From Benito Mussolini to Michelle Rhee, Teachers Remain Obstacles for Collectivist School Reformers

by Rainiel Guzmán

Today’s school reformers are collectivists with a common enemy: Teachers and their unions.   

Fascists, communists, monarchists and technocrats have always followed collectivist models. Teachers, particularly public school teachers, have been targeted by all of the above as obstacles in their road to domination. Their disdain toward public school teachers and their efforts to eliminate teachers’ unions are a matter of public record. Why group these apparently ideological enemies into one cohort?  The answer should be equally apparent. Irrespective of their ideological rhetoric, all of these aberrations are forms of collectivism. Their ultimate goal is to gather all resources into one line of control and management. In order to obtain this goal they need individuals to conform to their collectivist plans. Conversely, a teacher is essentially an individual that strives to bring out the unique potential of his or her students. Here is where the battle line is drawn. Let’s revisit history to see the many commonalities that apparent ideological enemies share in regards to teachers and unions.

Benito Mussolini, a fascist, was both a son of a public school teacher and a certified public school teacher himself. Yet he targeted teachers’ unions immediately upon gaining power. He regarded schools as property of the state and implemented a complete and sweeping reform of public education. Top on his reform agenda was the nullification of Italian teachers unions. Teachers in Il Duce’s Italy were relegated to comply and indoctrinate the youth as “the fascist of tomorrow” as indicated in scripted, retro-Roman inspired curricula known as Opera Nazionale Balilla.

Communists have also exercised extreme disdain toward teachers and unions. For example, Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot, murdered countless educators in Cambodia. Pol Pot ruled Cambodia with bloody delusion that was brought to international censure in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. It is important to note that many of the murdered were students as well. Pol Pot’s interpretation of the utopian person was largely an uneducated proletariat farmer. Thus, the educated were to be mistrusted and physically eliminated. It is estimated that communists in Cambodia killed a fifth of their people, roughly two million souls, with a particular prejudice toward educated individuals. No need for a complete and sweeping reform of public education here.

Spain’s Generalísimo Francisco Franco is primarily labeled as a fascist. Yet Franco’s rhetoric always appealed to Spain’s monarchist supporters. Monarchists are willing to differ individual rights to crown rule. In this mindset dissent is collectively unwelcome.

After Franco’s successful insurrection against the republic, the monarchy was restored and the republican constitution of 1931 repealed. Once more a complete and sweeping reform of public education was implemented. An interesting note is that Franco was director of La Academia General Militar de Zaragoza, Spain’s equivalent to our West Point, when the republicanos ordered its closure. As a result teachers and unions were targeted with such violence that thousands of Spanish educators sought exile in Northern Europe, the Americas and Africa. The brain drain that ensued markedly debilitated Spain.

Presently, the technocrat embodies the latest form of collectivism. Webster’s Dictionary defines a technocrat as “a technical expert especially one exercising managerial authority.”  The missing caveat to this description is that when leading public policy they are always appointed, and hence non-elected members of governments. The logic behind their rise lies precisely in their apolitical nature; they are touted as technicians willing and able to make hard technical decisions free of political or “democratic” constraints. Their appointments display a disregard—if not a deep contempt for—democracy, much like fascists, communists, and monarchists. Technocrats are primarily private actors for hire who play increasingly significant public roles.

In large urban public school systems the emergence of an archetypical technocrat, known as a “chancellor,” has recently dominated public education policy.  Derived from the Latin cancellarius or “keeper of the barrier” they certainly have kept public opinion out of decisions concerning public education and indeed have served as a barrier between citizens and politicians. Likewise, chancellors view teachers as quasi enemies and label their unions as obstacles in the way of—you guessed it—complete and sweeping reform of public education. Chancellors are unelected persons who hold the premise that the public cannot be trusted with matters of public education. In their minds—they know what’s best for your child. These contradictions are so blatant and belligerent that their managerial authority has caused major “technical” problems to several mayors and their careers.

A case study example is Adrian Fenty, ex-mayor of the District of Columbia. In early 2010 his political star and reelection seemed to be guaranteed. His main opponent in the Democratic Party primary was Vincent Gray, a veteran city councilman. In regards to education policy, the two gentlemen barely differed on plans or expectations, except for one campaign promise professed by Gray: he repeatedly assured that if elected he would not retain then chancellor Michelle Rhee. Despite Fenty’s appeals as a D.C. native, ties to Howard University and multiple enumerations of educational gains during his tenure, he lost the Democratic primary to Gray. Many pundits were stunned. Yet, both teachers and parents had voiced repeated concerns regarding the Rhee’s tone and tactics. They felt voiceless. The nascent coalition that followed however proved otherwise. Fenty’s and Rhee’s debacle did not go unnoticed.

Mayors in similar receiverships of their public school systems have learned from this lesson. For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City did not wait for elections to remove a chancellor whose tone and tactics insulted both parents and teachers. Michael Bloomberg appointed Cathie Black as chancellor in January 2011. She was given a waiver to assume the chancellorship due to her complete inexperience with pedagogy and education administration. Ironically, a career as a media executive did not prevent her from uttering incredible comments. Her comments revealed to a certain degree her thoughts about students, parents, teachers and public education. During a visit to PS 234 in Manhattan to discuss primarily with parents, the overcrowding of their elementary school, Ms. Black asked in jest “could we just have some birth control for a while?”  The parents were stunned. When pressed again to address her plan to ease overcrowding, she espoused a sickening moral association, characterizing numerous neighborhood concerns to “making many Sophie’s Choices.” The reference to the Auschwitz concentration camp novel in which a mother is made to choose which of her two children will live left all in attendance shocked and angry. In April 2011, after only three months on the job, Ms. Black was asked to resign by Mayor Bloomberg. She did.

Collectivists and other assorted control freaks will always view with contempt the figure of the teacher. Perhaps it is due to their deep pathological need to control everything and everyone. Perhaps it is due to their fear that individuals might exercise their God given right to think for themselves. Yet, I am convinced that the main reason why they bash and denigrate teachers is because we are still regarded by many as figures of authority. The thought of shared authority must keep these troubled souls from sound sleep. Yes, teachers are authority figures. However, unlike these control freaks, we must not abuse our authority to belittle nor repress others. To the contrary, we should aid our students in meeting their potential. We must aid them along their chosen path toward personal independence. Potentiality and independence are anathema for those who garner limitation and dependence. All collectivist regimes have been enormous tragic failures. Teachers need to continue on their chosen path in the company of their students in spite of obstacles.

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.