the modern conception of heaven and hell does not exist in the first five books.  Those ideas would come into Judaism and later Christianity from the Hellenistic world.   Now I know what I am saying may offend some who read this.   I bring this up to show that free and open inquiry through education and study made our understanding of how our Western religions developed and changed possible. I do not capitalize the word bible because there is more than one bible and I do not capitalize the word god because there is more than one conception of god.  If there was only one interpretation of the bible there would not be hundreds of Christian denominations, different branches of Judaism, and the Sunni and Shiite conflict within the Moslem religion. Furthermore, there are several billion people who inhabit this earth who have a completely different spiritual understanding of the world. It is unfortunate that people who believe that their view is the absolute truth and who have used some type of power relationship to enforce their truth have a lot of blood on their hands.  One needs to look no further than South Carolina to see what is wrought by any type of extremism—either religious or political.

Let us move away from religion and return to the concept justice.   Historically speaking, the modern view of justice comes not from religion but from the Enlightenment.   Originally, governments were thought of having received their authority to rule from a religious perspective.   The Chinese thought Emperors received a mandate from heaven, a thousand years ago, European feudal monarchs believed they had to be anointed by god’s earthly representative (the Pope),  and approximately five hundred years ago the absolute monarchs of Europe thought they ruled by “divine right.”   Our modern concept of governmental justice derives from a social contract between people and the political institutions that they create.  It is simply that governmental power derives from those who are governed.   People established governments to keep order, protect us from danger, and give us a measure of “liberty” and “justice”.  Ah, it is these last two concepts that have caused every political, social and economic conflict in the modern western world over the last several hundred years.

When I took political philosophy in college, I was greatly influenced by the writings of John Rawls.  In 1971, he published “A Theory of Justice.”  It was this book in that college course which gave me insight into what exactly is injustice and the role civil disobedience plays in trying to correct injustice in a given society.   Rawls defines justice to mean that people within a given society should have equal liberty and equal opportunity. In addition, he states that liberty is a reciprocal relationship between people and groups.  Basically, your liberty cannot harm someone else either socially, economically or politically. Rawls believed that injustice can only occur in a near-just society that is well ordered and has a constitutional government.  He also understood that most near-just societies often are imperfect and that the concept of justice is ever changing and usually defined by those who have power in that society in order to keep or derive some economic, political or social benefit.

This definition clearly describes the history of our country.   The founders knew they were creating an imperfect political system.   Otherwise, our constitution would not have an elastic clause or a process to amend or change it.  Also, it was created through compromise based on certain religious, social, economic and political concepts that existed at the end of the 18th century.  However, most of our founding fathers had the general conception that justice meant that a government should not deprive a person of his/her life, liberty or property without some type of due process of law that all members of the state would agree with.  Furthermore, Rawls also understood that a strong democratic process enable groups to exchange opinions and ideas without fear of intimidation. He felt that exchanging opinions checks the partiality of different groups and widens their perspectives.  However, even after long and fruitful discussion—especially in a democratic republic—it sometimes does not yield a unanimous agreement.   Therefore, we have to apply the basic principal of any democracy “majority rule” as Rawls called it, which means the majority wins.   This principle is based on the presumption that it is less likely for a majority to be mistaken. On the other hand, sometimes the majority can be mistaken because of selfish economic interests, religious beliefs or certain life-experiences.  It is for this reason that he believed that a “near just” society allows the minority to express their views.   In our society, the way we have decided to do this is through education and the social contract imbedded in our constitution that allows for dissent through a free press, the right to petition the government for redress, and the right of legislative representatives to express their varying points of view.

So what exactly is civil disobedience and when is it justified.   First, civil disobedience is political in nature.   It is used when a political law is deemed to be unjust based on evidence that the law denies equal liberty and equal opportunity to a minority.  It is a clear, serious and blatant violation of justice by denying a group economic, social or political participation in a democratic society.   Next, normal constitutional routes must have been tried and have been subverted by those who hold power.   Third, the level of disobedience must never reach a point where it threatens the rule of law within a society because those who engage in civil disobedience accept that most of the laws of the society are just.   Fourth, the action must be controlled so as not to provoke those in power to unjust violence.  Therefore, it must be peaceful.  Fifth, the exercise should be rationally framed to advance a specific objective (change of a law).  Sixth, it should be public and educational.  Seventh, those who engage in civil disobedience must accept the legal consequences of their action in a peaceful manner.  Therefore, when I began to apply this definition to those who were protesting the Vietnam War, I came to realize that many protesters were not really engaged in civil disobedience.  Instead, they were engaging in what he termed conscientious refusal.

According to Rawls, what he calls conscientious refusal or objection is a simple refusal to obey what one considers an immoral law based on a personally held and immutable moral, social or political view.  Therefore, conscientious refusal is not really appealing to a “shared” political conception of justice.  It is not necessarily seeking to convince the majority or the authorities to change the law. It is often the attempt to force someone’s will through violence and power. For example, those who burned draft cards did not object to the draft law, but to end the war based on their own point of view—moral, economic or political–and chose to create disorder to force their belief system on the government.   Often, the conscientious objector does not have a sense of justice because many objectors  use violence to resist the law that is opposed, such as anti-abortion protesters that find abortion so wrong that they will manhandle pregnant women and kill doctors that perform abortion.  And yes, it has been reported that several groups have threatened that one solution to preventing gay marriage is to inflict harm on those who acquire a legal marriage license.

Now, what has all this to do with public education?  To me, the most important purpose of public education at the school and college level is to create a common civic view of what constitutes justice in our society through open and free discussion.  Through education one develops a common civic culture through consensus.   It is to develop the conception that there are general principles of civic justice and a constitutional mechanism to resolve our differences.    It is to develop the understanding that we are a country based on law and not on threats and fear.  It is for different people to get together and try to create a common civic conception of government and justice.

The real beginning of the voucher and charter movements was based on the idea of conscientious refusal.   It began when America’s consensus of what represented justice fragmented.   That fragmentation occurred when the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional.   There was a plurality that was unable to accept Afro-Americans having equal political, social and economic status in our society.   Therefore, by creating separate charters, home schooling, or enacted vouchers to pay for religious schools, a separate and different type of curriculum could be taught.   One could create a curriculum based on a biblical view of the world or one that would create limited opportunities for certain groups through the exclusion of disabled, noncompliant, or ELL students.   One purpose of the many no-excuses charter school is to create compliant workers and citizens who will not question authority.   By defunding public education, what remains is a shallow shell, teaching a limited curriculum in which there is no time to discuss different ideas.  In addition, common civic institutions have little control as to what is taught in many charter and voucher schools.   The Gates, Broads, Kochs and Waltons understand that when one controls education, one controls the story. They do not want students to be taught alternate viewpoints.   They want students to accept their power and authority to control the government by saying that through their schools, they will give everyone the opportunity to join them in membership while at the same time really allowing very few into the club.  The control of education is really about who will control American society.

Those who want to privatize education truly hate public school teachers because most of us are products of a liberal arts education.   A liberal arts education teaches one to think, question and become a lifelong learner.   Instead, the reformers wish to create a post-secondary educational system that is vocational and job related.   They see no purpose to teach history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy or political science.   I believe their purpose is to destroy the intellectual foundation of those who would question their right to control this nation socially, economically and politically.  It is for this reason that they are trying to destroy unions—especially public employee unions by undermining their ability to collect dues. They want to make it impossible for people to organize collectively in order to create a political balance.  It is interesting that they got the Supreme Court to rule that money represents speech for corporations in Citizens United while, at the same time, they want to destroy that same right for workers.

I fear the ultimate goal of those who want to privatize and corporatize this nation is to fragment our common civic culture.  The privatizers want to use schools to divide us and not unite us.   They want an educational system that will foster hate and mistrust among different groups.   They want Afro-Americans to distrust middle class whites.   They want different ethnic groups to be in conflict with each other.   They want Latinos and Afro-Americans to fight each other over the few crumbs thrown to them.   They surely want to foster and support schools that will try to circumvent the tolerance most Americans now feel toward LBGT people, not really because of any real religious or moral point of view, but to create enmity in order to hold onto power.  After all, when one studies history, those who rule often disregard the moral codes they impose on others (the Borgias Popes, the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, etc.).  Our present billionaire oligarchy that controls so many politiicans want to destroy Rawls conception that justice means equal liberty and equal opportunity for everyone.  When one turns people into human capital only having economic worth, it is dehumanizing and sets up one group against another.

On the other hand, people should be free to believe and teach their children whatever they want, but not on my dime.  It is for this reason public school must remain democratically run so that a consensus can be reached as to what should be the curriculum within a given community.  Yes, the politics of school boards can be messy, but that is what democracy is all about.  Strong democracies force people to compromise and moderate their ideas through open discussion.   In addition, strong democracies are able to deal with civil disobedience.  In strong democracies, civil disobedience is a stabilizing force in a well ordered society.   In this country, its use has been to offer protection to the least advantaged.   Its use has been to expand justice in our society.   However, charters, vouchers and other privatization schemes are really a form of conscientious refusal to accept an expanded view of justice.  People should be wise to learn from our history that each time people in our nation chose to limit liberty, it led to violence, conflict and dysfunction within our political system   Think about Prohibition, Jim Crow and McCarthyism.

Finally, should teachers engage in civil disobedience to save public education?  The answer is obviously yes.  Teachers feel that de-professionalization, punitive evaluation systems, denial of collective bargaining, and the closure of public schools based on circumstances where they have no control violates the consensus of what represents justice.  These acts deny equal liberty and equal opportunity afforded to others in the society.  The purpose of these laws is to deny teachers, parents and children equal liberty and equal opportunity to participate economically, socially and politically in our nation. Teachers as well as parents must engage in civil disobedience to motivate those in power to change certain laws.  Its purpose will be to educate most Americans to understand that we now have injustice. Civil disobedience often works best when those in power do not have the means to prevent it from happening. Here would be some examples.  Groups of retired teachers could follow around hedge fund billionaires that finance charters and give support to AstroTurf nonprofit organizations whose goal it is to weaken public education. We could do the same with Arne Duncan until he engages teachers in a constructive discussion.   Retired teachers could trespass and video for YouTube the private schools where the corporate reformers send their children to contrast the type of education they want for their children as opposed to everyone else.  Teachers within a collocated school could also take videos of the well-stocked charter classrooms as compared to the resources their public school classrooms have.  Teachers can picket collocated charters before the start of school and after the day ends (charters usually have longer school days) to drive home the fact that a separate and unequal school system has been created. In mass, public school teachers can educate parents about the consequences (or lack thereof) of opting out of the test culture that has been created outside of the school day.  The most extreme act of civil disobedience would obviously be to just refuse to give those invalid and unreliable common core assessments to prevent its use until those in power negotiate with all stakeholders—parents, teachers and students.

I think this country has to make a choice.  Either we want to use education to create a common civic culture that expands justice for all Americans or we want to create an educational system that will fragment and create rifts that will eventually be unbridgeable.  This happened in the past.   One just has to study how schools in the United States developed during the anti-bellum period in the North and South.   It lead to the development of two separate cultures that either could have gone their separate ways, but what often happens in history, a majority culture  that is more powerful economically and politically forces their will on the weaker.   We know the result and still live with its consequences.   On the other hand, we can build a common national civic culture, using public education as a foundation, to create a shared sense of justice, but also respect for our individual differences and beliefs. There is a place for private and religious schools in our society, but their role should be to engage with the dominant political culture and not to impose their will on others.

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A Retired Teacher Reflections on His Birthday

I woke up this morning to notification beeps on my smart phone realizing for the first time that I was not a work on my birthday.  When one is retired, one has the freedom not to have to stand and teach in a 90 degree room on a late June day.  People were posting to my timeline on Facebook giving me birthday wishes.    By the early afternoon, about 40 people wished me Happy Birthday.    As I scrolled down the names of many of my friends, I soon realized that each person was important to me at different times of my life.   Besides the usual family members, there were childhood friends and many teaching colleagues.  Some were from the time I first became a teacher while others became friends with me later in my career when I was an Educational Evaluator on a child study team doing diagnostic testing of disabled students.

Then it hit me.  I began to remember another birthday—one that took place in 1978.   When I woke up that June morning, I was headed for an interview for my first real teaching job.   Instead of Facebook notifications and email messages, there were birthday cards.   Yes, I remember the time when people walked to the drug store, bought a card with thought, wrote a short message, signed their name, and mail it in time so that it would get to you either on or before your birthday.   When I look at those old cards, these signatures still keep alive the memory of my parents, aunt, uncles, and friends no longer with us.

On that day I reached my 24th birthday.  I was younger in age than both of my sons today.   To tell the truth, I was still pretty naïve and in some ways not completely grown up at that time.   I was living at home with my parents and my room still had somewhat of an adolescent quality to it.   My bookcase was lined with many college books and science fiction novels. On another shelf were some of my board games, such as Scrabble and Monopoly.  I still had a box on a table filled with old baseball cards (foolishly thrown out a week before I would get married three years later).  There was my old twelve inch black and white TV with its rabbit ear antennas and seven live stations.  There was my FM stereo radio, cassette, and turntable which endlessly played my little collection of vinyl records from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Associations, etc.

I wore a brown suit that day with a polyester shirt and thick tie for that first real interview.  A few weeks before, I finished my Master’s Degree in special education at Queens College. Interestingly, I did my teaching internship in a school that is presently up the block from where I live right now.   I student taught in a class made up of emotionally handicapped neurologically impaired students.   The class consisted of ten boys that were in third/fourth grade.  To tell the truth, my supervising teacher probably was a little weak in terms of managing the students, but her heart was in the right place.    In this white, middle class school (now primarily Asian), the special education class I was assigned did stand out.  Not only were many of the students of color, but they were often loud while the rest of the school was quiet as a church.  I recall one teacher who constantly complained about the noise our NIEH class made.  Little did I realize that a quarter century later she would be my superintendent!   The special education class I interned in did not really interact with the school because we entered the building through a side entrance and ate lunch at a separate time.  These disabled students were not even allowed to participate in assembly or gym.   This was a very different world.

I took the bus to Forest Hills that day to take the train to an ungentrified downtown Brooklyn.  Besides a few old office buildings on Court and Livingston Streets, there were a few run-down stores and dilapidated brownstones on the side streets.  This was my first visit to 110 Livingston Street.   This building, today a luxury condominium, was thought to house what would be considered the paradigm of bureaucratic incompetence.  I passed the Great Hall of the Board of Education to the elevators and made my way to the floor (I do not recall which one) that housed all the offices in charge of special education.   At that time, special education was divided into different bureaus.  There was the Bureau of the Physical Handicapped, the Bureau of Health Conservation, the Bureau of the Emotionally Handicapped and the Bureau of Students with Retarded Mental Development.   I had to make my way to the Bureau of the Physically Handicapped.   I recall having my heart in my mouth as I opened the door.

In the office sat two older men in shirt sleeves who were probably younger than I am today.   One was standing and I told him who sent me to them.   To my surprise, after they sat me down, they talked to me very informally which calmed my nerves.   Besides the usual interview-type questions, what I most recall was pieces of the conversation that reminded me what a different world 1978 was from today.   They both told me that I was being offered a very difficult job a minority school in South Jamaica.   They told me the students would be difficult, I would not have a lot of resources and that I will probably make many mistakes.   However, they told me not to worry because all young teachers make mistakes and often have difficulty reaching these children.   They just hoped I had a little bit of a tough hide, but, at the same time, really felt something for these kids.   One said that all teachers make goofs at the beginning, but really good teachers learn from their goofs.  And great teachers learn from others.  No one asked for a demonstration lesson or a portfolio of my lessons and student work.  They gave me a job based on their own impressions of me and not data.   They were looking for a good person who did have some skills; but I sense they were looking primarily for someone with a good heart.   By the way, both these supervisors were educators who understood what I really had to face in what is today called a high need school.

Today, I probably would not have even gotten the job.   After all, I would have to prove success even before I even started in the classroom.  Expecting me to do the best I could is not good enough for the present reform crowd.   I would have to say that I expect these high need students to achieve above grade level and reach proficiency on every common core assessment. I would have to bring a 200 page portfolio showing sample lessons and data showing student growth from my internship.   My Master’s Degree would not impress them unless I passed all four state teaching examinations.  On the other hand, if I came through Teach for America and attended an Ivy, I would not have to prove anything.  Instead of encouragement, I would probably be told that if I failed with these students, my career would be short lived.  Unlike today,   in 1978, they still wanted teachers who would turn their love of children into a career and not into cogs measured by data points.  That was the world I came into as a teacher and will always believe in.   Children and teachers are people and not human capital. I retired because I measure the human and not the economic value of children and teachers.