That last post made me uncomfortable after I wrote it, and as I lay in bed staring out at the pre-dawn morning, unable to go back to sleep, I realized why, that it was really a whole bunch of first person sound and fury to make a relatively simple (if vital) point: the irreconcilable difference between the social function of education and its economic function. What is so striking about being a teacher, in other words, is the way the two aren’t just incidentally separated, but programmatically so. I do what I do in the classroom based on what my sense is of what my students need, what they are unable to do, and what I can help show them how to do. And that task is practically endless, as endless as the social value of education itself. But the university’s increasingly economic account of itself is not of students with needs but of a set amount of capital to be invested: the state has given us a certain amount of money, they say, and this is what we’re going to do with it. Naturally, then, their consciences are unruffled when the time comes to throw kids out of school, to make it impossible for anyone who can’t afford it to get a decent public education. They don’t think about what needs to be done; they think about what can be done.
This is not, however, the difference between idealism and realism, even if that’s how the media has spun it. If you heard NPR’s account of the Chancellor’s meeting this morning, for example, you’ll note that they staged it as a conversation between students demanding money and Yudof saying the money was unavailable. One voice naively demands to be given more while the other voice regretfully and knowingly informs them that it just isn’t realistic. The reason this account is wrong is the same reason the UCSB Academic Senate officially called Yudof “a cynical opportunist with no commitment to education” and voted to censure him. As they put it, “UCOP has misrepresented the real nature of the University’s financial situation…The state cutbacks, though significant, are being used as an excuse to proceed aggressively with further steps toward transforming the University from a public resource, dedicated to the education of the people of California and the pursuit of knowledge, into a profit-making enterprise, a research facility of benefit primarily to industry and beholden primarily to commercial interests.” The university keeps spending money, on lots of things. And the situation is complicated; there are real fiscal limitations to what can be done, just as part of learning to be a teacher is figuring out how to limit what you can give, out of self-preservation. But it’s how those decisions get made, what principles you use to decide how the money gets spent, that determines the difference between an educator and a businessperson. Because you don’t want to go to, or send your kids to, a school that makes its decisions based on the bottom line.
Teachers teach, but not in order to get paid. Being paid enables you to do what needs to be done, and the ones who are motivated by money (or ego) either leave the profession or teach badly. Which is why the difference between a good educator and a bad one (who get paid the same, in practice) is a difference in priorities, the difference between putting your students needs above your sense of what it is that you do. A good teacher builds a curriculum out of the texts that will best help their students work on a particular skill set or open up a particular field of knowledge. A bad teacher is, for example, the tenured professor who designs a class as an excuse to work on their book project, a not uncommon sight at prestigious research institutions (though not a common one either, I’d hasten to add). But the best example of the bad educator is the administrator who, instead of thinking of what needs to be done for the students of the UC system, capitalizes on a crisis of funding to make those students into the cash cow for making the UC profitable. The difference is not between idealism and realism but between two very different sets of priorities, between the social function of education (educating students) and the economic function of being profitable. And that was why Yudof’s ridiculous “cemetery” line was so damningly telling: to make room for a corporation, you have to bury the school first.