03/07/2011 07:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Purpose of Public Schools Is to Produce a Public

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, like his forebear Senator Joe McCarthy, is engaged in the politics of fear and resentment. During hard times, the easy solution is to find a villian to blame.

Today's attacks on working people are a reminder of my rookie year, trying to build a culture of teamwork with my most troubled freshmen. Just before the Martin Luther King birthday parade, I showed the students a brightly colored cardboard poster and read the times and location of the day's activities.

Then, I tried to guide a serious class discussion. Students were tossing opinions back and forth, not listening to each other or using evidence. At one point I said, "This is just like Ricki Lake" (the disgusting television show that paved the way for Jerry Springer, and the worst of "reality TV"). Several girls did a dance-like move with their arms and shoulders, and parroted back, "Just like Ricki Lake."

Others argued that they had been having fun, just like when watching Ricki Lake. That prompted another round of involuntary dances and the chant, "Just like Ricki Lake."

When students attacked each other in class, I was told, it was just like the fights on daytime television, and the students' explanation was interrupted by another chorus of "Just like Ricki Lake."

"You have to learn how to analyze evidence, I countered, or you would be powerless and under control of stupid shows." "Just like Ricki Lake" came from across the room.

I had to get the silent majority of the class on my side, or the discussion would be ruined, and to do so I had to answer the students' question of why they needed to learn what I was teaching. So, I asked whether anyone was frustrated when I answered questions with questions, instead of giving simple answers.


"Today I can give a simple answer," I replied, "I can tell you what's wrong with America."


Pulling out the cardboard poster, I said, "We need to get rid of the American Federation of Teachers."


"We need to get rid of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance!"


We need to get rid of the Oklahoma City Public Schools and the Oklahoma Education Association!"


"We need to get rid of the NAACP!"


"And we need to get rid of..." and I read the names of well-known black churches.

Before I had a riot on my hands, I turned the poster around and showed that I had been reading the names of the sponsors of the MLK parade.

Across the room, I could see signs of recognition as the lesson sunk in. One of the girls who had mindlessly gone along with the chorus then said quietly, "Wow, that was just like Ricki Lake."

"Just like Ricki Lake" was the habitual response of the rest of her dancing friends.

But that student noticed as others rolled their eyes at their clueless friends. Her written work for that day showed that she had learned an important lesson.

Larry Cuban puts that discussion, and today's attacks on unions in a historical context. "When the nation has a cold," Cuban writes, "schools sneeze." He then recounts our long history of celebrating individual solutions and using the media to celebrate the destructive politics of personality.

Deborah Meier adds that today's union-bashing is "not just anti-teacher but anti-public." The so-called "accountability" movement has distracted our schools from their prime purpose: creating a public. But she also provides a more hopeful reminder. Educational philosophy and "the political terrain from the early 1930s to sometime in the late 1970s WERE based on the rhetoric of solidarity." Through much of American history, individualism was balanced by the awareness that "we're all in the same boat."

Meier is correct that the "equal sacrifice in World War II represents an ideal we can hardly imagine today." But Meier and Cuban also show that we the public can learn. My reading of educational history, and my history as an educator, demonstrates that public schools can and must build a public. Students, and adults, can be easily distracted. Young and old Americans, however, also have a long history of pulling ourselves together for a common purpose. Before long our scorched earth politics will again be rejected, and public schools will again become forces in creating an educated citizenry.