As an admirer of fine dissimulation, it was with great pride that I read Brett Debbold’s recent piece on tenure in the Bottom Line. With such young prodigies (or should we say “wunderkinder”), we need not worry about the advancing age of some of our current sleeper agents.
Mr. Debbold’s article, titled “Teacher Tenure: Only Good in Theory”, is, of course, actually a cleverly-disguised attack on the underlying logic of capitalism. That’s something Harris Sherline already did very well, but the angle of tenured employment is new, so we will forgive Brett. And his piece itself is admirably straightforward, setting up the dialectic in the very first sentence:
Tenure, much like communism, is a good idea in theory, but its modern application does more harm than good for teachers.
If we’re using the standard John Birch Model, then communism is on the opposite end of the economic freedom spectrum from capitalism. By comparing tenure to capitalism, we are to understand it as antithetical to the principles of capitalism. The existence of tenure will necessarily be precarious in a capitalistic system, as Mr. Debbold points out:
The goal of tenure is to protect proven teachers from dismissal when new administrations or young teachers come into their schools [or they express controversial opinions in their classrooms; or they criticize the existing administration; or they speak out against racism, sexism, or other sorts of discrimination; or they come out as gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.; or they find themselves in a political firestorm]. The fear is that without tenure, older teachers will be unjustly pushed out in order to save the school money or because of conflicting teaching theory [or because they express controversial opinions in their classrooms; or because they criticize the existing administration; or because they speak out against racism, sexism, or other sorts of discrimination; or because they come out as gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.; or because they find themselves in a political firestorm].
Having established so clearly the great value of tenure, Mr. Debbold’s rhetorical strategy is to lay forth the common arguments against tenure and simply allow the reader to see how ludicrous they are in the light of what has already been said:
For the most part, the teachers who would deserve to keep their jobs would do so easily even without tenure. Just like in any other profession, there is no reason for an administration to fire good employees.
Certainly, no reason at all!
Tenure does, however, give license to those who have earned it to become complacent in their work. Of course not every tenured teacher lets his or her work decline, but it is an easy course to take. Knowing that you can’t be fired for anything less than a serious offense is a dangerous thing. The fear of getting fired and the desire to get promoted are the most common incentives for good work, and with tenure, many teachers are left without either.
As an anecdotal aside, 100% of my fellow graduate students have actually informed me that they’re dedicating the majority of their twenties to become experts in a field they are truly passionate about just so they can play Candy Crush a lot when they get tenure. But like Hume’s missing shade of blue, I don’t think this data point should be given much weight. In any case, here is the heart of Brett’s essay:
Worse than that, tenure forces schools to fire superior teachers for the sole reason that they haven’t been around as long as their peers. When merit is no longer the basis for which firings are decided, something is wrong with the system. When schools inevitably undergo cutbacks and inferior teachers remain employed while young teachers excited to go to work are let go, tenure is to blame.
They key word here is “inevitable”. In a capitalist society, the expansion of higher education following World War Two was in fact an anomaly, and the current funding cuts, privatization, and rise of the adjunct labor class should be seen as the more natural phenomena. Anyone feeling mystified as to why our government is not even considering straightforward and relatively inexpensive reforms that would make education truly free for all does not fully appreciate the economic and political pressures, created by capitalism, that rule out this obvious solution. Likewise, the sensible job protections offered by tenure are anathema to capitalism, and so have been strategically associated with lazy, overpaid, unqualified professors.
As if to drive home the absurdity of this last charge, Brett Debbold ends with a comparison of tenured teachers with Supreme Court Justices:
Teaching is a far cry from the Supreme Court, where job security is necessary to ensure job performance
It was, of course, a certain member of that judicial body whose sexual harassment created the aforementioned political firestorm around tenured professor Anita Hill, who was saved from retaliatory termination of her employment due to her tenure.
A far cry, indeed.