Corey Robin thinks so , and explains liberal disdain towards the Chicago strike as a spill-over of elite belief that teachers are socioeconomic losers doing a job that anyone could do.
I think he’s on to something, though in many ways I think it’s better as a general sociology and social history of sentiment towards teachers and education and a little dodgier as a rejoinder to specific critics. I also think there is maybe a little more complexity and contradiction in the attitude towards teachers, though, even in elite communities.
Like Corey Robin, I went to public schools in upper middle-class communities, had great relationships with most of my teachers, felt enormous affection for the education I received, and so on. On the other hand, I don’t have good feelings about the totality of “school”, particularly before high school, because (like more than a few academics) I also recall being bullied with great frequency, in no small measure because I did like school and education and a vocal and aggressive subset of other students did not.
So something is going on even while we’re being schooled that draws from both parents and the wider culture, but I also think has its own dynamic among students. Teachers, mostly unfairly, often become a holder for all of that wider, more diffuse antagonism towards the experience of education. And we should not be too quick to write that antagonism off as a conservative or elite disdain: there’s a long, sound history of progressive critiques directed at the content, organization and experience of mass education in the United States. Not to mention at least some reason to soberly think about the damage that even a few bad teachers or bad educational trends can inflict on students, and how much the memory of such an experience can shape a life–Robin dissolves “bad teaching” into the acid bath of “bad sociality”, but if you’re going to credit how distinctively powerful good or competent teaching is, and how grateful we should be for it, you can’t just wave off how disproportionately serious bad teaching or advising can be.
I also think Robin is underestimating the variance in how different students feel treated even by great, talented, inspiring teachers. The teacher who inspired or excited someone like myself could be more like the teacher who denigrated or discouraged other students. Not necessarily because the teacher meant to do that (though some did) but because of the necessary involvement of teachers in the workings of meritocratic sorting. You can’t give credit to some of Christopher Hayes’ unsettling analysis of meritocratic privilege on one hand without seeing how teachers disrupt the reproduction of privilege (a modestly successful professional cannot simply will a child through the system, no matter how hard they try) and yet also are a key part of the reproduction of privilege on the other. In this sense, teachers good and bad can’t win for losing: they will end up blamed either way for crises in the reproduction and/or transformation of social hierarchies, because they really are involved in the making of the social order. Not involved in everything and anything, as all the overwrought hysterics who continuously scream about the “failure” of American schools like to believe, but neither is it all Mr. Chips and Jaime Escalante either–defending both the great teachers we’ve each had as individuals and the vital contributions of teachers in general doesn’t require sanctifying them as more altruistic than everyone else, or forgetting the structural and contingent problems that they both are victims of and sometimes movers within.
What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren’t really about money. There’s a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can’t be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools. What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies. The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.