“There is no use in excellent laws, even ones approved by all active citizens,
if the citizens have not been habituated to and educated in the city’s way of life.”
—Aristotle, Politics 5.9
In Céline’s nightmarish masterpiece, Journey to the End of the Night, the hero reaches America in a slave ship. He escapes, but the rest of the crew refuses to go with him. They have their reasons. Being a slave “wasn’t such a bad job.” (C’était du boulot moyen.)
And then—sublime advantage—you never got fired from the galley and the King had even promised them for when they were sixty-two years old a sort of small pension. That prospect made them happy, it gave them something to dream about and on Sundays in order to feel free, in addition, they played at voting.
Céline’s slaves come to mind when reading Peter Brimelow’s important new book on the “Teacher Trust,” his name for the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two super-unions that dominate K-12 public schools in the United States. (Brimelow follows Milton Friedman in calling them “government schools.”) On the top are sensationally overpaid and politically ruthless union bosses. They control the teaching conditions and salaries of millions of teachers, who console themselves for the worsening conditions of their jobs with thoughts of tenure, retirement, and the bogus demo-cracy of union meetings and letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and magazines that publish the truth about the unions.
Brimelow’s interest in the hegemony the unions exercise over America’s public schools dates to an assignment to write about them for Fortune. He tried to pass on it because he had no children and was educated in Britain. “Fine!” his editors replied. “That will make you objective.” Brimelow discovered that the unions were the basis of an important story and an enduring social problem. His specialty is financial journalism, but, as Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, told Ezra Pound, “You can’t move the masses with a cold thing like economics.” Brimelow, however, has found in immigration and education subjects that can move people, and he reports on them frankly and insightfully.
As a work of investigative reporting, The Worm in the Apple is a model of accuracy and intelligence. I hope its readers will include many parents, school-board members, and state and national legislators. They will find in it the facts they need to make informed decisions on one of the most important concerns of an advanced society, the education of the young. Like Alien Nation, Brimelow’s immigration book, The Worm in the Apple presents an important subject with phlegmatic clarity, enlivening its statistics with wry wit. An in-depth discussion of America’s teachers unions can be dry and forbidding. Brimelow has a sense of humor and an eye for a good anecdote, like his discovery, in the Michigan Education Association’s 34-page pamphlet Michigan—The Far Right’s New Frontier, of a list of the tactics of the far right: name-calling, scapegoating, exploiting religion and patriotism, threatening, and “demanding information immediately.”
SAT scores began to decline soon after AFT President Al Shanker won for New York City teachers the right of collective bargaining in 1961. Jobs once held as public trusts became just another way to make a buck. The NEA, a professional organization concerned with improving academic standards, became a trade union like the AFT, ostensibly devoted to bread-and-butter issues of pay, hours, and class size. In fact, the teachers’ unions became a major source of funding for the far left.
Brimelow is very good on both developments. The unions have little or no interest in professional standards but devote much energy to job protection. Even when a plan is worked out for eliminating bad teachers, the unions are usually able to frustrate it. When states test teachers for basic knowledge, graduates of education schools fail in large numbers, but the unions make it next to impossible to get rid of incompetent and ignorant teachers who have already been hired. The situation is actually worse than the grim picture Brimelow paints, because he concentrates on firing. I worked for months with a high-school principal on a teacher who was consistently killing Latin after the first year. There was no question of firing anybody—just moving the person from a subject that was not being taught successfully to courses that were more impervious to incompetence. When the principal thought the matter settled and was about to hire an excellent Latin teacher, the union intervened and vetoed the plan. The principal took a job with the district’s central administration, and I returned to my last. Both of us figured the union made any improvement impossible until the problem teacher retired.
The unions compel magnet schools, with high standards for students, to hire faculty based on seniority rather than teaching excellence. Naturally, good teachers get discouraged and quit. When they do not, the unions may decide to
drive them out. That is what happened to Jaime Escalante, the famous calculus teacher celebrated in the film Stand and Deliver! When the union officials ran him out of his district in 1997, they sent around a note boasting, “We got him out!”
Ordinary Americans, who worry that public schools are not succeeding, are missing the point. Public schools do what the far left wants. Teachers have average salaries individually, but, as a group, they generate enough money (Brimelow estimates $1.25 billion per year) to fund expensive voting campaigns, provide a significant portion of the Democratic Party’s income, and pay union bosses and their staffs far more than teachers get. In 1930, average class size was 30.5 students. In 1998, it was 16.5. There are many more teachers in the most expensive school system in the world, and most pay union dues. The far left discovered that there is no need of millionaires to finance their schemes when they can lay their hands on the salaries of America’s teachers. With that money, they oppose educational reform and fund candidates who support the leftist agenda.
America has many alternatives to public schools: parochial and private schools, homeschooling, charter schools, etc. According to the NEA, anyone who favors these alternatives is a member of the “Radical Right.” The union bosses respond to any discussion of alternatives to the status quo in one register. They put out hit lists of the radical right, with the Aryan Nation ranked next to such traditional Christian enterprises as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family. Brimelow is coldly ironic about these smears, but it is a question of perspective. Union bosses are so far to the left that they cannot distinguish ordinary Americans from Nazis. People like that should not be educating our children. As French Hellenist Jacqueline de Romilly put it in Problèmes de la Démocratie Grecque,
A democracy which allows education to fall into the hands of the enemies of the regime, which does not even try to preserve in education the quality of formation, not for politics, but for citizenship, is lost. Aristotle said it loud and clear.
When the public notices what the unions are doing, the kingpins trot out the New Unionism. The NEA boss will call a press conference to announce that the unions are going to support a reform they have opposed tooth and nail, such as merit pay or charter schools. Reporters dutifully type up glowing descriptions of how the NEA has changed its wicked ways. Brimelow shows in excruciating detail that the reforms are always bogus. Either the bosses never intended to reform in the first place, or they cannot get the members to go along. Reporters who spread these misleading stories receive awards from the unions for excellence in education reporting. There will be no such bouquets for Peter Brimelow.
Brimelow describes memorably the NEA’s attempts to found its own charter schools, which fail even when millions of dollars are showered on them, because they are incompatible with the union’s basic commitments. NEA charter schools provide the best evidence for Brimelow’s thesis that the teachers’ unions are the prime cause of the problems of American education. They cannot compete with experienced and distinguished private and parochial educators, and even ordinary but committed parents can beat them at their own game—not on a level playing field either, because non-NEA charter schools do not have the millions that the NEA wastes on theirs.
The NEA is successful in frustrating most reforms because the strings of power are held tight by very few hands. “In theory the NEA has internal democracy. But in practice it is controlled fairly effectively by its leadership, albeit tempered periodically by chaos.” In European com-munist parties, this is known as “democratic centralism.” Brimelow notes that the unions often behave like “the Soviet Union in general and its Communist Party leadership in particular” but adds, “I want to put it on record that I make this comparison clinically and without prejudice, purely as matter of economic analysis. I am not saying the Teacher Trust actually is communist.” As the NEA’s favorite politician said, that depends on what the meaning of is is. I wish Brimelow would explain one thing: What would the union bosses do differently if they were communists?
The Worm in the Apple ends with a “Twenty-four-Point Wish List” with two themes. One is excellent; the other, baneful. The good theme is “remove [the Teacher Trust’s] legal privileges.” Actually, Brimelow does not suggest removing anything, but rather treating the unions like businesses. His model is the Sherman Antitrust Act, which, by government intervention, restricted the market’s natural tendency to monopoly. The power of the NEA lies in its domination of a national market. Brimelow suggests legislation to break up the NEA into its state affiliates, just as antitrust litigation broke up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil into the separate Standard Oils of New Jersey, California, Ohio, and others. The many good suggestions under this heading are in direct contradiction, however, to the other major recommendation of his wish list.
The problem with America’s government school system is socialism. The solution is capitalism—the introduction of a free market. Or, to put it another way, just as economists realized in the nineteenth century that the tariff was the mother of trusts, so in the twenty-first century we must recognize that the government school system is the mother of the Teacher Trust.
The tariff keeps popping up in The Worm in the Apple. It is the King Charles’s Head of the free-market Mr. Dicks. Brimelow is a superb investigative journalist, but, once his mind strays to free-market ideology, he and his Gandalf, Milton Friedman, resemble John Nash in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, except that eventually Nash notices that his friend’s little girl never grows any older and comes to understand the nature of his delusions, although the visions never go away completely. Free-market true believers see only prosperity and diversity where the rest of us see a decade of record-breaking bankruptcies in good times and bad and the disappearance of entire industries.
Brimelow endorses Friedman’s solution to the problems of “government schools”: vouchers, where the government hands some of the taxes it has collected for education back to individual taxpayers. Even this is not good enough for purists, who disapprove because the government can and will attach strings to the vouchers.
Pace the purists’ theories, historically, governments have played a role in education. In Bildung: Europas Kulturelle Identität (Reclam: 2002), German classicist Manfred Fuhrmann discusses three revivals of educational excellence: the Carolingian age, the Reformation, and 19th-century neohumanism. All three were supported by governments: those of Charlemagne, Frederick the Wise and other electors of Saxony, and the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia. I am enthusiastic about America’s private and parochial schools and her many effective homeschoolers. I want to see more of all three. The historical record shows, however, that governments have been successful in founding and supporting excellent schools. Our public schools are no longer effective because they have been taken over by the far left.
In a 1998 survey, pollster Julia Koppich revealed why the unions detest charter schools. In charter schools, “levels of salaries and benefits are not a big issue. Even those with lower salaries feel they are compensated for by professional freedom.” Charter schools are a standing affront to the unions’ vulgar Marxism. Brimelow’s support for them is tepid, however, since
we view charter schools as an attempt to import market features into a fundamentally socialist system. Whatever success charter schools have is directly related to the amount of freedom they have to pursue their own visions. Their ultimate responsibility is, and should be to the people who patronize them, not to school boards, teachers unions, or state agencies.
Charter schools succeed because parents are involved in setting academic goals to educate their children in their shared culture. Freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of that success. Both unions and voucher supporters see schools as businesses, with teachers as workers and parents as customers. One group supports workers; the other, customers. The model is the same.
It is the wrong model. Business tries to produce new products, develop new markets, and increase productivity. The search for novelty is at the heart of its mentality. Education, however, is about the transmission of the past. Our nation does not need the innovative courses and departments that deans are always chattering about; it needs students who will become creative and innovative adults. Thousands of years of experience show that traditional courses in challenging foreign languages and mathematics are most likely to achieve that goal. That is the heart of education, where, indeed, no child should be left behind. When they get to college, intelligent students will be able to think critically about their heritage. A few of them will attain real creativity. The last two stages, however, depend on mastery of the first.
Unions are a peripheral problem at universities, where the market model is all the rage among administrators and regents, who say, “We need to run schools like a business.” (The business they are talking about seems to be Enron.) Students are customers. The president is a CEO, while teachers have become workers. The ideal of teaching as a lifelong vocation is ignored or derided. Adjunct teachers are preferred to tenured teacher-scholars. Courses teaching students the culture that is the source of our way of life are replaced by vocational training or multicultural propaganda. Educational excellence is put on the back burner, while money and positions are wasted in pursuit of “diversity.” Grade inflation is encouraged. “Parents are not paying all this money for their kids to get B’s,” graders in large courses are told. Innovative courses replace difficult subjects that prepared millennia of Western men and women for lives of piety, creativity, and freedom.
Leftist union bosses and businessmen have the same paradigm in education. Amicus curiae briefs in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action admissions policies come from both the traditional left and such corporations as Microsoft and American Express. Real education stands in principled opposition to the Enlightenment project, which promises creativity and freedom without tradition. The crypto-Marxism of the union bosses and the economic reductionism of David Ricardo and Milton Friedman both come from the Enlightenment. Their first principles are the same, no matter how much they disagree on means. Handing over our public schools to the NEA and its lackeys on school boards and in education schools has been disastrous. Brimelow has excellent suggestions on controlling and restricting that influence. Man, however, as Martin Luther said, is like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse. As we prop up the drunken peasant of American education, we must take care that he does not fall off the other side, into the waiting arms of the free marketeer, who believes that money is the root of all goodness; that the market produces prosperity and diversity of itself, without wisdom and self-control and tradition; and that the modern corporation is a good model for schools.
Brimelow includes a sympathetic word for “empowering teachers through true professionalism,” one of his many excellent suggestions. Trade-union attitudes undermine professionalism. He cannot leave well enough alone, however. “A better model than ‘professional,’” he writes, “might be ‘entrepreneur.’” He wants teachers to get a commission for each student, like a salesman.
Teaching, however, is a vocation. Good teachers are driven by something that only other people with a vocation can understand. Brimelow is impatient with this. “This ‘profession’ stuff is overblown. Journalism is not a ‘profession.’ It’s a trade. Anyone can start writing. . . . Generally, reward depends on individual merit.” John Nash, call your office! The most consistently insightful and forceful journalist I know is Sam Francis. The best investigative reporter I know is Peter Brimelow. If Brimelow’s Pollyanna vision of the market were true, both would have positions at major newspapers or magazines, and Maureen Dowd would be editing a website. In the 1950’s, urban Americans still had a choice of several local newspapers, where they could read columnists ranging from Westbrook Pegler to Eleanor Roosevelt. Most of those newspapers are gone, and the survivors are in the hands of a small number of conglomerates, which discourage public debate on many important issues—immigration, for instance, as Brimelow knows. The market, not the tariff, tends to produce monopoly. Neither the socialism of the teachers’ unions nor the free market has much use for real debate or our ideals of free speech, which developed from a long tradition going back to the Athenian citizen and the Roman senator. They are not likely to survive the rupture with that tradition advocated by union bosses, university administrators, and the CEOs of major corporations.
Alien Nation showed how first-rate eco-nomic thinking could contribute to serious discussion of immigration reform, but Brimelow understands, as his indispensable website, Vdare.com, shows, that immigration is about more than economics: It is about “the national question,” which includes cultural issues, even the status of Christmas in our national life. Culture is important to education, too, because the basic mission of teaching is handing down our cultural heritage. Albert Jay Nock, in his Theory of Education in the United States, explained how to go about reforming education. First, we must be clear about our goals. For that, we need a clear vision of our nation’s way of life. The Founding Fathers studied and passed on a heritage that was English, Protestant, and classical. Enjoyment of that heritage requires the traditional classical curriculum, taught by educated men and women drawn to teach-ing as a vocation. Breaking the stranglehold of the NEA and AFT on America’s public schools is an important step toward restoring American education. It will profit us little, however, if we drive out the devil of leftist indoctrination only to leave our classrooms to be filled with the seven devils of consumerism, vocationalism, and multiculturalism. The American people owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Brimelow for making the relevant facts available to them. They need to take the next step—not as customers, but as parents, believers, and citizens.
[The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, by Peter Brimelow (New York: HarperCollins) 336 pp., $24.95]
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