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Leo Casey's description of teachers' and schools' work in the wake of the New York City disaster
|Posted By: Mary Manke on October 10, 2001|
|I just received the following message, posted on the AERA-G list. I draw your attention, Gary, and that of others on this topic, not to what he says about Chester Finn, but to what he says about the work that is happening in New York. TCR could make a great contribution by publishing practitioners' accounts of what is occurring now and where we need to go.... Casey follows his message with the text of Chester Finn's column, another point of view on education's response to what a previous poster on this list referred to as the War. Capital W.|
"The life of an "obscure desk jockey" for a teachers' union ain't all that
it's cracked up to be.
I owe that insight to Chester Finn.
Before last week, I thought that my job working for the teachers' union in
New York City was a pretty good one. It wasn't going to make me wealthy,
but it did give me daily opportunities to work with and support the women
and men who struggle to provide New York City's 1.1 million public school
children with the best education we can provide. I believed that was
important and valuable work.
Then I read Chester Finn's October 4 Gadfly column in his Fordham
Foundation newsletter, in which he mounted an attack on an e-mail I had
sent to some friends and teacher colleagues, as well as a couple of
Internet education lists. I had objected to the way in which he condemned
the educational community in general, and the National Association of
School Psychologists in particular, for publishing a "miserable" document
that promoted "tolerance, peace, understanding, empathy, diversity and
multiculturalism" in the wake of the September 11 mass murders. Finn,
former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and president
of the ultra-conservative Fordham Foundation, was more than a little
perturbed when Diane Ravitch sent him a copy of my e-mail, and he responded
with both barrels. His column placed life as an "obscure desk jockey" for a
teachers' union in a whole new light.
So now I must confess the error of my ways. It is clear to me in a way that
I never understood before that life at the top of a right wing foundation
dedicated to the privatization of public schools is far better than the one
I am leading.
For starters, Chester has crystal ball software on his computer that I
could only dream about. It allows him to see into the life of someone he
never met and doesn't know, and read his mind. Leo Casey must be "beside
himself," he writes, about "surges of patriotism in American classrooms."
That's impressive software; I bet Microsoft didn't design it.
I told a friend of mine who is a computer expert about this software, and
she was a little skeptical. "What's so good about that? It got it all
wrong. You and your daughters put up American flags in the windows of your
home, and you have a 'We Will Remember and We Shall Overcome' sign in your
car. And how could it say that you don't love your country, or that you
didn't teach your students why it was worthy of that love?"
Well, it is true that Finn's crystal ball software doesn't seem to grasp
the fact that here in New York City, where we have borne the brunt of these
horrific acts, we don't treat the American flag as a weapon to attack our
political adversaries, but see it as a sign of our concern for and
commitment to each other, and as a symbol of the ideals of liberty and
equality to which our nation aspires.
But look at the upside of Finn's software. He can use whatever it spits out
to caricature anyone and everyone who disagrees with him, regardless of
what they say or believe. And it doesn't require any thought at all.
Then there's the fact that as the head of his foundation, Finn has a lot of
free time on his hands to figure out how to spin the September 11 tragedy
into attacks on American educators and public schools. I could use some of
that free time. All of us here in New York City, from teachers in the
public schools to union officials, have our hands full. We have had to move
schools from lower Manhattan into temporary homes in other buildings, and
provide them with supplies to continue education, and now are engaged in
cleaning up and repairing their damaged school buildings so they can
return. We have had to counsel and support hundreds of our own educational
community, and untold thousands of our school children, who lost loved
ones, and still more who were traumatized by witnessing these mass murders.
We have to raise funds and secure donations for those in need because of
this crime. We have had to struggle to help our young charges gain some
perspective on what were, in all too many respects, terrifying acts that
defy human reason. In the midst of all this work, our local union produced
a handbook for our teachers on how to promote tolerance and understanding
and how to prevent ethnic and religious scapegoating at this critical time.
As an international city, New York draws its citizens from every corner of
the globe, from every religion and race, and we were determined not to
provide Al Qaeda the victory of turning on each other. We just didn't know
that this was unpatriotic because we didn't have Finn to advise us.
One of the most agreeable parts of being a right-wing foundation president
is that there are no constituents to tell you that you have to be
consistent in your pronouncements from one day to the next. Here in New
York City, teachers get pretty worked up when someone insults their
intelligence by saying one thing one week, and the opposite thing the next
week. So at the teachers' union, we do our damn best to be honest with
them. Chester, however, can one week attack American educators for
promoting "tolerance, peace, understanding, empathy, diversity and
multiculturalism," castigating school psychologists for suggesting that
"all people deserve to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity," and
the next week proclaim that he believes that America should teach "not just
tolerance, diversity and understanding, but also patriotism and heroism."
Nor does it stop him -- via Diane Ravitch -- from misrepresenting the late
Al Shanker into making the absurd comment that we should avoid "diversity"
because it breeds "ethnocentrism," and instead should pursue "democracy."
"Contradictions, President Finn? Nonsense? No, sir, I don't see any."
Bottom line, the very best part of being a right-wing foundation president
is that you are not obscure, and you know your foundation will provide you
with an audience on any question which inspires you to put pen to paper.
Sometimes, high circulation conservative magazines like National Review
even print those musings, especially when they attack teachers. How many
people have read Finn's thoughts on civic education these last two weeks?
Before last week, I used to think I knew a thing or two about civic
education while I labored in obscurity. I was a full-time Social Studies
for 15 years in an inner city high school in Brooklyn, and taught classes
of students -- largely immigrant, largely female, largely poor and entirely
of color -- that participated in the national "We The People" competition.
To the surprise of many, we regularly won New York City and New York State
championships, and placed as high as fourth in the nation on more than one
occasion. Our congressman placed tributes to our accomplishments in the
_Congressional Record_. And in between all of that, I finished a doctorate
in political philosophy.
But clearly my obscure ideas about civic education were all wrong. I
thought that love of country had something to do with the ideals we
struggled as a people to realize, and with the principles by which we
sought to govern ourselves, and that flags and songs were symbols of those
ideals and principles, not substitutes for them. I believed that it was
important for young people to understand how Americans of all races,
religions and social classes have struggled throughout our history to make
freedom, equality and justice for all into realities, and to be committed
to continuing those struggles. I taught that exercising the citizen's right
and duty to participate in a government "of the people, by the people and
for the people" by doing such things as casting one's vote was what was
essential, rather than the passive acceptance of whatever our elected
leaders tell us. I now know, having received President Finn's expertise on
the subject of civic education, that it is more important to lead students
in "heartfelt renditions" of the Pledge of Allegiance than to have them
embrace as their own the precepts one finds in that pledge, such as
republican government and liberty and justice for all. I won't make that
I have to admit that I have one reservation about changing places with
Chester Finn. He speaks highly of his immigrant and Indian born wife, and
of her many years of service to this country in its armed forces. I am sure
she is a wonderful woman, and that Chester is writing about her here not
just because she serves his rhetorical purposes so well, allowing him to
ask whether I have spent as many years as she did in a military uniform,
without having to disclose if he spent any years in one himself. I know
that it could only be a sign of his feminism that he would compare me with
his wife, and not himself. But I do have to say that I consider myself
blessed more than I deserve to have the love of my immigrant, Jamaican born
spouse and her three children, and I would not give them up for anything in
this world. I also have to wonder why years of working as a teacher in an
inner city high school is not a service to one's country.
I know that the world ain't fair. I am not about to acquire all of the
privileges and powers of Chester Finn's role in life. My two school teacher
parents worked hard all of their lives to give every one of their six
children the very best education, but they were not in the position to
bequeath my very own foundation to me. But just because I don't have my own
foundation to publish the new insights Chester has given me, doesn't mean
they shouldn't be shared with others. Be sure to pass this on to your
colleagues and friends. And let them know: I owe all of this wisdom to
Leo Casey must be beside himself. Just a few miles from his office at the
United Federation of Teachers on lower Park Avenue, The New York Times was
publishing an article about surges of patriotism in American classrooms.
(Kevin Sack, "School Colors Become Red, White and Blue," 9/28/01)
Kids are pledging allegiance in Pennsylvania, singing "God Bless the
U.S.A." in Arkansas, wearing red, white and blue to school (for a
"Patriotism Day" assembly) in Maryland. And much more. There's even a move
afoot to orchestrate a nationwide flag pledge at 2 p.m.(EDT) on October 12.
Why would Casey be distressed? Because he believes that sort of thing
smacks of chauvinism and of inattention to multicultural concerns.
Why he thinks this, I cannot say. Many of the most ardent American patriots
I know are immigrants who brought their cultures and languages with
them. (Including my wife, now almost three decades on these shores, during
time this Indian-born physician wore the uniform of the U.S. Army for half
a dozen years. I wonder if it was ever on Mr. Casey's back?)
Why bother with an obscure teachers union desk jockey like Leo Casey in the
first place? Because some teachers might take him seriously. And because,
after my September 21 Gadfly column on teaching patriotism, Casey issued a
nasty broadside. He tried to link me with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell,
who had proffered the disgraceful view that America got what was coming to
it on September 11 because of our godlessness and immorality. In fact, I
was as dismayed by that repellent notion as by Susan Sontag's hint that the
U.S. earned the terrorist attack because of its sanctimony and bellicosity.
Casey alleged callousness because I said schools should teach not just
tolerance, diversity and understanding, but also patriotism and heroism;
and that they should make clear to kids that the world contains evil people
who wish us ill. The essence of patriotism is the defense of a political
order in which such values as tolerance can be assured. There's precious
little tolerance or pluralism in the nations now harboring terrorists.
Indeed, that's much of the reason they cannot abide our way of life and
seek to eradicate it.
Why does this little dust-up matter when the nation has large concerns on
its mind? Because in much the same vein that President Bush has admonished
other countries to decide which side they are on, so too is this a moment
when educators must face a basic decision about the message they seek to
impart to children. It either includes patriotism or it doesn't.
Some would steer a middle course by suggesting to children that diversity
and tolerance are the same thing as patriotism. "Is it not patriotic to
emphasize the positive value of America's diversity?" e-mailed Penn State
faculty member Dan Bloomingdale in response to my column on the subject.
Of course it is. Diversity is part of the lesson needing to be taught. But
that's like teaching that cakes contain eggs. Most cakes dobut if you end
the recipe there you'll wind up with baked eggs. If you want a cake, you
also need to reach for flour and butter, etc. So, too, with teaching
patriotism, American style. Respect for diversity is a necessary
ingredient. But so is love of freedom and the fact that it has enemies who
loathe it. So is the fragility of a free and diverse society, and the
central obligation of that society to defend itself against aggressors. So,
too, is respect for heroes, including those who froze at Valley Forge, who
stormed the beaches of Normandy, and who perished while trying to rescue
terrorist victims in lower Manhattan.
This more martial strand of patriotism makes some educators nervous. So
does the sense of pride in America that accompanies it. They'd rather
emphasize our failings and our differences. That's the case with Messrs.
Casey and Bloomingdale. The elderly education scholar John Goodlad recently
acknowledged the value of children being proud of their country but
wondered "whether we will see the need to move beyond that into an
understanding of democracy as a work in progress." Bloomingdale's version
is that we have an obligation to "point out that America is, at times,
Whence cometh this compulsion to highlight the nation's warts while
ignoring its virtues? It's rooted in the mindset that arose, especially in
our intellectual elites, during the Vietnam War. It's become a compulsion
to pull down America rather than celebrate and defend it. Celebration and
defense make these folks squeamish. You can almost feel them cringe during
heartfelt renditions of "God Bless America," even the Pledge of Allegiance.
They worry that the defense budget is too large.
Fortunately, they don't have much of a following. Patriotism is busting out
all over in our schools, even on some college campuses. A lot of educators
are fostering it. So, of course, is the broader public. Surveys show the
overwhelming majority of Americans prepared to go to war to smite those who
This is one of the many times when I miss the late Albert Shanker,
long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers and Leo Casey's boss.
Diane Ravitch recalls what Shanker said in Prague two years before his
death: "He warned the participants in a civic education dialogue from
across Western and Eastern Europe to avoid multiculturalism and diversity,
which fans the flames of ethnocentrism, and instead to pursue democracy. I
found Al very persuasive, as always, then and now."
So do I. He never flinched from asserting that the job of the public
schools is to teach the common culture, the history of democracy and the
centrality of freedom and its defense against aggressors. In the aftermath
of September 11, as American educators decide which side of this
pedagogical divide they and their schools will take, I choose Al Shanker's
side and that of the Arkansas superintendent who told his students last
week that "It's OK to love your country and love your flag."
"School Colors Become Red, White and Blue," by Kevin Sack, The New York
Times, September 28, 2001,
"Liberal Skeptics Now Know the Deep Emotions of Patriotism," by George
Packer, The New York Times, September 30, 2001,