2006-10-20 / Columnists

School Scope

Joel Klein's Iron Curtain
Commentary By Norman Scott


Norman Scott
Norman Scott When all decisions flow without checks and balances from one source - be it a national leader, the head of a school system, the principal of a school, a union leader, an abusive member of a household - any form of dictatorship - the system inevitably fails. Decisions hatched in the mind of a super powerful person served by sycophants are not subject to the kind of vetting (like someone saying "are you out of your mind?") and lead to the "emperor without clothes" effect. Some kind of democratic process, often messy, is necessary to prevent the train from running loose down the tracks.

There's nothing like a trip to Prague and Budapest, a decade and a half out of the yoke of 40 years of Soviet domination, to get one to thinking about similarities to the BloomKlein invasion of the NYC school system. "Are you crazy?" said my wife as we strolled around these incredibly beautiful cities. "If you make this comparison people will think you are nuts." She's probably right, but here goes anyway.

The Czech Republic and Hungary were both part of the Soviet Empire that controlled Eastern Europe with an iron fist. Puppet governments were installed but the people saw themselves as invaded by an alien force and feelings of nationalism engendered an anti-Soviet mentality. When the yoke was lifted in 1989, a sense of freedom these nations had never known burst forth. Revolutions in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968), both revolts suppressed by an invasion of hordes of Russian tanks - bullet holes still show on the walls some buildings - had turned these cities into the epicenter of resistance to Soviet control.

Hungary is about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Revolution, which lasted from Oct. 23 to Nov. 4, 1956. Being there two weeks before this celebration had an impact.

While on the trip I read "The Incredible Lightness of Being," Czech writer Milan Kundera's story of a Czech doctor during the "Prague spring" of 1968 when freedom blossomed and the aftermath of the suppression by the Soviets that August.

Kundera writes, "Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise..."

Tomas, a brilliant surgeon, is demoted to window washer after the Soviet repression because of a letter to the editor he wrote to a literary magazine during the Prague spring. In the letter, Tomas criticized the apparatchiks (blindly loyal bureaucrats) who had condemned Czech citizens charged with a variety of fabricated crimes and then later claimed they didn't know and were just following orders. Kundera claims it is irrelevant whether they knew or not. "The main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? Isn't his 'I didn't know! I was a believer!' at the very root of irreparable guilt?"

Let me digress to a story of a NYC teacher who contacted me shortly before I left. Jason (a pseudonym), who has been teaching a number of years, was ordered by his administrators to teach in a certain restricted style in which he was not only uncomfortable, but truly felt was not in the best interests of the education of his students. He refused. The result was a vicious attack by school administrators, coordinated by a new principal who had recently graduated from the Leadership Academy - often compared by teachers serving under the yoke of these graduates as a KGB training ground.

Jason was threatened with a U rating, received visits from regional supervisors, threats of termination, manipulation of personnel that had him at the point of being excessed out of the school, and other techniques taught in the dungeons of the Leadership Academy. Assistant principals who had been supportive and knew him for years turned on him on a dime - the classic response of apparatchiks, the same way Tomas' boss behaved in the novel. nThe struggle reached the point where Jason was pretty much out the door. Realizing he had to think of his wife and kids, he capitulated. He told them he would teach as they wanted him too. (Need I say the union was useless throughout?)

The day Jason gave in, he sat in his car and cried, the first time he had done so as an adult. He just saved his job - you might think they were tears of joy. They were not. Jason cried for having been forced to give up his integrity; for being forced to do what years of experience told him in his marrow was wrong for his students; for being forced to choose between family and principle; for basically losing his profession.

The people who hounded him were smug and satisfied in their "victory" and they now parade Jason around as a model teacher. But they are really parading their conquest as an example to all the others. Jason laughs with irony, knowing full well a crime has been perpetrated against both he and the students he teaches. This battle took a lot out of him and has dissipated some of his passion for teaching. Whether you were in Eastern Europe from the late 40's through the late 80's or in the current DOE, passion outside the narrow box of orthodoxy is degraded, not valued.

Did putting Jason through the ringer benefit his students? Apparatchiks who are "True Believers" - Leadership Academy grads and Kundera's "Fools" - will shout, in unison, "Yes, Children First." The mentality and behavior of the "True Believers" at the DOE and in totalitarian states are similar and their tactics are scarily familiar.

The Assistant Principals who knew what a good teacher Jason was before and know it is all a crock will claim they were just following orders. Kundera would say they are all fools.

I can't tell you how many similar stories I am hearing, with many people saying, "Now, it's just a job." Or worse, ending up in the Gulag of the DOE - the rubber room.

One day someone will write: "First they came for the senior teachers near retirement; then they came for the non-tenured; then they came for the people who could not produce the results they wanted; then they came for those who could not turn straw into gold; when they came for me, there was no one left."

Maybe when the iron curtain at the DOE is lifted post BloomKlein and the fear of speaking out against these "state" crimes is over there will be a day of retribution. Meanwhile, the School Scope columns must suffice.

Coming soon: What lies beneath - how the apparatchiks at the UFT tried to outdo the DOE when Jason attempted to give out literature critical of the union leadership.

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