In recent years, socialism has been on the rise—or was it ever really gone? In episode 17, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell talk to Dana Goldstein of The New York Times about what it’s like to cover teacher walkouts and strikes today, and how today’s actions compare to those she wrote about in her bestselling book, The Teacher Wars, which covers the history of teaching in America. Later in the show, Thomas Frank of Listen, Liberal fame gives us a sneak preview of the final essay in his forthcoming collection. He discusses the state of socialism, the failures of the Democratic Party, and which fiction writers have most successfully taken socialism on as their material.
The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein · Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank · Rendezvous With Oblivion by Thomas Frank (forthcoming) · Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel · “25-Year-Old Textbooks and Holes in the Ceiling: Inside America’s Public Schools” by Josephine Sedgwick · The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos · Native Son by Richard Wright · Such Sweet Thunder by Vincent O. Carter · Bottom Dogs by Edward Dahlberg · Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward · The Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell
VIDEO FROM LIT HUB: Ethan Hawke reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at 92Y
From the Episode, Part 1 Dana Goldstein on Covering Teacher Strikes
Whitney Terrell: In your book The Teacher Wars, you wrote about the history of teaching in the United States. Did you see this wave of protests that we’re talking about coming? And how does this fit into the history that you wrote about?
Dana Goldstein: What I’m covering as a reporter right now feels like my book come to life, which is a strange experience to have four years after the book was published. I wish that I could tell you that I anticipated this, but when I was on maternity leave two months ago I did not expect to come back to a story of a wave of teacher strikes across America. I definitely did not think that was going to be one of the big national news stories of 2018.
So, I was surprised, but I think maybe I shouldn’t have been because everywhere I’ve gone for the past five years as an education writer, I’ve been hearing how angry teachers are. They’re angry about all sorts of things. They’re angry about low pay and lack of funding for their students, and they’re angry about Betsy DeVos. And they’re also just angry that everything we’ve been talking about in education predominately for the past 20 years in education reform has been about stuff like raising kids’ standardized test scores and holding teachers accountable and making it easier to fire bad teachers.
I think what many teachers are saying is: you have missed the boat. The policy makers and the education reformers and the media and everyone has missed the main story, which is our schools are starving for basic resources like textbooks and other supplies. These are schools where some of them the roof needs to be replaced, the heating system, the air conditioning . . . and I think what teachers are saying is, “Listen to us. Listen to our day to day lived experience of working in this sector, and look to us for setting the agenda for education.”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: In listening to you talk about the way the physical plant of public education in the United States has not been supported and maintained, I can’t help but think of the subways, which are in some ways actually the same thing. In New York, Boston, DC, is this story of infrastructure failing. Really basic public services. Things that we expect our taxes to take care of, like the maintenance of schools. The school should have a roof. The subway track should be cleaned so there aren’t trash fires. The train should be updated, etc. I hadn’t thought of that before, but it seems like in some ways maybe an even larger problem of just the maintenance of basic services.
DG: I think that’s exactly right. And I think that’s especially true in the states where teachers are walking out because they’ve pursued such fiscal austerity in those states that the basic dollars aren’t there for some of this basic upkeep that you’re mentioning. And another thing that’s maybe a bit analogous to the public transit example is there’s also conversation about whether public schools are the best method for delivering education. As you mentioned, Whitney, your son is at a charter school. Lots of people are choosing charter schools, are using private school vouchers, and these have been the types of policies that have had the most energy over the past ten to 20 years. Sometimes that comes at the expense of paying attention to what’s going on in the traditional neighborhood public schools, and we see that in transit.
In New York City where I live, we have Uber constantly lobbying to increase the size of its fleet and the support that they get from policymakers while our public transit system is starving and hungry. So, there’s a lot to be said for school choice, but certainly when it leads to declining student populations in the traditional schools there’s a funding aspect there that’s really real. I heard a lot about this in Arizona. If a hundred students from your school leave to go to a charter school, they’re going to be taking hundreds of thousands of dollars with them. What happens next is that you have much less money to repair it. So, these are some of the things and tensions that are happening in many of these states.
WT: The other thing that is interesting about charter schools—and it’s such a controversial issue here in Kansas City—is that they were a big item that the Obama administration was in favor of, as I recall. Do the teachers blame charter schools specifically as one of the main reasons they’re having funding problems, or are they looking at funding from the state level mostly?
DG: Well some of them do blame charter schools. And I’m not here to say whether that’s fair or not, but what I will tell you is that when you visit a school in Arizona, a traditional neighborhood public school that has seen an excess of students go to charter schools, is that they do blame charter schools for some of their funding problems because those kids took their state dollars with them when they left the public school. Those state dollars travel with the child in their backpack, as education reform people like to say. The kids carry the funding with them. And that might be fine because you can maybe have one less teacher. So, you might be able to save some money when your student population goes down, but that doesn’t take away the need to repair the roof on the building or replace the air conditioning system. You still have these expenses. And then you have less money to deal with them. So, for some teachers, charter schools are part of the problem.
From the Episode, Part 2 Thomas Frank on Establishment Democrats
Whitney Terrell: That’s what frustrates me: why can’t Democrats be right on issues of race and gender—which they are, in my opinion—but also be right on issues of trade, which they are not. I’m talking mainstream Democrats now. I mean, the progressive and socialist Democrats are much more in favor of, you know, unions and looking to raise wages. And they’re not going to measure the success of the party by the success of the stock market. But that’s not what establishment—establishment Democrats aren’t good on that issue, and I just don’t know why. They can’t do both.
Thomas Frank: Wow, Whitney, you need to read this book I—there’s a book I want you to read. It’s called Listen, Liberal—
WT: Well, I have read that book! This is your thesis; I’m all down with it.
TF: —and it’s about how this change happened. By the way, this is one of the uncanny natures of the Trump campaign. The Clintons and the Democrats more generally made this big switch on issues of trade, issues of the invisible hand, and the inevitability of neoliberalism—or however you want to put it. One of the reasons they were able to make that change is because the Republicans, like Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. and even George Bush Jr., were also rock-solid free traders. And so they knew that nobody would question them. And you know one of the sort of mottos of Clinton’s was—referring to constituents of the Democratic Party like, say, organized labor or black voters—he would say, “They’ve got nowhere else to go.”
TF: That was the logic. This is the logic for how you’d win elections. You’d take the people on the left of the party (and those two groups used to define the left of the party) and you’d say, “Well what are they gonna do? Vote for Republicans?” And what’s fascinating is that Trump found a way to reach out to at least one of those groups—the sort of white working class, people who are embittered by all of this stuff—and peel them away from the Democrats. And that really is Trump’s . . . I mean, if Trump has anything that he’s done that’s triumphant, that’s it. It’s that one little trick. And anybody—well I hate to say this, because I’ve written about this so much, so many times!
Democrats really, there’s no excuse for them to not see this coming, you know? Here’s Hillary Clinton with the most expensive presidential campaign of all time, the finest advisers, the best consultants in DC. She’s got Eric Schmidt advising her on her online campaign—the micro-targeting and the big data—and still can’t see this coming. And that’s just like . . . Man, does that ever tell you everything you need to know about the society that we live in?
WT: Well, that’s what really rang home to me: when you talk about the Democrats being a party that represents the managerial class now rather than the working class. That just felt true to me, you know? And the other thing—you mention Eric Schmidt—I mean we’ve talked about Facebook and social media companies, which are generally thought of as liberal and which liberal politicians have allied themselves with.
WT: But I don’t think those are liberal companies. And I don’t think those companies—as we’ve seen now increasingly, the more we look into what happened with Facebook and how they’ve sold data—increasingly it seems like a bad place for liberals to be aligned with them.
TF: I know, I know, I know, Whitney. Look, these people can be liberals personally. This is sort of typical of the professional-class liberals that I wrote about in Listen, Liberal: they can be, as individuals, very good people—very tolerant. They’re right there with you on LGBTQ issues. They’re very anti-racist. They can be wonderful people. But all of their impulses are toward monopoly, you know? And this is not because they’re bad people. I’ve never met Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being. Remember how Barack Obama did these events with him? And there’s this kind of bromance between these two guys. And I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg is an excellent human being. But that doesn’t change the way his company has behaved, and we have to be able to separate those two things.
The real tragedy of it is if you think Donald Trump is going to do the right thing on Silicon Valley, you’re crazy. The Democrats had a chance. I mean, we had a good chance back during the Obama administration to set down the rules for how we were going to go forward—responsible rules for how we were going to deal with the sort of monopolistic dreams of these people. And these monopolies are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in this country. They’re beyond Standard Oil. They’re beyond the railroads in the 19th century. And we had a perfect opportunity under a president who cared, an intelligent president, and it just slipped through our fingers. And it . . . you know, I’m sorry. I can get really unhappy.
TF: Let’s move to something that’s positive.
VVG: I want to go back for a second to something that’s slightly more negative, which is to say that I don’t think that the Democrats are great on gender or race. And I don’t want to let that pass.
VVG: Because I don’t think that that’s true at all. And I think, Tom, what you said about where else do, say, people of color or women have to go—is so true. But also if you look at—I’m not convinced Mark Zuckerberg is a great person—
TF: I was just trying to give him the benefit of the doubt there; I’ve never met the guy.
VVG: No, no, no—sure. But I think all of these companies, all of these monopolies, all of that sort of thing—that’s also gendered and raced. And I think to let that pass without comment would be a mistake. I think that also, when we look back at the Clinton administration, one conversation I’ve had a fair amount recently has been people looking back at the Lewinsky situation and saying, “Oh, at the time I kind of thought that that was okay.” And now looking back at my earlier position, I think that that was wrong.
TF: The factor that we never thought of at the time is that this was a workplace situation.
TF: She was an intern, which really makes it . . . kind of ugly.
WT: It’s very ugly.
WT: And Sugi: yes, your point is definitely well taken. I guess when I talk about Democrats being “good” on race, I mean at least in what they say—not necessarily how they practice.
TF: By the way, this was one of the moments in Listen, Liberal that . . . where I was writing it, and what I was finding was shocking me—even though what I was finding is not hidden. You know, anybody with a computer can look it up. And the moment I’m talking about is the 1994 crime bill.
WT: That’s a really good example.
TF: . . . Which led to the mass incarceration of basically a generation of black kids.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcriptions by Erin Saxon and Kevin Kotur.