By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
There is a long string of words and phrases I used to come across quite often, but seldom see anymore now that William F. Buckley is no longer with us.
I have in mind terms such as a fortiori, supererogatory, chiliastic, mutatis mutandis, immanentize the eschaton, and quod licet Iovi non licet bovi. (Look them up: They are effective figures of speech, except for the fact that hardly anyone will know what you mean if you use them. That never bothered Buckley. He thought it a valuable teachable moment when you had to get out your dictionary.)
Another of Buckley’s favorites was “trahison des clercs,” a phrase with its roots in a 1927 book with that title by the French philosopher Julien Benda. Benda was describing the intellectuals of his era (the “clercs”) who abandoned the task of reasoning dispassionately about political and cultural questions for the excitement of turning against old allies in the ideological wars of the time.
Benda’s target was French rightists such as Charles Maurras, but Buckley would use the term to describe the new left professors and media elites who became tub thumpers for the counterculture in the late 1960s, abandoning the scholar’s responsibility to preserve and defend the heritage of the Christian West.
If Buckley were still with us, I have a hunch he might be using the term to describe the left-wing intellectuals who are turning against the teachers unions. Time magazine writer Joe Klein is a case in point. Klein is a classic New York City liberal. Abortion, legalized marijuana, increased taxation on the “rich,” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, affirmative action, “gay” rights, and same-sex marriage — and the role of trade unions in modern economies: Klein can be counted on to take the position you would hear in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Even so, Klein is turning on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a longstanding sacred cow for liberals. Recent union demands, and Mayor de Blasio’s willingness to concede to them, were the final straw.
Writes Klein, on his July 10 blog site, time.com/swampland, “Which side are you on — the students’ or the unions’?” He agrees that “competent teachers should certainly be paid more, but the protection of incompetence is a national scandal, as is the unions’ resistance to teacher evaluations and charter schools” and “the quiet undermining of educational creativity by eliminating special programs for needy students.”
The special programs Klein is talking about were negotiated in 2005 when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. Bloomberg agreed to a salary increase for New York’s teachers “in return for 150 minutes of special instruction” each week for students “who needed the most help — the bottom third of each class.” In the past spring’s negotiations, the de Blasio administration gave back the 150-minute requirement.
Klein called City Hall to find out why. He was told the program was “inflexible” and a “one size fits all” approach to student needs. Klein’s response: “Translation: It didn’t work. But how,” asks Klein, “do we know that? No studies or evaluations were done.” Klein suspects we are looking at capitulation to the union, rather than a search for sound educational policy:
“We are talking about one of the ground-zero principles of a healthy school system: extra help for those who need it. If the program doesn’t work, you don’t eliminate it. You fix it.”
Klein tells us a spokesman for de Blasio contended the goal was to find more “flexible ways” to help students than the block of 150 minutes of required instruction. “Apparently, ‘flexibility’ is a mayoral euphemism for ‘I cave’,” writes Klein in response. “A mayor who actually cared about education would be seeking longer days, longer school years, more charter schools…and the elimination of tenure and seniority rules to make sure that the best professionals, not the longest serving assembly-line workers, are in the classroom.”
Folks, that last line was written by a New York City liberal, not a correspondent to First Teachers. Change is in the air on this issue. Klein knows it. He points to California, where “a district judge recently threw out the state’s tenure rules. In his ruling, he wrote that the widespread protection of incompetent teachers ‘shocks the conscience.’ A group called the Partnership for Educational Justice, which is led by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, is filing a similar suit in New York and promises to take the movement national.” It should also be noted that “Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the California decision, which caused the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, to call for him to be fired.”
On another topic: The use of the terms in the political spectrum— liberal, radical, conservative, reactionary — discussed in last week’s edition of First Teachers. One of the ideas covered in that column was the relative nature of these terms, the manner in which the meaning of “conservative” and “liberal” vary from time and place; that a conservative in Stalin’s Russia, for example, would be very different from a conservative in the United States during the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
A letter from a reader we will identify as L.J.D. of California illustrated how this variation in meaning can confuse discussions of current issues.
L.J.D. was critical of me for using the term “radical” to describe the modern leftists who control our universities, the media, and many of our large corporations. He argues the more correct term for them would be “careerists, defenders of the status quo.” L.J.D. contends that Americans with traditional values and Catholics loyal to the Magisterium are now “the radicals: in both senses of that term: the ones who insist on going to the root of things, and the ones who threaten the comfortable.”
L.J.D. goes further. He maintains that homosexuals, rather than being a radical segment of society, “are the perfect corporate citizens, which is why they are so favored….They are fanatical, compulsive consumers, and they bring little of the family baggage that so complicates the application of the Iron Law of Wages.”
(This is the theory, attributed to the 19th-century French socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, that competition among workers for jobs will drive wages down to the minimal level.)
L.J.D. calls upon Catholics “to work around the educational system, starting with the colleges. We need to arm ourselves at home and in community, and scrape together whatever economic scraps are left to despised and excluded minorities.”
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.