Terrorists? Us?


By Jane Weinkrantz   


            It is my observation that Rod Paige is not the first person to explore the terrorist tendencies of teachers. In Woody Allen’s 1973 satiric vision of the future, “Sleeper,” when Miles Monroe awakens after being preserved for 200 years, the question of what ended civilization is posed.   The answer? “A man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear bomb.” The difference, of course, is that Woody Allen is a comic and filmmaker; Rod Paige is a Secretary of Education who should stick to his day job. Or maybe not.

            Of course, Paige tried to backpedal after calling the NEA a “terrorist organization” that had created a “coalition of whiners to hold kids back” by opposing the No Child Left Behind Act with a lawsuit. In his apology, he attempted to differentiate between NEA members who are teachers and NEA lobbyists stating, “our nation’s teachers, who have dedicated their lives to service in the classroom are the real soldiers of democracy, whereas the NEA’s high priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children regardless of skin color, accent, or where they live.”

            The NEA is certainly not the only organization to use lobbyists, high priced or otherwise. Are lobbyists for big tobacco or private health insurance companies or the NRA terrorists? Their concerns certainly deal with weapons and death in a more direct way than ours do. Yet, we are the terrorists.

            Isn’t it interesting the way our lobbyists are singled out as “terrorists” because we oppose badly designed, fiscally irresponsible legislation designed to gut the very public schools that employ us and make room for vouchers while holding students and teachers to standards that schools lack the funds to prepare for---assuming they were worthwhile standards in the first place? Can we be terrorists for being sensible enough to see that students who are handicapped or do not speak English probably will not be able to pass the same required standardized tests as everyone else? Are we dangerous because we think a law that has labeled some of our federally recognized “blue ribbon” schools as “failing” has more than a few kinks in it? And isn’t it condescending to suggest that teachers are simply being led around by the nose by their Washington representatives? Is Paige’s real objection that we are not being led around by the nose by the Bush administration instead?

            Of course, another way of examining this is to look at the way this administration defines “terrorist”. If we play fast and loose with language, the word “terrorist” which should be a serious word that evokes passion and sorrow in all of us after the tragedy of 9/11 may be relegated to a more casual status. “Nazi” used to be a very specific term that evoked a very specific reaction; now  Jerry Seinfeld uses it to refer to a guy who sells soup in a particularly anal retentive way. When we permit language to lose its meaning like this, it is only a question of time before we are wearing labels we don’t deserve. If the definition  of terrorist becomes “anyone who does not agree 100% with the President,” than I am afraid many of us will have to answer “Guilty as charged.” Math teachers who can calculate No Child Left Behind’s $9.4 billion dollar gap between what was promised and what was delivered may be terrorists. Social studies teachers who can see that Bush’s tax cuts cannot stimulate the economy sufficiently or bring back jobs from overseas may be terrorists. English teachers who teach literature that encourages students to question authority and think for themselves may be terrorists as are elementary teachers who can recognize the benefits Head Start has had for their children and resent the President’s attempts to change it. Health teachers who now must “emphasize abstinence” even when they know their students should have more practical information as well are terrorists. You get the picture.

            Yet, there is one thing Paige calls us that is not so bad: “soldiers of democracy.” As a soldier of democracy, I intend to encourage my students to think for themselves, to vote their consciences, to hold their leaders accountable and to protest when they feel their government is doing something wrong. I want to make them understand that patriotism and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. What label would Paige have for that? I think “American.”


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