A new American aspiration, embodied here in Baltimore

admin   March 10, 2011   Comments Off on A new American aspiration, embodied here in Baltimore

Here’s why the recently approved Baltimore City teachers’ union contract reminds me of Texas.

My daughter’s college roommate is from Fort Worth. With the exception of the rodeo ring at Billy Bob’s Texas honky tonk (which you should visit before you die), Fort Worth is home to about as many cows, and as many real cowboys, as you’ll likely find residing or working in downtown Silver Spring. But you wouldn’t know it by the number of Stetsons and hand-tooled, pointy-toed cowboy boots on parade at either Billy Bob’s on a Saturday night or in the downtown Fort Worth office district during lunch.

But rugged American individualism notwithstanding (rugged Texan individualism being the preferred nomenclature in Texas), we are all, in the end, social creatures. Ten-gallon hats and high-end, snake-stompin’ footwear, therefore, don’t mark their wearers as loners riding off into the West Texas sunset but rather allow them to draw on the distinctive sense of place and of history that Texas offers. Sporting cowboy regalia, in other words, is a gesture of community.

And so we are all, in that sense, Texans, even well-educated cosmopolitans from Maryland like my daughter. We’ve all been at it, moreover — identifying with some aspirational ideal, no matter the mundane reality of our lives — since at least as far back as the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, rhapsodized about America as a pastoral, rural society peopled by sturdy, independent yeomen farmers and their families. One suspects there were many fewer yeoman farmers (at least of the idealized sturdy, independent kind) than Mr. Jefferson imagined in those days. And yet the idea informed the self-image of both urbane Philadelphians and backwoods Carolinians for close to a century, from the days of the Continental Congress to the Civil War era.

With industrialization and urbanization came a change in the popular narrative, in the aspirational ideal. The idealized American morphed from sturdy yeoman farmer into sturdy factory worker. But the principle, the use of an idealized American to offer community and solidarity for citizens of disparate social and economic classes, remained operative.

Just as the farm gave way as the primary engine of growth to the factory in the 19th century, we are well along in the 21st in substituting intangibles — knowledge, invention and judgment — for muscle power as the path to individual advancement and to community well-being. And so we should all ask (with no disrespect to factory workers), is the ethos of industrial solidarity the most compelling expression of what it means to be a member of the modern American community?

Today’s unprecedented educational levels, together with the long-term, obviously irreversible decline in factory employment, compel us to answer no, that ours is a fundamentally different place than the industrial world of our grandparents and great-grandparents. That being so, it is not only logically sound, but essential to sustaining a feeling of membership in a supportive community, that we align our mythic narrative with what we really value — with what, in our personal lives, we actually aspire to.

What we aspire to, unquestionably, is the knowledge, invention and judgment that have supplanted factory work as the prime source of wealth and of personal attainment. And so where, we should ask, does it come from? And how can we get more of it?

We can get it, and increase its quantity, by fine tuning public education, by turning poor schools into good schools, and then by turning those good schools, and others that are already good, into great ones. Therein lies the deep importance of the ferment in public education these days, embodied in President Barack Obama’s reform efforts, in the growth of charter schools and other school-based autonomy models, and in the proliferation of determined, reform-minded superintendents in many school districts, including Baltimore City.

And therein lies the deep importance of the new collective bargaining agreement between the Baltimore public school system and the local teachers union. The contract, which contemplates significant performance-based pay differentials and which allows teachers in a school, by supermajority vote, to modify work rules, brings the relationship of labor and management in our vital education sector into alignment with the shift to a knowledge economy.

The new labor contract, therefore, not only acknowledges a transformational change that is under way regardless of our awareness of it, but embraces it; it puts knowledge, invention and judgment to work as the very instrument of that transformation. And in doing so, it both validates a new, defining community narrative and places teachers center stage in achieving it.

Now that the union members overwhelmingly approved the labor contract, Baltimore City parents might celebrate by buying a pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots for schools CEO Andrés Alonso and union president Marietta English. And they should throw in a pair of tickets to Billy Bob’s. I am certain that the regulars there will welcome them as kindred spirits.

© Baltimore Sun. Reprinted with permission.