Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Democracy, academic freedom, and the need for teachers' unions

Democracy , Academic Freedom and the need for teachers’ unions.
Recent events and controversies  such as the banning of Ethnic Studies classes in Arizona have again shown   the need for teachers’ unions.
In 2009  far right wing politicians and activists have passed legislation  such as Arizona House Bill 2281 authored by Tom Horn  to prevent the teaching of U.S. history to Mexican American students that includes the history of the Mexican American people in Arizona .
We first need to address the issue of perspective to clarify these issues.  There is a political spectrum of views from Right to Center to Left.  When someone is on the extreme Right- such as Tea Party advocates- anyone on the other end of the spectrum is portrayed as dangerous and even un-American.  Recent political campaigns calling President Obama a socialist- which he is not- and the legislative assault on immigrants in Arizona and 20 other states point to the deepening political divisions in our society.  A group of Republican activists have filed to place an Arizona type law SB1070 on the California ballot.  It would go even further than Propositions 187 and 227 already passed by the California voters.
When you stand on the far right others to your left can be seen as dangerous.
Right Wing
           When you stand on the far left everything to your right ( including the political center) can be seen as potentially fascist.
            In this situation, accusations of extremism get distorted.  Teachers, particularly history and social studies teachers came under attack when they promote a democratic exchange of ideas.
At times  in my teaching  I have been accused of being a communist or a Marxist-Leninist, which I am not.  A recent post on a newspaper web site accusing me of being a communist since I wrote to support teachers raises related issues.  Usually you can’t clarify these issues.  Such conflicts  events push teachers to avoid angry controversy be teaching only an “approved” version of history.
            After decades of political participation, I have arrived at a perspective that I would describe as democratic socialism  - a part of the long tradition of democratic socialism and social democracy in the U.S. from John Dewey,  Jane Adams, Michael Harrington, Cornel West  and including Martin Luther King Jr. among others.
            I have been fortunate to work within this tradition for over 35 years at a public state university.  My primary task was preparing young people to become History and Social Science teachers for k-12 schools usually in the Sacramento region.  I have also mentored a number of people to get their doctorates and to teach in universities and community colleges.
            I have developed my own views on the appropriate role of democracy and advocacy in decades of research and dialogue.  You can see these ideas in detail in my most recent book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. (4th. edition) 2010.   Working within the democratic socialist perspective and with the assistance of many I have developed some expertise in political economy, racism, and the history of the Chicano/Mexican American people among other topics.  In my classes I taught about these issues, I did not impose them.  
            At times I encountered students from a right wing perspective who found my views too extreme and they told me so in various venues including student evaluations of faculty.  These students, and some faculty members, challenged my views and at times sought to de-legitimize my position including seeking my dismissal from the faculty.  
 These conflicts  with democratic teaching are similar to the conflicts being imposed on faculty in the La Raza Studies program in Tucson Arizona at present.
            There was little or no room for debating our differences because the accusers were not interested in debate nor clarity, they sought to delegitimize my teaching and  at  times to get me fired.  In other cases we had a lively time of debate and both sides reconsidered some of their positions.  Over the years I was probably accused of extremism more about issues of race and racism than about issues of political economy.
            It was important for me to have a union during these conflicts. I could usually rely upon my union to defend my right to hold my position and to teach and to defend my academic freedom.  There were  times in my career when I  was denied tenure and promotion and needed precisely this  union protection for my rights to teach my own experiences about race and political economy.
            What did I actually do that offended these critics and caused some to get me fired?  Well, outside of my teaching  I wrote pieces, I spoke out and gave speeches, I registered voters and I campaigned for candidates and issues.  These are the behaviors which my critics found not acceptable.  They are basic democratic activities.
            After decades of conflict I prevailed, prospered, and retired.  In addition to times of severe conflict there were many more times when I was advised to conceal my positions, to not take a stand, to conceal my political philosophy or to not make it obvious.  Without a union to defend my positions I would have  more likely  been driven back to intellectual compromises to avoid conflicts on issues such as both racism and the political economy such as describing the current economic crisis.
What do these critics  of democratic participation and intellectual freedom favor?   In 2003, U.S. District Judge Richard Posner wrote
“Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry..." The theory of popular democracy, Posner said, "hopelessly exaggerates the moral and intellectual capacities, both actual and potential, not only of the average person but also of the average official (including judge) and even of the political theorists who seek to tutor the people and the officials.”
Posner is a well-respected leading  conservative intellectual. His views  reflect much of the thinking in the Republican Party and corporate U.S.  political life today.
For more on this topic see, “ Do Americans Believe In The Wisdom of the Public?
The Promise of Popular Democracy.” Glenn W. Smith 2008.

            I have a union.  I helped to create this union.  The union assisted me in protecting my academic freedom and defending my right to teach about racism, economics, and an accurate history.    In doing so it also permitted me to research, explore, and write about diverse viewpoints.  This academic freedom also encouraged me to clarify my own positions on the values of free and open inquiry and the role of the intellectual in our society.
            For the good of our society, this academic freedom must be protected and extended- and teachers’ unions are one of the few institutions protecting open and democratic inquiry.

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