THE BLOG

Egypt and Wisconsin: Democracy is Alive and Well

02/21/2011 01:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As in Egypt, American students in Wisconsin are getting an authentic education in citizenship. High stakes testing, watered down textbooks, human capital theory, and fear of controversy have gutted American education of much authentic education about American democracy. Meanwhile, in an era that seems to focus solely on reading and math and STEM careers, the teaching of social studies in elementary and middle schools is on the decline. Civics classes went out of style long ago. And yet democratic citizenship is being exercised today in places like Egypt and Wisconsin, where teachers and working people are defending the gains that social movements struggled for over several decades.

It may seem to some an exaggeration to compare the 30,000 or so protesters in Wisconsin to the massive outpouring in Egypt that toppled a dictator. And yet, I make the comparison to point out that what is at stake in public union-busting states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, and soon other state houses across the country is not just about teachers. It is part of a larger erosion of democracy and the public sphere. Public sector unions are the last organized opposition to neoliberal policies that seek to dismantle the public sector and 50-years worth of gains for working people.

Those same 50 years saw the intentional and painful dismantling of private sector unions. Barbara Kopple's 1976 film, Harlan County, USA, about a coal miner's strike in Eastern Kentucky and her 1985 film American dream about the meatpackers strike against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota document just two of many instances of union-busting that has brought the percent of unionized workers in the private sector down to its current 8 percent. Public sector unions are now the target of union-busters.

It is also important to note that while the spontaneous outpouring of middle class youth sparked the Egyptian revolution, it was the ongoing working class union struggles there that laid the groundwork and will determine the ultimate success of the Egyptian revolution. People have no power as individuals. We can march, riot, or advocate for our pet issues, but unless people are organized, they have no power. This is a lesson that apparently has to be relearned periodically.

This may be the moment in which teachers find their voice. For a decade they have suffered the insult of being the scapegoat for all of society's ills. Now, they are being forced to give up collective bargaining and to sacrifice economically, while the wealthy enjoy tax cuts and Wall Street receives hundreds of billions in corporate welfare. You can see the empowerment on the faces of the teachers protesting in Madison. It is a familiar look that we saw only recently on the faces of Egyptian protesters.

Unfortunately, educational researchers and university professors, like myself, seldom see ourselves as activists in solidarity with teachers. The American Educational Research Association will hold its annual meeting in April this year. Fifteen thousand academic researchers will converge on New Orleans to present their research to each other in five-star hotels. Most will argue over statistical minutiae like "effect sizes," and "selection bias." More politically progressive researchers, like myself, will likely be engaged in the "oppression Olympics," arguing over whether race, class, gender, or sexual orientation is the most important category of oppression.

Meanwhile, few are likely aware of the massive union-busting and privatization of schooling that has taken place in New Orleans. Sixty percent of schools in New Orleans are charter schools, the highest percentage in the nation. Neither teachers in charters schools nor those in the state-controlled Recovery School District have union-representation, although union organizing is underway.

It is time for educators of all stripes to organize to defend -- not just unions or even public schools -- but the very notion of a democratic citizenry capable of organizing to defend rights like collective bargaining. The teachers and students of Wisconsin are showing the way. Will we join them?