By: Jennifer Keohane
Can you undertake a character assassination campaign against a profession? We at CARP Lab have had rousing debates about whether groups of people can be targets of character assassination. After all, we tend to think of character as traits stemming from individuals. Things like honesty and humility are individual characteristics. Of course, rhetoricians have long argued that ethos, or credibility, comes from socially sanctioned modes of speaking and persuading. Moreover, the ability to be seen as credible is related to one’s social location, or position in a social system that is stratified based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.
We in the United States continually argue that politicians are corrupt or salespeople are sleazy. So, we clearly do ascribe some negative character traits to groups, even as we realize that not everyone in the group conforms to the pattern. In sum, the ability to launch a targeted attack on a profession is dependent upon utilizing social understandings of whether and how members of this profession share common character traits.
What character traits come to mind when thinking of teachers?
It’s no surprise that in the United States, K-12 teachers at public schools are underpaid and forced to work with few resources and outdated textbooks. Historically, however, teachers have been seen as benevolent public servants motivated by a love of children and a desire to help them achieve their best futures. For a history of public perceptions of teachers and how teaching became a woman’s profession, see Dana Goldstein’s excellent book The Teacher Wars. As one Illinois teacher wrote as the current spring 2018 wave of teacher walkouts began, “We teachers are supposed to be in the profession for the kids. Children come first. We aren’t in it for the pay (obviously) or the status. And our acceptance of that fate is the reason it won’t change.” The public perception of teachers as selfless servants is upended, of course, when they strike or walkout for better pay as has occurred recently in five states. After all, if they were really doing their jobs for the “right” reasons, they would soldier on despite trying conditions, right?
These negative perceptions of public school teachers have been confirmed by the latest walkouts. Indeed, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin called teachers “selfish and short-sighted” when they protested changes to a pension policy in March. The Governor of West Virginia likewise called teachers “dumb bunnies” for asking for raises.
As Goldstein writes, by 2011 in the depths of the recession, teaching had become one of the most controversial professions in the United States. Bad teaching was blamed for almost all of the nation’s ills, and teacher tenure had earned teachers the ire of politicians like Chris Christie and governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. As Goldstein notes, “Today, the ineffective teacher has emerged as a feared character and vampiric type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans without much regard for the children under her care.” This archetype floats through much political discourse and often goes hand in hand in with arguments that public education is a liberal indoctrination scheme.
In the interest of full disclosure: I myself am a product of 12 years of public education in Minnesota, and I currently teach in a public college that serves largely first-generation college students and working adults. I know that public education isn’t perfect, and I know that there’s a lot that can be done to improve it. I am absolutely positive that demonizing teachers as selfish money grabbers will not enact meaningful change, and I firmly support teachers in demanding living wages and access to safe conditions and updated resources.
More importantly, though, I offer this short case study up for consideration as a rumination on whether we see group character assassination occurring via profession. (I think so, yes.) The case of demonizing the character of teachers also illustrates the consequences of letting negative representations of professions go unchallenged: it has made it difficult for teachers to successfully argue for raises and better working conditions. And as work Goldstein’s work makes clear, it’s important to understand the historical trajectory of negative representations alongside the political conditions that have enabled them to circulate with gusto.