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When World Views Differ Dramatically

Dear Diane,

I'm going to D.C. tomorrow** to talk with Rick Hess about Terry Moe's new anti-union book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools. I read it thinking: "Does this guy really believe what he's saying, or is he only trying to make points with some larger audience he hopes to reach?"

The odds are that he believes every word he writes; another reminder of how much what we take for granted depends on our particular experiences. Maybe these guys DO constantly run into teachers who are fans of Michel Rhee, as they claim. With the millions of dollars Rhee has access to she'll have no trouble soon claiming soon that her new organization, StudentsFirst, represents enough teachers to present herself as the voice of real teachers in favor of serfdom. (Joke)

To claim, as Moe does, that we live in a world/country in which unions match the power of corporate entities in all their forms strikes me as such an absurdity that I tend not to take him seriously. I had a theory once that "labor bosses" didn't discourage the world from seeing them as more powerful than they were because it was precisely that image that gave them more power than they actually possessed.

I know the trick. In the old days when I felt vulnerable on behalf of "my" school I encouraged the view that Bobby Wagner and Al Shanker were my backers/supporters. There was a germ of truth to it—so I never denied it. I hoped it gave me extra credibility in some of the circles where I needed it. Never worry about people overestimating your influence, I figured. It's actually not always such a good idea, but I followed the path of least resistance. So maybe having failed for years to deny the view that "labor bosses" are comparable in power to big business and banking bosses, it doesn't seem so absurd for others to believe it.

Ergo, maybe it's a mistake for me to remind that audience of their actual weakness?

In a way, I'm grateful to Moe for being so specifically and forthrightly an enemy of unions. At least it doesn't sound paranoid for Randi Weingarten (or me) to claim we see anti-unionism involved in the latest round of bipartisan education policy.

Do we each just meet different teachers? I spoke last Saturday with a group of 60-75 teachers from the New Paltz, N.Y., area. The group comes together regularly to share practices under the auspices, in part, of the National Writing Project. (That's an amazing group with a grass-roots history that has sustained itself for decades, but is threatened financially by current federal policies.)

It was a teachers-showing-teachers day, on a day that couldn't have been more beautiful outdoors. The teachers were all there, though. It lifted my spirits; they were ready to snatch at every encouraging word and determined to out-wait and outwit those who want to turn them into data-bookkeepers and script-readers. Fortunately, they have local allies at many levels and have grown accustomed to widening every crack they find in support of the self-confident joy of learning that children can't resist—when it's available.

We did a lot of block-building. New Paltz is near Rifton, N.Y., where Community Playthings (makers of blocks and much more) does its work. Community Playthings is affiliated with a community of Hutterites—a group of people with strong beliefs about what young children need to thrive, plus a religion that reminds me somewhat of the Amish, and a commitment to working cooperatively with their neighbors. They offered us a free truckload of what they called slightly flawed blocks in the spring of 1974—which allowed the original Central Park East to open its doors full of blocks.

I'm convinced that irrepressible humanity will create something someday that even I cannot envision, and it will be good. Unless we kill off the planet first.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering how to respond to those whose literal picture of the world seems so unbalanced, at best, and imaginary at worst. The Terry Moes of the world, but even more importantly all the less-famous versions of him. Which again means wondering where I, too, live my own version of unreality.

I remember when I first moved to Hillsdale, N.Y. Folks said, "How can you? Everyone there's a Republican." I soon realized that, at most, Republicans won by 60/40 margins. So four out of 10 people I passed on the street were likely to be Democrats! And, of course, I may agree with Republicans on some things.

Working with children, especially very young ones, reminds one how easy it is to see the world sensibly, but differently. (One reason standardized tests are so unreliable at that age.) As perhaps I've mentioned to you before, I was startled at CPESS (Central Park East Secondary School) when 16- and 17-year-olds would confront me with their reality. For example, they were certain that "All in the Family" was an explicitly racist show (and a prime-time one at that). They argued persuasively just as 5-year-old Darryl had about the "livingness" of rocks. I could only resort to: "Well, the critics agree," or "I know the writer, and he intended it to be anti-racist," etc. Not powerful arguments.

So I head off Tuesday to confront an American Enterprise Institute audience about a book I suspect they agree with. I have 12 minutes.

Deborah

** Editor's note: Deborah Meier wrote this blog entry in advance of a June 8 appearance at the American Enterprise Institute.

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