How Would the Obituary for Public Education Be Written?


If you are a person of a morbid and twisted ilk like myself, then you perhaps, like me, have tended from time to time to mentally write your own obituary, or to imagine what it might sound like. I like to do this, especially when I am taking off in an airplane.  The mental exercise demands that I take honest and immediate stock of my life: Do I have any regrets? Do I need to mend any relational fences? Have I been the person I have wanted to be? Have I lived fully? What is left undone that is of importance to me?

You get the idea. When the plane lands, which (obviously) it has done every time so far, I am left more compelled than ever to remind myself of what’s important, and take actions I might not have otherwise. It’s easy in daily life to get bogged down in the not so important bullshit and to lose sight of what matters.

In the last two days I have taken to imagining the obituary for public education, should that ever come to pass. How would it read? Here lies public education … death by homicide (at the violent hands of corporate reform)? Or, will it read “…death by suicide (at the hands of our own fear, and or apathy)?

I don’t write this with the assumption that public education WILL die! First, if I really thought its demise was inevitable I would not dedicate the emotional and physical efforts I do—taking time away from my children, from any remote resemblance of a personal life, risking my job security, or sacrificing sleep—if I thought the fight was in vain. Secondly, if indeed we are to lose this battle, I can sleep with myself at night knowing that anything that the reformers took from me, my profession, my children’s education, or our democratic rights as a society, they took from me with deeply embedded claw marks in it.

I choose death by homicide. In other words: “Game on mother fuckers- come and get me.”

If you’ve been following recent discussions and events around the NEA, and its convention going on right now in Washington DC, you know there’s been a great deal of discord and debate over several matters including a statement made by United Opt Out National’s call for the NEA leaders and members to step up and take direct and decisive action against the trifecta of education reform: The imposition of a national common core, Value Added Measures in teacher evaluations (VAM), and high stakes testing.

As someone who had a hand in writing the statement, I think my feelings about the matter are self-evident. But if you’re someone who read the statement made by United Opt Out and hated it, believe it or not, I love you for it. Really. I am not being smarmy. Why? Because the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. The passionate disagreement shows that you still care. Whatever I say, and even if you disagree with me (or I risk being misunderstood) shows at least I am in this for the fight, I am willing to take risks, I am willing to piss you off, because remaining silent out of fear is worse than not being liked.

I’d rather step on a giant land mine trying to escape my own death than stand still with my eyes shut and wait for the bullets to rip holes through the cavity of my body. I’m a believer in ripping open the dialogue right down to the bone. Why? Because even if you disagree with me, even if you don’t like me I can still like, and respect you. I don’t treat personal relationships like baseball trading cards. Because only from discord, can new possibilities emerge. Because discord only happens over something that matters. Because my god, we’ve been playing the polite quiet game out of fear waaayyy too long. And the reformers gain rapid ground everyday that we play “nice.” We’ve been avoiding the necessary conversations and perhaps uncomfortable actions too long.

Disagreements and discord do not trouble me so much as silence. Everyone knows that the end of a marriage isn’t when the fighting starts. Its when the fighting stops.

Every day that teachers are afraid to take actions, or are resigned to “their fate” because of potential backlash from “higher ups,” the reformers put a nail in our coffin. In higher education where I work I hear my own colleagues tell each other “Shhh, shhhh….don’t say that, you’ll get in trouble!” as if we were little kids using the word poop at the dinner table. “You can’t say this! Don’t do that! Be careful not to…” Everywhere educators are now told what they can and cannot speak to, what they can and cannot teach, and pretty much where and when they are allowed to take a shit. Enough. I’d rather step in shit than be afraid to move. Our discords may be ugly sometimes, but I’ll take them (as we fight against our collective homicide) over suicide any day.

Suicide is the result of fear and/or apathy- it’s either death by paralysis, or death by not caring enough to think that your actions can matter. It’s like not even having the desire to move off the tracks when you see the train coming.

Is that how we wish for the obituary for one of the most significant cornerstones of our democratic society to be written? That we were too afraid or too resigned to do everything, absolutely everything, we could do in our power to try and save it from the hands of corporate greed and self interest?

Death by suicide will happen if too many of us—teachers and teacher leaders—remain silent out of fear (of not being liked? Of making people we respect angry? At losing something we have or not getting something we want?). Don’t worry, the corporate reformers will take all of that from us anyway if we remain silent long enough.

Everywhere: In unions Local, state and national), in non-union states, in k-12 classrooms, in universities, in PTA meetings, on the playground with other parents—everywhere, parents, teachers and teacher leaders MUST not allow the story of the future of public education be consigned to writing a suicide note. If it must be death by homicide so be it. But I am at my very core hopeful this will not happen because I am a believer in miracles. I am a believer in the underdogs. I am a believer in the 11th hour. I am a believer in “fat lady” who sings.

And I am hopeful because what I have seen lately has been anything but indifference. Agree or disagree. We debate. We misunderstand. We understand but don’t agree anyway. We differ. We hold fast to our own ideas while being willing to listen to others. We discuss. We consider alternative views. We wrangle with provocative ideas. So I have hope.

If fear of that silences us, then we indeed will be writing our suicide note for public education.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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