Defending the right to mediocrity
As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”
On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. First, there’s the focus on the heroic teacher, the teacher who due to their personal talent is capable of radically changing students’ lives. As far as I know, no-one has yet discovered a way of measuring teaching effectiveness according to which the quality of teachers makes much difference to students’ educational outcomes. This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t try to be as good as they can, just that this probably won’t produce “exceptional” teachers, just broadly comptetent, reasonably conscientious ones, and that’s perfectly fine. The mythology of exceptional teachers distracts attention from making structural changes to schools, or even better outside of schools, that would make a real improvement to children’s education.
In any case, by definition not every teacher can be exceptional, which gets to the other problem with the salvationist model of education, in which education is supposed to provide the primary means of improving society. The problem with this is that the kind of benefits education is usually supposed to provide are positional goods, valuable because of their scarcity; if this is the case, the benefits of education can’t be provided to everyone. For instance, neoliberal education reformer Geoffrey Canada talks about his goal to have every child in Harlem graduate high school and go to college, which is fine, but it doesn’t actually do anything to improve society in the long run; you just have college educated people doing the same shit jobs they would previously done without a high school diploma, and the extrinsic benefits of a degree now go only to those who can get postgraduate professional qualifications, or have the right contacts (not coincidentally, usually the same people who would have been getting college degrees in the past). The problem again is individualism, taking a solution that works for individuals (more qualifications so you can out-compete others in the job market), and imagining that you can solve social problems by just generalizing this individual solution.
I’m not sure how these concerns could be articulated in the fight to defend teachers’, and other public sector, unions right now in Wisconsin, and maybe the right thing to do at the moment is just to work with the message that resonates most. Certainly, I don’t think the time is yet right for my preferred slogan: “Mediocre teachers say: sod your kids, pay us more.” But I do think it’s important to get towards a point where this slogan, or something with the same underlying message, could rally a movement. I’m increasingly opposed in principle to discourses of “excellence,” and I think the right to be mediocre is a key right the left should defend.
The ideology of excellence repeats Aristotle’s argument in the Politics, that monarchy is the best constitution, if we are in the happy situation of finding a monarch who really is excellent, obviously and objectively better than everyone else. This is based on Aristotle’s implicit aristocratism: in all of the “good” constitutions, the best are the rulers, whether that is the best individual (monarchy), the group of the best (aristocracy), or the “better nature” or every individual (polity). In contrast, all the deviant constitutions are democratic in Rancière’s sense, in that they involve the rule of people who have no qualifications for rule. We might then call democracy the rule of the mediocre, the rule of everyone who is just barely competent. However, we shouldn’t be satisfied with just political democracy, but should extend this argument to economics, too. No-one’s job prospects should be held hostage to some spurious standard of “excellence.”