Monday, July 12, 2021

The Myth of The Indispensable Man Part II

Is any one of is indispensable to society, or are we all reliant on each other?

In an earlier posting, I addressed this myth.  And recently, I was made aware that many people still believe in it, and I got to wondering why this was.   I suspect it is because many people are insecure about their jobs and feel underqualified and overpaid, so they lash out, positing themselves as "indispensable" to society.

During the Covid crises, there were people deemed "indispensable" or "front-line workers" - as if we were at war.  And while you might think this was limited to doctors and nurses and medical professionals working on vaccines, we were told that the guy delivering food to your door was a hero.   Funny thing, I never had food delivered during CoVid, although I did deliver food to a few shut-ins on our island.  I'm a freaking hero!  I'm the indispensable man!   No.  No, I'm neither.   Just a schmuck like the rest of us.

What started me on this, was that a fellow I met and I were talking about teachers we had back in the early 1970's who we later found out were gay.  Another fellow was listening in but not saying anything.  I related the story of my gym teacher, who turned out to be gay.  I found out he was gay when I took a Red Cross lifesaving course with him.  He was hoping to make WSI (Water Safety Instructor) so he would work summers as a life guard.   He was living at the time in the caretaker's cottage at the yacht club, and when I went to see him for something, a very effeminate young man answered the door, and looked at me suspiciously.  "Oh BRUCE!" he said, "There's a YOUNG MAN here to see you!"

It started to dawn on me, slowly, that something was up here.  Who was Bruce?  Oh, right, my gym teacher.  Back then, teachers didn't have names, they were "Mr. Smith" or "Mrs. Peabody" but in terms of first names or personal lives, they had none - as far as we were concerned as students.  And perhaps that was by design.  If we found out the teachers were as frail and fallible as us, all hell would break loose in the classroom.  As a friend of mine who is an elementary school teacher today put it, "As far as the kids are concerned, we have no personal lives."

I thought it was a funny story.  My gym teacher of all people - Mr. Macho Man who made us climb ropes and berated us for being "sissy" was in fact one himself.  And no, I didn't "out" him at school or anything, that was his business.  But I noticed after that, he wasn't so strict with me in gym class.

Anyway, I was telling this story and said, "He wanted that lifeguard job, because this was back in the day, when teachers were actually underpaid..."

This elicited a howl of protest from the other fellow who was kibitzing on our conversation.  He was a little tipsy on lite beer, and he nearly shouted, "Teachers are not overpaid!  That's a myth!  If it wasn't for teachers, you wouldn't be here today!  Everything you know, you owe to a teacher!" - and so on and so forth.  Apparently, I hit a nerve, even though I wasn't even talking to him. Well, that and he was drunk.  And a teacher, apparently.  Anyway, the guy I was talking to and I sort of edged away.

But it made me think.  Again, a dangerous pastime.

My friends who are teachers are nice folks and smart and good teachers.  But then again, I've known some other teachers in my lifetime who were incompetent or even evil.  My "other" gym teacher (we had two at our school) was downright sadistic, taking joy in beating the students with a wooden paddle (back in 1973, you could do things like that, even in blue-State New York, which wasn't so blue back then).

But of course, there are horrible people in every profession, because a certain percentage of people are horrible.  It is not a reflection on teachers as a whole.  On the other hand, not every teacher is a beatified saint, who is working for the good of mankind and living on rice and water.  In fact, none are.  And since teaching in America is a Union Job, it means that the worst of teachers are protected from being fired or disciplined and the best of teachers get discouraged early on.

But getting back to the point - is it true that without teachers, our entire society would revert to a cave-man like existence, where we communicated with grunts and screams and could not count beyond three, because no one taught us to?  I don't quite think so.  You see, we learn from a number of sources, and also teach.  We are all students, and all teachers.  And once you learn to read, you can learn from books - words put down by others, living and long-dead.

And it turns out, there is no "secret sauce" to teaching.  The best and brightest are not selected from elite universities to teach third grade.  As I noted before, my Dad used to repeat the old saying (from his Army days) "those who can't do - teach!" which was ironic as his own Mother was a high school teacher.  But the emergence of the home-school movement has indeed illustrated that there is no secret to teaching, and what's more, almost anyone can do it - albeit some better than others.

I once tutored calculus at Syracuse University.  I was able to help a struggling young student with his first semester in that class - having taking it not too long ago myself.   And that is a funny thing, too - often we learn from others who just learned, as they have a better handle on how to learn the material.  Some of my best teachers in college were graduate students, who realized how hard it is to grasp the subject matter.  Some of the worst teachers were brilliant professors and researchers who were geniuses, but whose communication skills were rather poor. Yes, there is a skill set to teaching that is distinct from knowing the subject matter.

But why did this fellow, who was listening-in on our conversation, go ballistic?  Again, I suspect he was a teacher himself, and felt overpaid, as many are, particularly in high-tax blue States. No offense, but a hundred grand a year to teach elementary school is a lot of money.  A husband and wife, both teaching, can rake in a quarter-million a year, for nine months work.   Sorry, but go sell bullshit somewhere else, I'm not buying it. Well, I am, because five-figure property tax bills are sent out to us taxpayers to fund this sort of nonsense.

Of course, this isn't true everywhere.  Teachers in Georgia are paid reasonable salaries and school taxes are reasonable. Oddly enough, we have good schools, too.  We pay about $800 a year in property taxes to fund police and fire protection, build roads, provide assistance to the needy and so on.  $2000 a year goes to the school tax, which is separately broken out (which they don't do in many Blue States).  So you can see that schools are a huge, huge part of any County's budget - not just teacher salaries, but school construction and maintenance, and school bus operations and so on and so forth.

Public education is a good thing - and a foundation of our Democracy. The whole principle of Democracy is based on an educated, informed electorate being able to vote rationally.  How's that working out?  Um, not well. There was a reason our "founding fathers" only allowed wealthy landowners to vote - they were afraid that given a chance, the rabble would either vote themselves a raise, or vote some idiot into office. Between "guaranteed basic income" and Donald Trump, the founding fathers proved themselves right.

The problem with the "teachers are essential" and "everything you have, you owe to a teacher" - in addition to being flat-out wrong - is that if you are going to go this route, you have to own both sides of the equation. If teachers are responsible for our education, then they have to own the falling test scores, the grade inflation, the illiterate high school graduates, and the staggering costs of education and dismal results.  Oh, right, they don't want to talk about that part.

The District of Columbia (which will never be, and should never be, a State, but rather a city in Maryland, much as Alexandria and Arlington  are in Virginia, after they were ceded from the District) has the highest cost-per-pupil in terms of education, but the lowest test scores in the country - often worse than places like Mississippi and Arkansas. Are teachers responsible for that as well?  You can't cherry-pick results you like, cafeteria-style.

Of course, today, what is taught in school is the subject of much controversy.  The whole "home school" movement was founded in part, in reaction to teaching of things like sex education and lack of religious teaching in public schools.  And today, people are losing their minds over how we should teach such things as the history of slavery or whether to accommodate transgender students.  Some on the Right want education stripped bare of context and made into little more than propaganda and training exercises for vocations.   Some on the Left want to use education for indoctrination.   It is a hot mess, to be sure.  Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of education.

From my perspective, high school was the worst four years of my life.  It wasn't the course material or the teachers (even the sadistic gym teacher) but the fellow students, who showed me early on, how lovely humanity can be, when no one is looking.  And sadly, back then, school teachers and administrators let that sort of bullying go on, to "maintain order" in the hallways, or so they thought. The kid who slammed the weaker children into lockers wasn't the problem, the skinny kid who got in his way was.  These sainted teachers nurtured this sort of thing.   And that is another reason - besides religious beliefs - that some parents have resorted to home-schooling.  It wasn't that they objected to what was being taught in the classroom, but what their kids were learning in the hallways and the boys' or girls' restrooms, between classes.

We've all seen this, too.  Smart kids - good kids - being torn up by high school.  Entering 9th grade as naive youngsters trying to study hard, and graduating (or dropping out) four years later, as delinquents with low self-esteem, worried more about impressing their peers than with bettering their own life. The "viper-pit" of high school.  Do our sainted teachers want to "own" this as well? The shattered and ruined lives of teens, many of whom develop severe mental illnesses during those wonder years?   Because if they want to own all the achievements of mankind, they have to own the downside as well.  Adolf Hitler had teachers, too.  Apparently they did a bang-up job.

But of course, this "indispensable man" nonsense isn't limited to teachers.  As I noted before, many people claim farmers are "indispensable" as we would all starve without them.  But as it turns out, it is a job that anyone can do, with proper training, and moreover a job that requires the interaction of dozens, if not hundreds of different skill sets.  The guy growing wheat maybe important, but without someone to grind that wheat into flour, and someone else to make it into bread, we'd all starve - kind of hard to eat raw wheat.

And some argue that truck drivers are "indispensable" as well - after all, who hauls the wheat to the mill and the flour to the bakery and the bread to the grocery store?  Who hauls all our goods from point A to point B?   But then again, without people creating those goods and others consuming them, the need for truck drivers would evaporate.  And again, it is not a job that requires extensive training - nearly anyone can do it (and sadly, based in what I see on the roads today, anyone is).

So what's the answer?  I think the answer is to take this "indispensable man" nonsense and put it in the trash where it belongs.  Because when you get right down to it, our entire society is based on the interaction of millions, if not billions of people, each doing something that is "important" even if we don't perceive it to be so.  And those who believe themselves to be "indispensable" can often be replaced by someone else.   Maybe I can't teach third grade as well as Mrs. Beasley, my 3rd grade teacher, but somehow, I think I could muddle through it.  The fact that I chose another career doesn't make Mrs. Beasley indispensable.

I'm sorry my story about my gym teacher pissed-off that drunken fellow.  Then again, what business was it of his to listen in to other peoples' conversations and go off in to a tirade?  People will always say things you disagree with, and you have to get over that.   You'd think they'd teach that in school.