In Memoriam: Understanding Teaching as Public Service

by David Blacker - August 12, 2002

September 11 poignantly illustrates the centrality to our democracy of public servants, including teachers. It also dramatizes how "public servant" is an ennobling and descriptively convincing occupational identity that teachers should wholeheartedly embrace. In doing so, teachers place themselves more squarely alongside other democratic "keystone" occupations such as nursing, firefighting, policing, EMT/paramedics, social workers, and librarians. This paper makes a descriptive case for the accuracy of the phrase "public servant" and also a normative case for why it is more compelling than alternatives such as "professional." Seeing teaching as more clearly situated alongside other public service occupations helps us take clearer stock of why, in the end, we value our teachers and how they remain structurally integral to democracy

“Where the danger is, grows/ the saving power also.”  These cryptic words are from the German poet Friedrich Holderlin.  Although I have seen these lines quoted many times--mostly in the context of Heidegger scholarship--I have never known quite what to make of them.  But like many Americans who, after September 11, experienced a new breath of meaning regarding many ordinary things, I kept thinking of Holderlin's "danger” and “saving power” as I watched on television so many members of the New York City Fire Department, the New York City Police Department, the scores of EMT/paramedics, nurses, doctors, and many others who risked and gave their lives—so many of them—in the line of duty.   (In this I also include nearby schoolteachers, who are reported to have coolheadedly shepherded scores of children to safety in the WTC area.)  Like many, I found the self-sacrifice of the police and firefighters to be one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen.  The proverbial “when everyone is running away from the danger, they are running toward it” was for the entire world starkly, horribly, and poignantly true that day, and on a disorientingly massive scale.  Whatever their past personal and collective flaws, these public servants gave all of us an object lesson in what public service really means, deep down, at its moral core.  In their actions and in their deaths, they have become a saving power amidst the danger. 

Like the nighttime lightning flash that briefly but dazzlingly illuminates the landscape, the deeds of September 11th’s public servants clearly reveal something about the nature of public service, something of which we are all-too rarely aware.  Beneath the mountains of rules and regulations, the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the incessant managerial “reform” schemes, the budgetary wrangling, even the political controversies, there persists a moral nobility inherent in public service—in those “job descriptions” and, even more, in the spirit and traditions behind those jobs themselves—that is too easily forgotten.  It is easy to forget even for the public servants themselves.   Furthermore, that moral lightning flash illuminates very generally how deeply precious and worthwhile—how transcendently beautiful—a life dedicated to public service can be.  Such examples can in this regard help provide a moral beacon for public servants such as teachers.  The heroism and self-sacrifice of September 11 can, I believe, help call teachers back toward their true moral homes, and away, for example, from the mirage of “professionalism,” with all its managerial and technical emphases, all its implied distance from other, supposedly less-credentialed, recipients of public funds such as, indeed, New York City police officers and firefighters.  One indirect effect of the tragedy may be to help teachers situate themselves back into a more satisfying and meaningful occupational identity of “public servant.”  I believe this could be a salutary development for teaching, an indirect and longer-term saving power, if you will.  Seeing teaching as more clearly situated alongside other public service occupations may help us take clearer stock of why, in the end, we value teaching itself and how, beneath the distractions of the daily news and the latest experts' "reports," it remains structurally as integral as ever to our cherished democracy.  We have had the luxury of our vision being too often obscured in this regard.      

“Public Servant” as a Moral Identity        

One of democracy’s challenges is to acknowledge its dependency upon certain occupational groups while also regulating and holding them accountable to itself.  How can democracy make the institutions in which it has a compelling state interest serve its political needs while allowing those same institutions to pursue their unique extra-political—and in many cases life or death—missions?  The stakes are all the higher when one considers how certain occupations function as, to borrow a biological metaphor employed by anthropologists Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day, “keystone species” within what we might call the cultural and institutional “ecology” of the democratic state, species that are “crucial to the shape and stability of the system.”   Nardi and O'Day elaborate the metaphor: “The wedge-shaped stone at the pinnacle of an arch—the keystone—stabilizes the arch and holds it together.  Like the keystone, certain species in an ecosystem are crucial to the shape and stability of the system. . .Keystone species may literally sculpt the environment so that a variety of organisms can be hosted. . .[They are] central to the robust functioning of the ecosystems of which they are a part."

K-12 public school teaching is, of course, one of these democratic "keystone"  occupations, though one currently confronting serious questions basic to its moral and occupational identity.  Viewing teaching as a central part of a larger democratic ecosystem helps highlight one of the most debilitating features of contemporary teaching at both the level of the classroom and that of educational institutions generally:  the degree of the enterprise's artificial isolation from other relevant interests.  Working toward correcting this isolation is, I think, a needed and appropriate goal for educational theory.  Accordingly, I aim to show here how it is somehow at once daunting yet surprisingly hopeful to perceive, finally, that the teachers are not at all alone in the swirling crosswinds of democratic governance.  There are, in fact, many outstretched hands for them to grasp, if only they—and we—could see ourselves for who we are.     

One of the great yet undersung categories of children’s literature has to do with helpful community service-oriented occupations where people get to wear uniforms.  How many board and picture books, first readers, and other assorted juvenilia have to do with police officers, firefighters, construction workers, ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors, zookeepers, mail carriers, and even stylized and hence quasi-uniformed school teachers and librarians?  (Yes, as if in authorial conspiracy with those empowered to order the books for their institutions, librarians—nowadays less stereotyped—show up with amazing frequency in children’s material.)  There are, of course, the equally if not more jazzily uniformed pilots, astronauts, athletes, race car drivers, military personnel, and the like, but I remain most struck by the omnipresence of “people in your neighborhood” sorts of individuals (to paraphrase the Sesame Street song), the kinds of people children are likely to encounter—or at least see—most every day.  Having such persons populate children’s materials makes loads of sense from, especially, pedagogical and moral education points of view.  Good child-centered progressives as we all are these days, we can anticipate that perhaps curiosity about the police cars, fire engines, etc. that kids see around them can be harnessed to larger educational ends.  And maybe a certain civic mindedness is fostered by Officer Buckle and Gloria,  the endless parade of cat-saving firefighters, doctors curing sick little children, kindly curiosity-feeding librarians, etc.  If such images help along these lines, as they probably do, we ought to continue with them.   

What interests me even more, though, is what happens with these people in our neighborhood in the consciousness of older children, adults and, ultimately, the moral and political contours of our societal understanding of them generally.  Although there are cops and paramedics, firefighters and teachers, etc. in books and other material for adolescents (I’m not sure about the mail carriers anymore), they no longer seem to have that central and heroic status that they do for the younger children.   Yet the repressed returns with a vengeance.  Prior to September 11, we adults tended to reawaken our interest via popular TV shows, from Marcus Welby and Adam 12 to ER to the cop-paramedic-firefighter drama Third Watch.  There was also the recent success of so-called “reality-based” programming, as in shows such as COPS, Rescue 911, and several others.  The doings of police, especially, are everywhere, from the paperback bestsellers at Barnes & Noble (where detectives rule), to the new releases at Blockbuster Video, to the pages of the tabloids and on the ratings-starved local evening news. 

Snobbishness about popular culture is unnecessary, though, to see how superficial is this spectacle-seeking gaze.  For the squad car and the ER have to be sensationalized in order to hold our interest.  For that reason, absent an emergency on the scale of September 11, or unless one happens to live somewhere that is routinely “exciting” (e.g., places where kids do not think “NYPD Blue” or even “deer season” when they hear a gunshot, places where kids know someone who has died in the emergency room), these more spectacular images and narratives are not really about the people in one’s neighborhood at all—no matter how “reality-based” they are supposed to be.  Rather, they are car chases, soap operas, shoot-outs, rampaging murderers, and other, often eroticized, exotica where handsome people doing daring things and the World’s Scariest Police Chases make the clicker stick—no more “real” than all those truly ennobling beachside rescues on Baywatch.  In their distortions, even the purportedly realistic shows evidence what the environmentalist writer Bill McKibben points out about most nature programs:  documentary-like, they use actual footage and the like, but even the best of them convey a sort of spectacularism about what’s going on in the forest, jungle or plains.  For McKibben, “nature documentaries are as absurdly action-packed as the soap operas, where a life’s worth of divorce, adultery, and sudden death are crammed into a week’s worth of watching—trying to understand “nature” from watching Wild Kingdom is as tough as trying to understand “life” from watching Dynasty.”   These kinds of TV representations of public servants, then, are only marginally more real than, say, Star Wars or All My Children, and in some ways less so because they are so commonly packaged and accepted as real.  By definition, the greatest deceptions are those that hide themselves as truths or the grains thereof.             

But September 11, I think, alters much of this dynamic.  Almost overnight it helps to correct this lack of vision, this myopia that causes us to miss much of what is so close to hand.  September 11 also heightens the urgency with which we need to understand with greater depth and clarity those I’ve been calling the people in our neighborhood, that class of public servants, including teachers, lionized in children’s books and then afterwards largely ignored in democratic theory.  This is a strange and regrettable amnesia, for these full-time public servants are indispensable to any realizable contemporary democracy.  As is now all-too clear, they themselves, their status and place, their allegiances and commitments cannot simply be assumed.  Pervasive and necessary though they may be, public servants tend to be under-acknowledged, under-appreciated and, the academic coup de grace, under-theorized.  Yet these providers of basic public services comprise an occupational group without whom the moral foundations of contemporary democracy cannot be fully understood.  

Within the realm of K-12 teaching, my main concern is not so much teaching and whatever it may be in and of itself, but rather how the institutional context for the occupation of teaching is shaped and structured.  One immediate motivation is to question what I think is a serious mistake in much of the current discussion on teaching and its reform:  the strong drive toward professionalization on the model of medicine and law.  This drive is certainly understandable on behalf of an occupation starved of occupational prestige and its ancillary benefits:  workplace autonomy, remuneration, social status and the range of advantages flowing from a position of state-licensed monopoly of services.  Yet, despite Herculean efforts to the contrary, on the whole, the category of “professional,” remains generally unconvincing as a sociological description of K-12 teaching.  The traditional questions have never really been answered:  Where, really, is the shared “knowledge base?”  The patency of a long and credentials-justifying training regimen? Most importantly, however, trying to derive K-12 teaching’s status and worth through professionalism is debilitating in deeper and more durable ways. The discourse of professionalism, despite its official allegiance to “the client,” tends to alienate teachers from the moral essentials of their calling.  As Nel Noddings rightly argues, an imagined victory of professionalization would be pyrrhic, a situation in which “[w]e will have sold our educational souls for a portion of professional porridge.” The logic of professionalization and its “worship of expertise” relegates to a secondary priority caring for particular others (the learners), the practical wisdom and craft nature of the enterprise, and, as I shall emphasize, a desperately needed identification of teaching with adjacent public servants of democracy.  Though tempting, professionalization has become a morally dangerous strategic gambit, one that hollows out and isolates, conceiving of teaching’s rewards and responsibilities in potentially desiccating terms that are, likely, in fact, to lose both “porridge” and “soul.” 

It is therefore imperative to take up Noddings’s implied challenge and articulate a richer alternative.  This I’ll begin to do by drawing upon an inspiring yet largely overlooked moral and political identity that I shall define, in very specific descriptive and normative terms, as “public service.”  Though widely used and overused, “public servant” is an identity now somberly ripe for the taking, as it were, for teachers and those engaged in what I’ll contend are allied “public service” occupations, namely, police, firefighters, public librarians, nurses, social workers, and EMT/paramedics.  These seven occupations (below I’ll make the case for why these seven and not others) form an interlocking ring of occupational involvement that lies at the center of our far-flung and ungraspably complicated democracy.  Along with the direct exercise of political rights themselves, these occupations and their discretionary ambit constitute the sine qua non of any contemporary liberal democratic society able to yield the quality of life necessary to sustain domestic tranquility and citizens’ pursuit of happiness.  More than sentimentalized “unsung heroes,” these public servants are structurally indispensable guarantors of access to the social spheres widely regarded as most basic and, in a general sense, uncompromisably open to all citizens:  security in one’s person and property, basic health care and rescue services, K-12 education (if not higher education as well), at least a transitional threshold level of basic life needs like food and shelter, and, perhaps most recently emergent as a basic democratic need in these cyber-times, access to information.

It is alongside these gatekeepers of democracy that teaching belongs.  Recognizing as much will provide a much solider normative basis—and one simply more rhetorically compelling—than anything professionalization has to offer.  One may wish still to employ the term as shorthand to denote behavior proper within the public service occupation in question (as in the admonition, “that is unprofessional!”).  But let us not allow a handy colloquialism to obscure that which is truly fundamental and upon which we all depend.  To most of us as individuals, throughout most of our lives and in our everyday affairs, the public servants we encounter are the democratic state; they are its face and voice, its triumphs and failures, its heroes and villains.  The brutal or racist cop, the indifferent nurse, the jaded teacher, and the icy caseworker are in the ensemble graver threats to our democracy than a hundred bin Ladens or a stock market crash.  Not only they as individuals but we collectively are responsible for their failures, even as we all rightly share in their successes.  More palpably than is the case with either GM or Microsoft, as our public servants go, so goes the nation.     

Locating the Public Servant

While attempting to circumnavigate as much as possible the sociological quagmire of occupational categorization, it is necessary to risk delineating the territory with a bit more precision.  For it seems to me that the group for whom I am reserving the title “public servants,” is distinguishable from those one might call, along the above-mentioned lines, “public professionals” and “public workers.” Public servants constitute a sort of “middle class” among service-oriented vocations, somewhere in-between what are usually regarded as “professions” (e.g., doctors, lawyers, professors, clergy, architects) and those regarded as more menial, in the Marxist sense that they are seen as have relatively little to sell other than their labor itself (e.g., road crews, sanitation workers, secretarial staff, hospital orderlies, mail carriers and sorters).  Each of these I distinguish from their analogues involved in commercial organizations whose telos is, ultimately if not always immediately, to turn a profit (e.g., rent-a-cops, corporate librarians, commercial daycare personnel, etc.).  Admittedly, though, the lines can become quite blurred—to say the least—among many if not all of the above-mentioned examples in each category, especially in the hybrid analogues of each of these categories more and more visible in the burgeoning non-profit sector.

Among public sector employees, public servants tend to possess the following characteristics:  they are paid primarily from public funds (municipal, county, state, federal), their existence and functioning is mandated and specified within fairly complex statutory and regulatory environments (with greater or lesser degrees of specificity), they are held publicly accountable for their job performance, there are moderately high requirements for entry (at the low end, civil service exams of moderate rigor, such as those for firefighters and police, to, at the higher end, college degrees, as in the case of schoolteachers, and even graduate work at the master’s level, as in the case of librarians).  Public servants tend to make salaries that place them, in relative socio-economic status terms, in the lower-middle to more solidly middle class.  There are further and quite significant aspects of these jobs, such as the high and, in most cases, extremely challenging level of on-the-job ambiguity regarding the evolving “job descriptions” themselves.  It is, it turns out, a structural feature of these jobs that their definition is highly elastic, a perpetual “crisis” that generates great and sometimes vertiginous moral ambiguity among practitioners.  This phenomenon is visible in the difficulty, from the “inside,” of demarcating, say, policing from social work, school teaching from policing, the authority of the nurse and physician’s assistant from that which is reserved exclusively for medical doctors.

There has been long-standing discussion among sociologists regarding the interstices of distinctions like the tripartite one I’m here employing, particularly regarding what in my analysis is the public professional/public servant distinction.  Affixing some prefix to “professional” has been common, as in calling them “sub-,“ “quasi-,“ or “semi-professionals.”  In my view the most successful treatment of the relevant occupational group is found in Michael Lipsky’s classic description of “street-level bureaucrats.”  Lipsky includes the seven occupations I do, but adds public defender attorneys and lower court judges.  Salient criteria are the following:  1)  the jobs inherently involve interacting directly with “the masses,” and 2) they involve a significant level of discretionary judgment regarding citizens’ “cases,” and therefore the conduct of them exercises real power over individual citizens’ lives.   Furthermore, these jobs tend to be highly labor intensive, salaried, magnets for social controversies, and practitioners operate under frustrating conditions of chronic resource scarcity.  And, as indicated above, they tend to deal everyday with structural ambiguities that constantly “flare up,” from the manifold ambiguities and ambivalences regarding roles and expectations, for example, allegiances to the client versus allegiances to the organization (e.g., a teacher’s strike, cops “covering” for one another, nurses and paramedics dealing with questions of insurance/ability to pay) to scarcity-induced distancing from the client (e.g., when the impossibly large caseloads of social workers or teachers’ overfull classrooms lessen their ability to individualize services).  It is also important to emphasize the extent to which they deal directly with the allocation and distribution of citizen entitlements, and as such they are very often the agents of last resort for public services, often dealing with those who have no alternatives for the provision of services generally.  The well-to-do can obtain private schooling, health care, commission private information brokers, and even hire their own security.  In short, Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrats tend to be most consequential to the lives of poor people, and proportionately less so as a function of a client’s private wealth.  It is important to remember, though, as September 11 helps us to, that, ultimately, in extreme situations, when there is no one else to turn to, everyone depends upon the public servants within whose jurisdiction they reside and work. 

While Lipsky’s account provides the descriptive basis for much of my own, there are differences that justify my more exclusive focus.  Perhaps mostly a matter of emphasis, it seems to me more appropriate to place the public defenders and lower court judges just inside the “public professional” category line.  I would agree that most public defender lawyers have more in common with social workers and teachers in terms of salary, working conditions and basic outlook than with their nominal colleagues in, say, a large corporate law firm.  But I would suggest that the generic (though grudging!) social prestige extended to “the lawyer” possesses enough contextual force effectively to provide a psychological buffer zone between public defender and client.  This might be manifest in a greater amount of deference, such as that which doctors typically receive from their patients (so even a general practitioner with no staff would still qualify as a professional).  And as in the case of medical doctors, by the time the client presents himself or herself, he or she has already been “screened” in various ways at the street-level by, precisely, public servants and public workers.  Public defenders are also less likely to be regarded as the social equals and/or inferiors of their (frequently poor) clients, as when even the most destitute patients frequently insult (wittingly or not) paramedics by calling them “ambulance drivers” or refer to female nurses as “girls.”   All this applies a fortiori to judges, even those presiding over lower courts.  Appearances notwithstanding, this means that public defender attorneys and lower court judges do not deal quite as directly with citizens as do the other street-level bureaucrats, those for whom I’m reserving the “public servant” label, in the sense that their interactions with clients are to a greater degree symbolically mediated.  Clients’ views of them are less direct and more refracted owing to the differential in social status between the two parties. 

Thus modified, Lipsky’s two criteria would help decide other close calls that come to mind, such as corrections officers (the population over whom they exercise power is too specialized), health and safety inspectors who tend to work “behind the scenes” rather than directly with just anybody who might come along, and academic librarians, many of whom possess faculty status at colleges and universities (as opposed to public librarians in county, city, or municipal branch libraries) because their clientele is too specialized (mostly professors and college students).  True public servants must take all comers on a regular basis, and must do so in a relatively unmediated face-to-face manner; within their relatively large qualifying “jurisdiction” (including age and place of residence for teachers, income level for social workers, etc.). Any citizen may in principle present him or herself to a public servant and legitimately demand the appropriate service.  September 11 presents, of course, the apotheosis of this “client service.”  Not only was every individual worthy of rescue effort—without a second thought—but WTC-area citizens, in effect, demanded the very lives of the relevant public servants.  Though fortunately we do not see it very often, this kind of sacrifice is, in a way, built in to the very idea of public service in a democracy.  (As a counterexample, Nazi-era firefighters might let a synagogue burn and Nazi-era police turned a blind eye during the Kristallnacht pogrom.)  Given the centrality of their spherical gatekeeping responsibilities, it would be hard to imagine a true democracy operating otherwise.

September 11 underscores this often-overlooked way in which individual citizens are dependent in a life-or-death sense upon public servants, including teachers.   At one level it is obvious how everyone depends on the health and safety public servants (e.g., nurses, firefighters, EMT/paramedics).  But even with regard to these occupations, most people without chronically life-threatening medical conditions do not normally see themselves as radically dependent upon them.  A wailing ambulance or fire engine is usually encountered as a traffic inconvenience, nurses as providing routine services to be gotten over with as soon as possible.  The universal dependency is even more opaque when it comes to the less immediately life-or-death occupations such as teachers and librarians.  This is so even though it is also widely recognized, in the sense in which Jonathan Kozol meant it in Death at an Early Age, that educators hold a kind of slow-motion life-or-death power over their student-clients. Yet the fact of the dependency is not a function of the public's awareness of it.  If the paramedic makes a technical mistake, the patient may die.  Given the right—or wrong—situation, a teacher’s pedagogical or moral mistake may help set in motion a sequence of events that may destroy a human life just as surely, if not as quickly, as a loss of blood or the administration of the wrong drug.  (As the prominence of issues of access and the so-called “digital divide” grows, even the librarians have a case to make here, in the less literal sense of a kind of social death that may be increasingly likely in cases of chronic information deprivation.)  There are different ways and levels of understanding and coping with this awareness of moral gravity.  I have had students tell me they have decided against going into teaching because they have come to view its moral demands as oppressively weighty, given how easily they could “screw a kid up.”   It is telling, I think, that I can with relative ease imagine this kind of realization occurring within the context of any of the public service occupations, where the sheer volume of service interactions almost guarantees that even the strongest senses of success are at least tinged with regret, even tragedy.  At whatever temporal pace--from the fast-motion of the ER to the slow-motion of the classroom--both chronic and acute moral risk and ambiguity are unwritten parts of the job description.                                       


One further set of classificatory points should be made.  I have attempted to define public servants and by extension public professionals and workers exclusively with reference to external, that is, socially noticed, features of those occupations, rather than by anything allegedly inherent in the activity itself.  Some would say, for example, and it seems to me that this is widely—and mistakenly—assumed as “common sense,” that the professions are professions because they are more complex, more based upon science, more precise somehow (insinuating that the defining feature of the professional is that he or she is more “intellectual,” more rigorously trained—and hence deserving of the greater status, remuneration, etc.).  Opposing this move involves a certain kind of structuralist allegiance, ultimately of Marxist provenance.  With thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and, later, Michel Foucault, it seems to me patently implausible to argue, simpliciter, that lawyers need to know more than police officers, psychologists more than school teachers, architects more than carpenters, doctors more than nurses, etc.  It is, of course, that there are different bodies of knowledge in play with group X, Y, or Z, and that complexity—or lack thereof—is beside the point.  Neither is it simply the distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that” or that the professional’s kind of knowledge is of greater abstraction, more theoretical (and hence of greater power and generalizability).  A good schoolteacher can generalize about children on the basis of trial and error experience and, perhaps more importantly, know when not to generalize with as much reliability as an experimental psychologist.  (Doubters might wish to consult the, shall we say, uneven track record of psychologists’ prescriptions this century, from parenting to preschool to perversity.)  The contexts within which the differing types of reliability make sense are best understood as simply different in kind, matters pertaining to hard-to-breach contextual containing walls.  Teachers are not simply appliers of educational research, paramedics of medicine, etc., however much the science may be relevant and helpful when appropriately “applied.”  Excellence in public service has much to do with the plane of experience Aristotle called phronesis (often translated as “practical wisdom”), a form of understanding better described as a kind of moral perception than by what we usually mean by the term “knowledge.”    

But consideration of the nature of the activity itself apart from its social context is bound to mislead.  To ascertain who are these public servants, as opposed to those I’ve labeled public professionals and public workers, it is therefore more reliable to move toward sociological ground.  To borrow directly from Foucault, an occupation is best understood in terms of its place in the “power-knowledge regime” that characterizes a given society, that is, via its role in the social production of truth (in the epistemologically agnostic, anthropological sense of focusing upon what is taken to be true).  It is therefore not so much that professionals possess an epistemologically distinctive “knowledge base” as it is that they are socially recognized as possessing it.  In Western political democracies, attorneys, scientists and physicians increasingly step in for us at key points in our collective deliberations.  (Illustrative of the present point, clergy fulfill this function less convincingly than they once did, as their theological legitimation decreases in prestige, even in the United States, where levels of professed faith, church going, etc., are much higher than elsewhere in the industrialized world).  Probably more significantly, these credentialled experts are unceasingly present as part of the background noise emerging from our televisions, newspapers, radios, etc.  “Researchers have found this or that,” “attorneys and judges have settled this or that,” are as satisfyingly close to Truth as we as a society can get.  Those at the greatest social proximity to this truth manufacturing and disseminating process are those possessing the greatest claim to professional status, just as, conversely, those farthest away from what is anointed as True are considered less professional.  The architect is the professional, the structural engineer is quasi-professional, the builder is a businessperson, and the carpenters are workers.  (Though conscientious members of each group down the line typically consider a persistent part of their job to be correcting the mistakes of those putatively more professional.  This semi-antagonism would apply to cops vis-à-vis prosecutors and judges, teachers vis-à-vis the pronouncements of educational researchers, public librarians vis-à-vis the spin of TV professionals, etc.)  By and large, the closer one is to what is considered to be Truth, the more professional one is considered to be.

Professionals, then, are those whose honorific status depends on sticking as close as possible to the solar Truth in our social system:  they are its Mercury and Venus.  Public workers orbit in the outer darkness of Neptune or Pluto (like Pluto, perhaps they should not even be accorded planetary status, as the extent to which in our society they are socially “seen” is questionable).   The public servants, then (please forgive the pun), are down to Earth, in a middle position that is close enough to be warmed—with a solar social respect—but not ruined by the potentially all-consuming Sun of power, prestige and money.  Certainly more than respectable by middle class aspirant standards, public service is even smiled upon in a generalized way by elites—though, of course, not normally something for their sons and daughters to do.  They still exist primarily as “the help,” though at least, from a social status point of view, they are in a condition of public as opposed to domestic servitude.  As such, public servants are respect-garnering because they are of necessity semi-autonomous from elite control:  the wealthiest Wall Street bond trader or Bill Gates himself could be ticketed by a traffic cop or saved by speedy paramedics and a fire crew.  And although Bill Gates's own children may not need them directly, public school teachers and librarians help, in the spirit of Carnegie-esque "enlightened capitalism," with the human part of Microsoft’s capital accumulation and, on the whole, aid in making the general run of things more pleasant in the environs of the Hamptons, Gold Coast, or Bel Air.  But again, September 11 drives home the most important point, which is the radical dependency of every citizen on public servants in some context or other.  Even the greatest wealth cannot fully opt out from needing them.  

For Further Study

If the preceding taxonomy is plausible at all, the way is cleared for a more detailed exploration of the moral contours of the seven public service occupations, how they differ from one another and, more importantly, along lines indicated by my working hypothesis, what precisely they share.  As indicated, I premise this undertaking on the assumption that illuminating teachers’ understandings of how they fit into the complex ecosystem of pluralistic democracy will be salutary to us all.  September 11's public servants help me see more clearly that “public servant” is an ennobling and practically effective self-understanding for teachers and those I am arguing are their peers in public service.  At the very least, it seems to me much more compelling than the alternatives that were on offer before September 11.  Occupationally, public school teachers should in this sense come home to themselves.  They will be welcome there, taking their rightful place among democracy's “saving powers.”

See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.; 1977). p. 28.

There were of course similar risks taken by the relevant personnel at the Pentagon crash site, though for obvious reasons those were not documented to the same extent as those in New York.

Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O’Day, Information Ecologies (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1999), p. 80.

A careful library search so far yields little confirmatory data for this general impression.  One helpful study is Claudia Mills, “The Image of Work in Adolescent Fiction,” Journal of Youth Services in Libraries (Fall 1988), pp. 76-83.  On teachers specifically, there is some germane material in the collection, Images of Schoolteachers in Twentieth-Century America:  Paragons, Polarities, Complexities, ed. Pamela Bolotin Joseph and Gail E. Burnaford (Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum, 2001).  See especially the chapters by W. Nikola-Lisa and Gail E. Burnaford, “A Mosaic:  Contemporary Schoolchildren’s Images of Teachers,” pp. 116-141; and Ann M. Trousdale, “Teacher as Gatekeeper:  Schoolteachers in Picture Books for Young Children,” pp. 195-214.

Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information (New York:  Plume, 1992), p. 77.

Though it is obviously true that, in different forms, public servants of a sort may operate under other political regimes as well—dictatorships and theocracies can have firefighters, too.

I’ve offered some of my own thoughts on this larger topic in Dying to Teach:  The Educator’s Search for Immortality (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1997). 

An influential recent example is Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn:  A Blueprint for School Reform (San Francisco:  Jossey Bass Publishers, 1997).  Darling-Hammond’s notion of “democratic professionals” seems on the right track, but it also has its own problems.  One might also worry about possible connotations of “democratic professionals,” which seems to come uncomfortably close to conflating technical expertise and democracy, in the sense that we would have “democratic experts,” technocrats, who are presumed to know more about democracy than the average citizen.       

See William Goode, “The Theoretical Limits of Professionalization,” in Amitai Etzioni, ed., The Semi-Professions and Their Organization:  Teachers, Nurses, Social Workers (New York:  The Free Press, 1969), pp. 26-313.

Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1992), p. 178.

Stephen Rathgeb Smith and Michael Lipsky, Nonprofits for Hire:  The Welfare State in the Age of Contracting (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1993).

Michael Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy:  Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services (New York:  Russell Sage Foundation, 1980).

Lipsky, p.3

Peter Canning, Paramedic:  On the Front Lines of Medicine (New York:  Ivy Books, 1998) and Jacqueline Goodman-Draper, Health  Care’s Forgotten Majority:  Nurses and their Frayed White Collars (Westport, CT:  Auburn House, 1995). 

Death at an Early Age:  The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (NY:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967)

This reaction has always made me profoundly ambivalent.  Is it a victory or a failure when a teacher education program generates this response?  One the one hand it is a victory in that we hope that those who cannot cope with the moral demands of teaching do not go into it.  But on the other hand it strikes me as a possible failure because the person sensitive and self-reflective enough to generate the worry is probably precisely the kind of person we want to go into teaching.                        

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York:  International Publishers, 1971), pp. 5-15; on Foucault, see my “Intellectuals at Work and In Power:  Toward a Foucaultian Research Ethic,” in Thomas Popkewitz and Marie Brennan, eds., Foucault’s Challenge:  Discourse, Knowledge and Power in Education (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1998), pp. 348-367.

Among many sources in the virtue tradition, especially helpful, particularly on the centrality of moral perception, is Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character:  Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1989).

See especially the interviews and essays in Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York:  Pantheon, 1980).

The anthrax attack following September 11 illustrates a case where the public is forced belatedly to acknowledge a previously less "seen" group, postal employees, helping to correct their initial and, as events proved, dangerously unjust relative social invisibility.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 12, 2002 ID Number: 11010, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:07:26 AM

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