Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.
Some will call this a stretch, but one way to shed light on the reason we have teachers unions is to hear from a great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky; specifically, to look at perhaps the most widely discussed chapter (and most widely excerpted—it was in two anthologies I was assigned freshmen year in college) from The Brothers Karamazov.
I taught this chapter myself when I first offered a Russian literature class to high school juniors and seniors in Vermont. Great works of art, we believe, are timeless. Maybe it is not so strange to think these 20 pages might tell us about one of our most troubling issues in K-12 public education in America.
Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.
Like many teachers, I had experiences with the union that disappointed or frustrated me. Observing school reform from inside and outside the classroom, I have criticized the stance taken by teachers’ associations on several issues. At the same time, I share a conviction that teachers’ views are given short shrift by policymakers and the district office, that class size IS a central factor in teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and that the latest obsession with teacher evaluation could, if badly implemented, do more harm than good.
But post-Tucson, after reminders to be civil and avoid “going negative” and President Obama’s request that we “expand our moral imagination,” I thought it might help to offer a quiet meditation—not a harsh attack—on unions. It may shed light on why most public schools teachers join the local teachers’ associations. If this comes close to a truth about the attraction, perhaps it also serves as a warning.
And yet it is an explosive topic. A too-literal reading of this will assume I am anti-Catholic—or that the teachers union is in league (like the powerful cleric in this chapter) with the devil. Dear reader, it’s about an idea, a view of human nature. If you don’t see the parallels, I can’t force them on you. Or maybe, as Ivan Karamazov says to his brother as he concludes his tale, “It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student…”
The Grand Inquisitor
Ivan’s parable, called “The Grand Inquisitor” (Book V, Chapter V in the novel), is set in Seville, Spain, in the sixteenth century—“in the most terrible time of the Inquisition.” The 90-year-old cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, sees that Christ has returned and begins to win a new following, and so has him taken prisoner. The old man visits Jesus in his prison cell and tells Him how he and the Church have “corrected” His fundamental error—made 1500 years earlier.
In essence, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that He wanted human beings to be free—to choose to follow Him or not. But this places too great a burden on them. Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility. So in Ivan’s astonishing version of history, the Catholic Church has invited people to submit—to the Church, not to Christ—to secure some degree of happiness. It has “saved” them, it protects them, from the suffering inevitable for those who live as free men and women. Because His way would reverse everything the church is now all about, the Grand Inquisitor threatens to burn Christ the next day “as the worst of heretics”—a second crucifixion.
“For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good … let me tell Thee now, today, the people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet… I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born…”
“Thou didst think too highly of men…. So we have corrected Thy work…. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.”
According to Lionel Trilling, “no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern consciousness or has seemed so relevant to virtually any speculation about the destiny of man.” Trilling, one of America’s greatest literary critics, says
“The Grand Inquisitor” is prophetic of the 20th century totalitarian state exercising “control over the actions of its citizens,” attempting “to win their acquiescence and attachment by providing (or promising) material and social benefits that will relieve them of care and anxiety. It represents itself in a paternal guide, as taking responsibility for the well-being of its people, on condition that they delegate—actually surrender—to the government their will and initiative.”
This teacher wondered why intelligent, thoughtful colleagues could turn to the union—could immediately think, “file a grievance!”—when so many options (like a rational conversation, or an open debate, with the administration) seemed possible. I wondered why colleagues submitted to group-think and turned on a colleague I admired—who crossed the picket line that fall we went on strike. Or why colleagues were so intent on keeping the new administration in check—running battles, it seemed, to test who was in charge (them or us); to make mountains out of molehills in order to keep the union’s power in tact—or as leverage for the next contract negotiation. The union I saw gave voice to a few, yes—our union representatives—but it was striking how many teachers merely echoed their leaders’ complaints.
The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher. “United we stand,” I guess
The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher. “United we stand,” I guess; no individual educator can influence an election or a piece of legislation, union money and lobbyists can. But as the teachers union seldom expressed my views, I saw I would actually be surrendering my voice. When teaching that Russian literature class in the fall of 1980—including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn—I picked up the Vermont Education Association’s material and was told VEA members should vote to re-elect Jimmy Carter. Solzhenitsyn was in exile two hours away, in Vermont, for speaking up to a totalitarian state. The Soviet army was in Afghanistan; President Carter seemed surprised that the Kremlin could be so wicked. In contrast, Ronald Reagan understood the invasion as part of a pattern over the past 60 years—of an evil empire.
It is not that my vote for Reagan that November felt right. But it mattered to me then, as it matters to many of us in the teaching profession, that we find our own voice.
Need for protection, or “the gift of freedom”?
My conflicts with principals surely made me wonder if I had colleagues who would stand up with me. I wanted their respect. What I did not want was their protection, or a structure that turned a difference of opinion into a labor-management issue. Yes, a reprimand from the administration made me unhappy. One winter I felt compelled to sign a piece of paper promising the administration I would never bring up the subject of the daily schedule—for two years I had questioned the block schedule—as long as I was on the staff. Humiliating.
Another principal hurt my pride by coming into my classroom, as I taught, to inspect “the lesson plans that need to be on your desk.” It was my 15th year as a teacher, but it felt as if I were in year one, as if I needed to fear her judgment to try hard to be prepared each morning.
Many uneasy moments. But there was always a choice. Speak up; perhaps go too far and get fired; compromise; or resign. It was up to me. And I could live with that. Not easily. But you sign an at will contract—as I did most of my 18 years of teaching—and accept it.
Ivan’s parable is cynical to some, but it gives us one way to understand why so many teachers join and stay. Is it a factor why most teachers prefer the safety of the union’s hold? Does it explain union opposition, time after time, to reforms leading to more freedom—schools granted waivers to control their personnel decisions; more flexibility on employee work rules—expectations that go past 3:30, even on to Saturday, and beyond the 175-day contract; teachers allowed to skip much of the required coursework through the alternative license program? Too much freedom!
The union’s grumbling resistance brings to mind the old folks in Footloose. Rock music? Dancing? “No, no, no, that’s not a good idea.” Frightened of this new freedom. Fearing a loss of control.
“All he wanted to do was dance”
I won’t say I am proud of leaving six teaching jobs. Stability and continuity have their place. And I would never argue a school community is well served by a principal who is allowed to mistreat his or her faculty. It feels awful to be silenced by a principal. But you can resign.
We all want to work in a healthy work environment. I found the best—and the worst—climates in private and charter schools with no union “to protect my job.” My conclusion? That’s life. “The gift of freedom” includes risks. This is news?
When I started at a new school and struggled in my first month with the principal’s micromanagement, a friend said: caveat emptor (as if it were my fault I hadn’t seen these tendencies before I took the job). But when you “buy” into a school there is much hidden from view; less benign patterns only come to light once you join the team and show up every day. Again, c’est la guerre.
We’re big boys and girls, I want to say to the union; we can fight our own battles, thank you. Your “security” does not make me more free. Just the opposite. Like most everyone, I always wanted a school community where I felt I belonged. A few times I found it. No need, from my experience, to seek that belonging—that safe haven—in a union whose beliefs I do not share.
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