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National Observer Home > No. 58 - Spring 2003 > Book ReviewsSpring 2003 cover


Book Review: the Worm in the Apple:

How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education

by Peter Brimelow

New York City: HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 320.

That which millions of Americans imagine themselves, in vain, to be, Peter Brimelow actually is: a rugged individualist. British-born but now resident in the United States, Mr. Brimelow has proved again and again in his writings (which include numerous articles for Forbes’, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, and National Review, not to mention his own Internet magazine VDARE) to be exceptionally well-informed, briskly readable, and - most impressive of all - without fear. It is foolish to suppose that any pressure-groups can either frighten or cajole him into moral or intellectual cowardice. His best-known single work to date, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, managed to do what only a handful of studies in political science over the last decade have done: reshape the ideological agenda. This has not happened in any obvious way; as California's gubernatorial election campaign is confirming with dismal thoroughness while these very words are being written, serious political action from American governmental authorities against illegal immigrants and their special-interest allies remains as rare now as it was before Alien Nation appeared. It nonetheless achieved a great deal, in that (like Patrick Buchanan's The Death of the West years afterwards) it alerted America's New Class to the existence of an entire economic and social constituency out there, in what East Coast apparatchiks contemptuously dub "flyover country".

One might think that his new volume’s theme is less urgent, but one would be wrong. For the sheer awesome dreadfulness of much government schooling in the United States is its own time-bomb, which will continue to tick away relentlessly even if - per impossibile - every other threat to America's social fabric were to cease. Suppose Al-Qaeda adopted pacifism, suppose free-loading undocumented Mexicans all tamely headed home, and suppose a belated spasm of conscience moved the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade: all these miracles could occur tomorrow, and American state schools’ basic crisis would be present still.

What beholders (and enforced customers) of these schools must deal with every day is what Mr. Brimelow calls - after the manner of such unscrupulous early-twentieth-century commercial monopolists as Standard Oil - "the Teacher Trust". This trust is a de facto marriage of the National Education Association (N.E.A.) - "the National Extortion Association", Mr. Brimelow cheekily calls it - and the American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.): two lobbies which remain legally separate, but which in practice unite to ensure that government schooling remains as much a socialist construct as was any hydro-electric power station in the former Soviet Union. (Following Milton Friedman, Mr. Brimelow prefers the phrase "government schools" to "public schools": since the word "public" carries connotations, in this context absurd, of selfless community-spirited virtue.) Their bosses profit, like apparatchiks everywhere, from members’ apathy: "amazing as it seems to journalists, normal people are simply not very interested in politics". In addition, they have so tamed the local Parent Teacher Associations (P.T.A.) that, as A.F.T. spokeswoman Kim Moran endearingly confessed in 1995, "we always use the P.T.A. as a front".

Socialist schooling's chief problem, Mr. Brimelow writes, "immediately becomes clear: it's systemic. There is no market process that rewards success and punishes failure". Result: "hoggish consumption of ever-increasing resources to do, at best, the same job". It is a central tenet of educational socialism that cost-cutting is by nature objectionable: and, therefore, that the taxpayer must maintain his masochistic simper of eternal gratitude when the assets confiscated from him buy less and less. Although the proportion of non-union teachers in American government employ remains by Australian standards extraordinarily large (fully fifteen per cent), in every other respect the closed shop prevails. Dismissing teachers from the government school system is, in the overwhelming majority of instances, impossible. Simple illiteracy is no bar to them - Mr. Brimelow includes some cherishable real-life examples of what certain teachers imagine to be accurate English grammar and spelling - and nor is depravity. When their hobbies take the form of active and repeated sex crimes, they retain their full salary and fringe benefits. Nor is their public face likely to inspire confidence. Requests that they consider some vague concept of sartorial neatness - the occasional collar and tie among male teachers; the occasional skirt, rather than jeans, among females - are considered to be as unconscionably offensive as any "sexism" or "speciesism". Their limitations as role models appear in other ways also: even by the generous standards of junk-food-addicted America in general, they tend to be grotesquely obese. For all their laments about inadequate pay-packets, their own union bosses vote themselves luxury levels that border on the absurd: various teacher union executives in Michigan are paid more than is the State Governor.

The Teacher Trust inhabits a culture where secrecy is cherished and open discussion of alternatives belittled, when not actually silenced by force; Mr. Brimelow quotes one Montana office-holder as saying of one particular self-interested boondoggle, "We would prefer that the public not notice it". Almost any threat, however mild or indirect, to the Teacher Trust’s power - hypothetical talk of vouchers, for instance - ensures cannonades of shrill union sloganeering against "voucher vultures", who are allegedly plotting to uphold the "Religious Right". (By "Religious Right", the unionists naturally mean the Christian Right, which they abominate with an illogical hysteria redolent more of Jacques-René Hébert or our own beloved Senator James McClelland than of recognisably adult thinking. Save for a stray anti-Taliban jibe, they have no detectable problems with Islamic fundamentalism.)

These complacent attitudes scarcely assist even acknowledging that different levels of intellectual attainment exist, let alone countenancing the vile "fascist" heresy that intelligent schoolchildren should be encouraged. Thus spake Kentucky Education Association President Judith Gambill: "Individual student achievement should not be a factor in teacher evaluation or compensation." Nor is it. Ludicrously enough, nearly half of those American high-schoolers who have I.Q. levels of 75 or less - who, in other words, fit all the official criteria for mental retardation - complete high school anyway. Giving a student a diploma that he himself lacks the ability to read: this, surely, is the ultimate Alice-in-Wonderland egalitarian surrealism ("Everybody has won, and all must have prizes"). Back in 1900, fewer than seven per cent of Americans finished high school at all. This astonishing statistic - astonishing, at least, for those enslaved to the fantasy that more education automatically means better education - leads Mr. Brimelow to believe that "the universal high school ideal may simply be impossible . . . it stretches too far the meaning of a common high school educational experience. And I wonder if it's worth the effort and the anguish. Let alone the cost."

What - as Mr. Brimelow, echoing Lenin, asks - is to be done? He discusses at length voucher approaches, which already operate in parts of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. Voucher systems differ from one another to some extent, but their differences count for less than their underlying principle. Instead of directly funding schools, the government authorities under a voucher system directly fund parents, who with that money may choose from a certain range of possible establishments for their children. Here (with great reluctance) this reviewer, while much admiring Mr. Brimelow's insight as a whole, parts company from him.

A voucher system, it would seem, merely places one obstacle - not necessarily a major one - between Big Government and the Teacher Trust. It need not lead (and thus far, on Mr. Brimelow's own evidence, it has not led) to a reduction in rates of gobbling up taxpayers’ money. Quite the reverse, because teachers who reluctantly accept voucher systems often extract a quid pro quo by which their salaries increase. Schools that wish to be eligible for consideration as possible voucher beneficiaries will surely have to adopt either (a) the same half-baked "tolerant" one-world claptrap - endless encomia to sexual perversion, the United Nations, and so forth - that already abounds in the typical educational kolkhoz; or (b) a marginally up-market, "compassionate-conservative" version of (a). All this, and the race issue too.

Economic libertarians, as Mr. Brimelow admits, fear voucher systems as "the new busing": that is, as yet another exercise in the Servile State coercing citizens, at gunpoint where necessary, into racial desegregation even if it kills them. Imagine that a specific voucher-eligible school preferred - through whatever deplorably unenlightened motives - to accept students with names like John Smith, Solomon Goldberg, and Xie Cheng, rather than those with names like Abdullah Mohammed, José Sanchez, and Martin Luther Leroy Righteous Gangsta Flash Rapper. This reviewer cannot see how such a "racist" school could possibly survive Teacher-Trust-inspired lawsuits demanding that its voucher-recipient status be repealed. Veteran voucher champion Chester Finn wrote twenty-one years ago, in the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ bulletin: "Some to be sure, like to think they can have it both ways: i.e. can obtain aid without saddling themselves with unacceptable forms of regulation. But most acknowledge the general applicability of the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and are more or less resigned to . . . choosing between assistance and autonomy." This presumably means that Finn wants voucher-fostered "independence" to be independence on Finn's terms alone.

Nevertheless Mr. Brimelow has many other suggestions for improving the situation, none of which could possibly be worse than what we see now. He says, "The teacher union is a creature of legal privilege. The way to deal with it: remove its legal privileges". He favours support for independent teacher unions that wish to break away, or have already broken away, from the Teacher Trust. He wants the Federal Education Department scrapped. He is less enthusiastic than some about abolishing teacher tenure, but concedes it would be "better than nothing". Besides, despite government teachers’ Pavlovian complaints about low salaries and (that eternal staple of pedagogic Angst) large class sizes, they can already earn very good money, even now, if they want to. In New York City, private tutors are routinely paid at least $175, not per day, but per hour. Admittedly, tutoring a mere handful of pupils in one room does require a certain cognitive and ethical discipline, not always discernible within the unkempt rabble-rouser alongside a slum blackboard who babbles about "creativity" and "self-expression" while demanding that the sewer-mouthed, condom-brandishing hordes address him by his first name.

When will any Australian writer bring to studying our own schools the research skill, valour, and frequent wit that Mr. Brimelow has brought to this analysis of America's schools? Since hardly a single current parliamentarian on what is farcically called the "conservative" side of Australian politics gives the smallest sign of having read a book, and since Australia's "right-wing" think-tanks - as the Institute of Public Affairs has now noisily demonstrated - imagine that freedom is best pursued by taking bribes from the Commonwealth Government, the question is probably rhetorical. At least we can relish the survey under review, and be grateful for Mr. Brimelow's avoidance of the Panglossian delusion that freeing up the education sector is somehow "inevitable".

R. J. Stove


by Francis Fukuyama

London: Profile Books, 2002, pp. 256, $49.95

Fukuyama claims that if biotechnology continues as uncontrolled as it is now, we could well become citizens in a society like that in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. To curtail this development, he advocates strong governmental regulation of biotechnology. Such measures would stand in the way of what could become "our posthuman future."

In order to describe what might otherwise be lost, Fukuyama embarks upon an inquiry into the definition of human nature itself. However, the result is a reductionistic account, unable to uphold any basis for human dignity, because it cannot break free from the constraints of a fundamental materialism. What promises to be the foundation of Fukuyama's argument proves to be its greatest weakness.

Because Fukuyama maintains that human nature is the result of progressive evolution, he finds himself in a quandary. He must demonstrate that "human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values." Yet, he must also explain how it is that this nature did not always exist - that at a certain point in history we became human. He argues that this moment occurred when our genetic makeup "endowed us" with the essential wholeness that is the foundation of human dignity. It is on this basis that we should model forms of regulations for advances in biotechnology.

Fukuyama refers to this position as an "ontological leap", a notion which he acknowledges that he shares with the current Pope. However, he maintains that "the problem of how consciousness arose does not require recourse to the direct intervention of God. It does not, on the other hand, rule it out, either." This ambivalence runs throughout his philosophical discussion. Significantly, this means that his discussion of ethics leaves us with a definition of human nature inadequate to current issues in biotechnology.

Consequently, he defines human essence as what he calls "Factor X", which is not one part of the human, but rather that which cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity: "It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X. Every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures."

In his quest to describe human essence, in terms both acceptable to anyone interested in the field of biotechnology and in a way that does not demote it to one of its parts, Fukuyama arrives at his own form of reductionism. The human is an aggregate of his or her genes that allow for the possibility of human "qualities". It is not one of these qualities but their sum that make the person human. One is left to wonder whether his strong sense of progress is adequate for a discussion of essence.

It is this sense of progress which seems ill equipped to achieve Fukuyama's explicit goal - protection of the human species. It is certainly not capable of providing a basis for laws intended to protect the human person from conception until death. One's genes allow one to "become a whole human being", but Fukuyama cannot pinpoint exactly when this takes place.

That this has ramifications for any technology involved with embryo research becomes evident in Fukuyama’s own views. He holds that if we are to accord dignity to an embryo, it is only "because it has the potential to become a full human being". This use of potentiality for becoming a full human being, however, opens the back door to a debate which Fukuyama seemingly tries to avoid. He undoubtedly emphasises that the human being is a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. Inherent in the concept of potentiality though is a point of determination, the point where this potentiality should be considered actual. What kind of calculus should be involved, then, to determine at which point the whole exceeds the sum of the parts? Would, for example, the lack of consciousness imply that human nature is no longer whole? This would open the way for something Fukuyama himself is against, namely experimentation without the consent of the patient.

Fukuyama's primary definition of human nature ultimately undermines that which he wishes to achieve before it is too late - the implementation of governmental structures to avoid the potentially detrimental consequences of biomedical research and practice. Yet his understanding of the nature of human life and its dignity would seem to rule out the very possibility of such regulation. If regulators do not know exactly what they are protecting, what enforceable regulations could they make? Fukuyama claims that the time for commissions of scientists, philosophers, theologians and bioethicists is over. "It is time", he says, "to move from thinking to acting, from recommending to legislating. We need institutions with real enforcement powers." If such institutions are to function though, their members should certainly have some basis of consensus about the definition of the human person. Fukuyama's own deficient sense of what it is to be human should give us pause.

The real usefulness of this book rests in considering the implications of Fukuyama's underlying presuppositions, which it appears he would like to have the same strength as a metaphysics, but which founder due to his ingrained materialism.

We are left with the timely reminder that when we act we should do so on the basis of rigorous metaphysical thought.

Renee Ryan