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Saturday, March 13, 2010


Limbo is the region bordering Hell where reside the souls of such as unbaptized babies who, though innocent, cannot enter Heaven since their original sin has not been washed away in the blood of the Lamb. In the dumbed down amnesiac language of our modern age, limbo is any place where you are stuck, unable to continue on to whatever was to be your next stop -- like an airport departure lounge when your flight has been cancelled. Here I am, then, in limbo, innocent, unbaptized, waiting until Susie and I can tomorrow renew our trip to Paris.

Having taken out the garbage, done all the laundry, emptied the refrigerator, and even, this morning, Jiffy Lubed my car, I am left with idle thoughts. Happily, I have a blog, into which I can transfer them for the enlightenment of my small band of readers. Herewith, then, some idle thoughts.

The first is a poem, that came to my mind for some reason this morning. It is the haunting vilanelle by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, known by its great first line. I will only say, by way of commentary, that when my time comes [not, if my son, Tobias, is to be believed, for another twenty years or more], I hope that my sons will speak in this way to me:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And now, for a total change of pace, a reaction to an Evan Thomas NEWSWEEK piece on American primary and secondary education that focuses on the supposedly baleful effects of teachers' unions and the institution of tenure. A vanishingly small number of teachers are discharged for cause each year, which leads Thomas to conclude that secondary education can only be improved by getting rid of "bad teachers."

As befits a philosopher in limbo, I shall begin at a very high level of theoretical abstraction and descend slowly to the real world. I remarked in a previous blog, devoted to Stephen Jay Gould's theories about hot hands and streaks in the sports world, that it is usually a mistake to ignore the folk wisdom of professionals in any field. Let me step back a bit and speak even more generally about how I think it is wise to proceed in analyzing a social institution.

In the early nineteenth century, there were, broadly speaking, three modes of analysis of the dramatic changes wrought first in England, and then on the Continent, by the new socio-economic form that we know as capitalism. Laisser-faire liberals tended to lay down axioms [rational agents, perfect knowledge, perfect markets, etc.] and then deduce consequences, the rigor of which was too often matched by a complete disconnect from the real world. Conservatives and Karl Marx [but not those whom Marx ridiculed as "utopian socialists"] in contrast, began from a consideration of institutions in medias res, recognizing that human affairs are a great deal more complex, mystified, and multi-layered than can be captured in neat systems of deductions from a priori premises.

As a Marxist with a deep appreciation for the insights of the best conservative social theorists [pace my penchant for quoting Hobbes], I try when I approach any question of social analysis to be alert to what the real world has to teach me. Let me turn that habit of mind to the subject before us, which is tenured teachers.

Let us begin by noting that there are, in addition to public secondary education, four institutions in American society that offer to their work force something very like tenure: University Education, the Catholic Church, the Federal Judiciary, and the Military. American university education is a rave success, the gold standard, universally recognized as the archetype for the countless ectypes worldwide. The Federal Judiciary, by and large, fully justifies the confidence that is placed in it by the practice of life tenure. People of my political persuasion may wish that former Vice President Cheney would take Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas on a quail hunt, but the failings of the Federal Judiciary are, in the end, inadequacies of ideology, not evidences of incompetance. The American military, whatever you may think of the uses to which it has been put by its civilian masters, is an extraordinarily successful institution, a model of what a huge bureaucratic organization can be and accomplish. And even The Roman Catholic Church, the child abuse scandals notwithstanding, survives and flourishes across the milennia, despite the fact that it is more difficult to remove a priest from his holy orders than it is to fire a teacher, cashier an officer, or impeach a Supreme Court Justice.

Compare these four successful institutions with the corporate and political worlds, neither of which promsies tenure, for all that both offer to at least some of their supplicants great longevity. Does anyone seriously want to claim that politicians perform better than combat infantrymen, or that corporate CEOs are to be preferred to members of the Fourth Circuit?

Of all of these lifeworlds, I have extensive experience only of one: University Education. I am particularly struck by the fact that the practice of life tenure is more firmly entrenched in the elite reaches of that world even than in its lesser regions. Is the world right to esteem the Ivy League universities, the great institututions of public higher education, the very best of the small liberal arts colleges? Undoubtedly, in my judgment, for all that I have fought for half a lifetime with the benighted politics of my alma mater, Harvard. Tenure is not a source of mediocrity in higher education. It is the seedbed of originality, innovation, and free thinking. That is why the frenetic rightwing so often decries "tenured radicals."

The corporatization of higher education is well under way in America, just at the time when the inadequacies of the corporaste world are manifest. I confidently predict that as tenure erodes in universities, the quality of higher education will decline.

What then of primary and secondary education? Is the destruction of the teachers' unions really the necessary precondition for better performance? Well, reflect on the fact that the communities whose high schools have for generations been models of excellence [Newton, Brookline, and Belmont in Massachusetts, Shaker Heights in Ohio, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech in New York City, and so forth] all grant their teachers tenure.

It is not for me to say what can make poor schools better. I have not set foot in a high school classroom since I graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1950. But I am deeply sceptical of the notion that job insecurity is the way to improve teacher performance.

Now, off to Paris.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dylan Thomas was popular when I was in college...

A contemporary quoted the line "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" quite movingly at the funeral service of his young wife...

This poem calls to mind the unusual career of Tony Judt of NYU, continuing to write and speak in the context of a chronic degenerative illness (ALS).

and on to education reform.... Obama seems to support some of the policies which would increase "incentives" (read "insecurity") for public school teachers...contra the unions which supported him in the election.