Saturday, March 19, 2011

Begonia Still Alive!

Not only has it put out two new leaves, it's also developing a new branch. I can't figure out what I'm doing right.

Both J and I have been suffering from what is about to be named "the cold that will not go away." J has it much worse than I do, but is better than he was last week.

Megan McArdle, who writes mostly silliness for The Atlantic, has a piece on the evils of teachers' unions, part of the Republican move to eliminate unions for public sector workers. (I'm absolutely sure that some right-wing racist made similar arguments against the union that the garbage collectors Martin Luther King sought to organize in Memphis in 1968. And we won't even discuss the rights of government workers to organize unions in the Warsaw Pact member nations.)

Interestingly, one of the issues she leaves out altogether is that of tenure as a protection for the free speech rights of teachers. For instance, if your state uses the appalling textbooks that meet the new Texas "standards" for history and social science, you may decide that teaching the life and work of Thomas Jefferson is more important than teaching the beliefs of Phyllis Schlafley. This will get you points among those of us who majored in history and believe that students should head off to college with actual knowledge of historical figures and interpretations of American history that aren't laughable and/or frightening. You don't want some TA at Harvard asking, "who here is from [list of states that use the Texas textbooks]? You'll have to do some extra reading to get up to speed for this course." It's long been true that many university professors believe that American history survey courses are properly titled Iconoclasm I and II, and that was BEFORE the Texas standards were adopted.

So our teacher in Podunk has to make a decision. Does she teach "facts" she knows to be either silly or false? Does she explain that even though the textbook doesn't discuss Thomas Jefferson, she will, and questions about him will be on the test? Without tenure, how does she stand up to parents, the principal or the local school board? She may not keep her job even with tenure, but without it, she's sunk. It's likely that lots of high school history teachers just keep their heads down and go with the flow. But tenure exists to protect those who don't.

The discipline where tenure protection may be most important though is, of all places, biology. When I was in high school, ever so many years ago, evolution was a given. We learned about how life came to be on little planet Earth, how different species evolved, and how, after a really long time, homo sapiens evolved from our ape ancestors. This teaching, standard in the science courses of most of the world, is now controversial, and many biology teachers choose to keep themselves out of trouble by fudging the issue.

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