Bill Murchison

Our national weeping and wailing over education spending cuts, public employee unions, and such like cause minds of a certain vintage to stop still and wonder. When were the divorce proceedings between home and classroom filed anyway? And who filed them, and why? It can be argued that the current traumas of education proceed from that divorce: further testimony to the general understanding that it's the kids who get hurt worst in divorce.

The divorce between home and public school classroom -- accomplished by the end of the '70s -- was a national calamity. To put it another way, once public education lost in great degree the robust support of the middle class, there was nowhere for things to go but downhill. And so they have slid for decades. Teachers parading around the Wisconsin capital like Jimmy Hoffa's truck drivers? It not only wouldn't have happened in ye olde days -- it didn't happen.

The middle class and the public school classroom were hand in glove in a united enterprise. The former wanted -- nay, expected -- the latter to succeed. Johnny would read. Susie would con her multiplication tables. Because the middle class expected no less. Mothers and daddies weren't putting up with a lot of bad grades and bad behaviors. Stuff like that got in the way of education, which was about -- for goodness' sake -- urgent matters like personal advancement and civic betterment. Education made for a stronger, wiser America. That is what we believed -- and why we supported teachers and principals.

You say I am generalizing. I am. Every assertion regarding the human experience is a generalization. The point is, we used to like teachers and support them. What happened?

The moral collapse of the middle class is pretty much what seems to have happened. As Whittaker Chambers noted in a different context, "History hit us like a freight train." We all, suddenly, wanted liberation instead of restraint and order and discipline -- the prerequisites of good education. Someone at the top has to pass the word down the line: Here's what we're doing today, no back talk. What we were "doing today" wasn't always, in abstract terms, the best thing to be found out there, but it made for generally fruitful outcomes. Parents supported it, passing down to children the obligations of self-discipline.

Parents, I tell you, used to like teachers. Teachers liked parents in return. There was a kind of compact between them. Back us up, the teachers said, and we'll deliver the goods. The parents nodded their heads. OK.

That was until the compact came apart and society as a whole withdrew its support from the teacher: the teacher as authority figure anyway.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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