Toothless Petitions or a Genuine Fight-Back?

Or, Eight Reasons Why the Education Petition is Inadequate, Misguided, and Generally Useless 

The August 24 statement by AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum was compelling enough to generate some actual responses on the Academe Blog.  The post was a response to Barak Obama’s dreadful education proposals, and it’s a pretty good statement.  You can read it here and I urge you to do so:’s-proposal-performance-based-funding

Unfortunately, this promising beginning was promptly botched by asking us to sign the following petition:

Consult college & university TEACHERS about higher education reform, not just administrators & business leaders.

Mr. President, your current plan to reform higher education is too similar to the failed K-12 policy No Child Left Behind. It ignores the main causes of high college costs: the decline in state support for public higher education, and the fact that the drive for “assessment” has not only diverted time and resources away from teaching, it’s also resulted in more overpaid administrators who cut costs by using poorly paid, uninsured adjunct instructors, while faculty salaries stagnate. Instead of only hearing from the administrators and business leaders who are characterizing education as a marketable commodity, include input from caring, classroom-experienced faculty and instructors–from all disciplines and types of colleges and universities– into your plan to reform higher education.

So – what’s wrong with the petition?

1. The petition does not recognize that there is a war going on, and we are in it.

The title (Consult college & university TEACHERS about higher education reform, not just administrators & business leaders.) implies that Obama and the other education deformers share our concerns about education, but have simply overlooked us in developing their proposals.

I don’t think so.

Let’s quit pretending like they want to reform education. They do not – at least not in any sense of the term that we use.

When we say reform education, it means improving and building upon current methodologies in order to make learning more meaningful for students and faculty. When they say education reform, what they really mean is to privatize and restructure education to meet the needs of global capitalism. They hope to dismantle the education system as we know it and replace it with something that is antithetical to learning. And non-union.

We stand for fundamentally different educational systems because we represent different class interests.  They are waging war against education and educators. The problem is, with few exceptions, we are not fighting back.

2. The petition addresses itself to the concerns of a narrow milieu of professors, not the needs of all educators, and the working class, as a whole.

Education is the concern of all working people. Why is it only that the word TEACHERS is capitalized? What about the students (They are not even mentioned – not even lower case!)? If we really want to build a coalition to defend public education, we must include the STUDENTS!

What about the STAFF?  How about our FELLOW EDUCATORS that prepare students for higher education?  How about the COMMUNITY?  How about our UNIONS?  How about our NEIGHBORHOODS?  And what about all the rest of the WORKING PEOPLE that send their children to schools and pay for the higher education?

By focusing largely on the concerns of professors alone, we isolate ourselves from those with whom we can actually build an effective movement.

3. The petition falls short on appreciating the dangers in the deform movement.

For the deform billionaires, the various deform strategies have been effective ideological weapons driving the dismantling of public education. The creation of magnet schools, the increased use of standardized testing, massive school closings, teacher bashing, union busting and the focus on assessment are all part of an ideological offensive that is accomplishing it’s goals.

Of course these schemes are a disaster for working-class children. But that is not a particular worry for the ruling class (yes- we have one and you’re not in it).  Their concern is re-molding education to provide the kind of workforce that will make them more money in a global economy. That is their only concern.

4. The petition falls short in exposing the cause of high college costs.

The petition correctly notes the decline in state support for public higher education. But it is not the whole truth. Cuts from states have resulted in lower funding of universities and schools. But why is funding from the states being cut?

Therein lies the enormous, gigantic, humongous, elephant in the room, that labor officials largely ignore.

The truth is, when the entire resources of a society go to funding military adventures abroad, providing tax breaks for the rich, giveaways to banks and corporate bailouts, there is nothing left to educate students.

There is also nothing left for healthcare, fixing potholes, maintaining national parks, funding libraries, feeding the hungry, providing decent medical care, cleaning up the toxic environment, protecting our food sources, providing access to art, or basically doing anything else that makes life worth living.

Until the labor movement addresses itself to the most fundamental issue of our time, the question of perpetual war, we cannot seriously begin to address our ongoing social crisis.

If the labor movement remains silent while Obama is promoting yet another round of slaughter against our fellow workers and students in another country –  if we are afraid to state that workers of one country should not engage in slaughtering the workers of another country, then we will never change one damned thing.  Nothing.  It’s as simple as that.

5. The petition understates the problem with specific deform schemes.

Again, we have to look at the larger issue. The problem with “assessment” is not merely logistical, the greater dilemma is that it is an ideological offensive against teaching. It is attempting to blame teachers for the problems in the classroom when in fact the destruction of the educational system and lack of change has little to do with us, and much to do with the priorities of US corporations.

Similarly, saving labor costs is only one of the reasons for the privatization, rationalization and atomization of educational workers. Having a stratified labor force divides and weakens us. It makes the tenured faculty more conservative and robs the entire working-class of its intellectual and artistic allies. This is also accomplished through the myth of shared governance, in which a dwindling layer of aging college professors is demobilized or, worse, actively enlisted to aid university administrations in the war on education.

The weakening of the influence of intellectual labor is demonstrated by the fact that as entire generations of young people have been burdened with crushing debt and sentenced to a lifetime of debt slavery, virtually no university administrator, and few faculty have raised a significant outcry to this horrific injustice.

6. The petition does not make any demands on the government – it only asks for a seat at the table.

Is this what we are fighting for? A chance to help formulate the plans to continue the assault and gut higher education? A place at the table? Are we so easily purchased with a bit of prestige? As long as were treated with respect then it’s okay for them to go on with their assaults?

Are we fighting for an opportunity to have more junkets are conferences where we can have a good banquet food? Are we looking for a chance to snuggle up and dine on more shrimp and lobster with dull, overpaid administrators? Will there be any seafood left on the bottom of the ocean?

7. Petitions, like boycotts, are notoriously ineffective.  

Petitions are designed to give people the feeling that they are doing something, when in fact, they accomplish little or nothing at allLike most boycotts, they are not really designed to win – they make it appear like the participant is doing something. You sign the petition and it seems like you did something. Those of a more activist bent can spend lots of their time and energy getting other people to sign something.

This one comes out of the starting blocks already dead. It was even presented in such a way as to admit its irrelevancy. The goal was to have 100,000 signatures by the end of the month, of which there is just over 1000 – so this campaign is going nowhere.  And, truthfully, it doesn’t deserve to.

Having a petition is a poor substitute for organizing and mobilizing the membership.

8. People will not mobilize for crumbs – we need to envision a world worth fighting for.

If a petition is to have any real meaning, it must be coupled with a genuine program of action. We have to follow the example of teachers in Chicago, and other locations, who have embraced the traditional and proven methods of struggle – mobilizing the educational community and its allies for political and economic power in the streets.

And, ultimately, the labor movement must break with its policy of slavish support to Democratic Party politicians that we finance and support, only to then have them implement every anti-labor, anti-education policy under the sun.

Of course, embarking on a course of independent, militant political action is a lot harder than signing a petition, but it is the only way to win.

Perhaps there would be a more lively response to the petition, if it read more like this:

College and university teachers demand affordable, accessible, quality public education!

Mr. President, we reject your proposals to corporatize, dismantle and further sacrifice higher education on the altar of corporate profits. We repudiate your drive for assessment, standardized testing and all other schemes and ideological weapons designed to undercut an organic, student-teacher based quality education.

We intend to unite with our students, coworkers and community organizations in order to fight for the historic right of working people to have access to education.  In the process, we pledge to rebuild our unions and reach out to organize the unorganized.

We intend to be in the streets, in the thousands and tens of thousands.  We will speak out, we will rally, we will march, we will picket and if necessary we will go to jail to defend what generations of workers have fought for.

We, teachers united in the American Association of University Professors, demand:

No cutbacks, no concessions, no layoffs!

End the attacks on workers rights!

Cancel all student debt!

Money for education not for war!

Education Is a human right!

Try something like that, Rudy, and we might get more signatures.


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Banner by Mike Alewitz/ 9.19.13

One thought on “Toothless Petitions or a Genuine Fight-Back?

  1. I posted both Rudy’s statement and the follow-up petition.

    We had qualms about the petition, but I thought that it might bring more readers to the statement and that it might cause them to think about practical ways of putting elements of the statement into action.

    But yur case that I made the wrong choice is pretty persuasive.

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