Y-H-B is allowing himself to go slightly off-topic in this post, focusing as it does not on language and linguistics but on the SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, which is defined as the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises. This field of investigation was pioneered primarily by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1885-1917) at beginning of the 20th century.

About three years ago I submitted an article to The New York Times for its Op-Ed page, which was not printed. Here it is:

Sham Solutions to Real Problems in Education by Michael Shapiro

Educational reform is constantly in the news, driven by the Obama administration’s avowed aim of improving test results nationwide. The most prominent nostrums today are the same as before: measuring achievement by standardized testing, awarding merit pay to teachers, and ending tenure. None of these comes to grips with the real problem: recruiting and retaining good teachers. Everything that happens in the classroom––the only genuinely crucial arena where learning takes place–begins and ends with the teacher. Good teaching is the only portal at which knowledge enters and educated students exit. Boards of education, superintendents, principals, department chairs–the entire horde of barnacles on the ship of learning–only impede the ship’s progress. Parents and politicians must learn this lesson and act on it if America is ever going to have an excellent system of public education.

Here are two real-life cases known to me personally which illustrate how good teachers are prevented from entering and staying in teaching. Both are drawn from the world of higher education but apply to the problem in general.

Case 1: an assistant professor is hired to teach in a language department but is not told that she is merely a place-holder for the chairman’s chosen candidate who cannot assume the position until he satisfies a visa requirement. A year goes by. The place-holder does an excellent job. The fair-haired boy then becomes eligible, so the chairman manufactures an entirely bogus dossier to make it look like the woman is incompetent and get her terminated. The vice chancellor rubber stamps the chairman’s action. Learning of this, the woman complains of sham treatment to a university-wide committee, which rules in her favor and censures the chairman. But the vice chancellor [may he rot in hell!] ignores the ruling, saying to the aggrieved scholar: “Do you think I’m going to exchange a chairman for an assistant professor?” The teacher sues the university but is unsuccessful because the federal judge refuses to allow into evidence material from confidential files that would have vindicated the plaintiff and reinstated her. The law suit not only leaves her jobless but renders her unable to secure a tenured position over her entire working life because the chairman and his henchmen repeatedly blackball her out of spite by writing poisoned-pen letters to prospective employers. The woman perseveres as a scholar and dies prematurely, her only revenge being a legacy of written work that marks her as the most accomplished and versatile American specialist in her field of the 20th century.

Case 2: a university professor with forty years’ experience, a record of distinguished scholarship and teaching at all levels through the postdoctoral, and an international reputation for pioneering research in his field retires and some time later offers his services–without salary–to the presidents of five colleges near his new domicile in a Northeastern state. Three do not bother to answer his letter at all. Of the two that do respond, only one accepts the offer, the second’s response being, “There is currently no appropriate context for your services.”
Despite their differences, these two cases––each in its own way––testify to the fact that administrators, who have the responsibility for insuring that the best teachers are recruited and retained, routinely allow considerations unconnected with education to hold sway over their personnel decisions. Their overriding goals, in order of importance, are: 1) keeping themselves in their jobs; 2) keeping the natives (alias their subordinates) from causing trouble. The second conduces to the first. Anything that avoids resentments and recriminations trumps everything else. After all, unlike business or commerce, there is no profit motive in education.

Ending tenure might help but is not a panacea; nor is merit pay, which already exists anyway and is bootless to change the situation fundamentally. In higher education these issues are usually raised in the context of a false dichotomy–between good teaching and research. After more than fifty years spent in the trenches, I can testify that only infinitesimally are professors who produce no lasting scholarship first-rate classroom teachers all the same. That most publications are dross, not gold, changes nothing: it’s their habits of thought that scholars and scientists of the first rank pass on to their students. A useful comparison is with music pedagogy. My parents’ conservatory instructors in inter-war Germany, the cellist Julius Klengel (Leipzig) and the pianist Leonid Kreutzer (Berlin), were world-renowned pedagogues whose mastery of their instruments was an indispensable ingredient of their success as teachers. My father’s University of Freiburg teacher Edmund Husserl, whose philosophical writings will endure for all time, gave lapidary lectures that attracted students and colleagues from all faculties. But for every Husserl, there are always numberless—-tenured!—-time servers. Abolishing tenure won’t change that. Nor will merit pay.”