Teachers in red-state America are hard at work teaching us all a lesson. The American mythos has always rested on a belief that this country was born out of a kind of immaculate conception, that the New World came into being and has forever after been preserved as a land without the class hierarchies and conflicts that so disfigured Europe.
The strikes, rallies, and walkouts of public-school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, soon perhaps Arizona, and elsewhere are a stunning reminder that class has always mattered far more in our public and private lives than our origin story would allow. Insurgent teachers are instructing us all about a tale of denial for which we’ve paid a heavy price.
Professionals or Proletarians?
Are teachers professionals, proletarians, or both? One symptom of our pathological denial of class realities is that we are accustomed to thinking of teachers as “middle class.” Certainly, their professional bona fides should entitle them to that social station. After all, middle class is the part of the social geography that we imagine as the aspirational homing grounds for good citizens of every sort, a place so all-embracing that it effaces signs of rank, order, and power. The middle class is that class so universal that it’s really no class at all.
School teachers, however, have always been working-class stiffs. For a long time, they were also mainly women who would have instantly recognized the insecurities, struggles to get by, and low public esteem that plague today’s embattled teachers.
The women educators of yesteryear may have thought of their work as a profession or a “calling,” subject to its own code of ethics and standards of excellence, as well as an intellectual pursuit and social service. But whatever they thought about themselves, they had no ability to convince public authorities to pay attention to such aspirations (and they didn’t). As “women’s work,” school teaching done by “school marms” occupied an inherently low position in a putatively class-free America.
What finally lent weight to the incipient professional ideals of public-school teachers was, ironically, their unionization; that is, their self-identification as a constituent part of the working class. The struggle to create teacher unions was one of the less heralded breakthroughs of the 1960s and early 1970s. A risky undertaking, involving much self-sacrifice and militancy, it was met with belligerent resistance by political elites everywhere. When victory finally came, it led to considerable improvements in the material conditions of a chronically underpaid part of the labor force. Perhaps no less important, for the first time it institutionalized the long-held desire of teachers for some respect, a desire embodied in tenure systems and other forms of professional recognition and protection.