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Moral Purity, Political Sectarianism And Talking To Bill Gates

In the classic text Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, the renowned cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas examines how a society’s behavioral norms and taboos are constructed around notions of impurity and pollutants. Some societies have more fluid concepts of  purity and impurity, while others develop more rigid and inflexible conceptions. Douglas found that societies which have more rigid and inflexible conceptions develop elaborate rituals and practices, and devote considerable cultural energy, to the policing of these boundaries.

Douglas’ cultural anthropology provides an important insight into education politics. One way of understanding sectarian politics, in education and elsewhere, is that it develops rigid and inflexible conceptions of the politically impure, and then devotes nearly all of its energy to attacks on every possible source of pollution of the politically pure, no matter how minor a threat it might be. Indeed, for the sectarian, the greater danger is the pollutant which is closer to the pure since it may not appear to be an enemy. That is why sectarians often train their main fire on the near side of the political spectrum — such as left sectarians against liberals, social democrats and democratic socialists — rather than those on the other side.

This emphasis of sectarian politics on the danger of the impure characteristically takes the form of treating virtually every political difference as a relationship of enmity. Now, there are real political enemies: for example, there are those who seek the destruction of democratic modes of governance, and they should be understand by democrats as our political enemies.  In education politics, there are forces which seek to eviscerate public education and eliminate teacher unions, such as Wal-Mart’s Walton Family Foundation and the far right, charter management forces that control the New York Charter School Association. It is appropriate to view them as political enemies. But for educators of a democratic inclination, most political differences in education should be read as disagreements over policy, not as battles with a political enemy. We can oppose someone on questions of policy without concluding that the opponent is our political enemy, seeking our destruction.

The American Federation of Teachers invited Bill Gates to speak at our national convention with the full knowledge that on issues of educational policy, we had both significant differences and meaningful agreement with him. Yet on principle, we believe that democratic politics involves dialogue and deliberation with those with whom we disagree, even on fundamental points. So long as we share with Gates a common appreciation for the importance of the classroom instruction, it is worthwhile to be engaged in a conversation on the best approaches to maximizing the quality of classroom teaching. Such a dialogue needs to be conducted with open eyes, fully recognizing our important differences over issues such as individual merit pay.

To borrow Henry Ford’s attack line against Walter Reuther for a headline that describes Gates as “the most dangerous man in America,” as one blogger did during the AFT convention, is to indulge in a form of hyperbole that quickly shades into unrecognizable caricature. While there certainly is enough in the educational stance of a Gates to take issue with, this sort of discourse is more in the vein of a sectarian calling out “Impure! Impure!” than it is a serious political engagement. In its rigid identification of the politically impure and its promiscuous definition of the political enemy, it has all the marks of a sectarian politics of self-marginalization.

There is more at stake here than the democratic principle of dialogue and engagement with those which whom one agrees. As a practical political matter, advocates of public education, teachers and their unions and will be in a very difficult if not impossible political position if there is a completely unified corporate front in educational politics, of one mind in eviscerating public education and eliminating teacher unions. Even dogmatic thinkers on the left have recognized the importance of divisions among the corporate class for advancing the cause of working people and promoting the public sector. Traditionally, important sections of the American business class have been among the key supporters of public education — with a different vision of that education than teachers and their unions, but supporters nonetheless. We ignore that history, and embrace the moral purity of a political sectarianism that treats dialogue as betrayal, at our peril.



  • 1 Bob Calder
    · Jul 31, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    The Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and others are neither our neighbors nor our fellows. Our relationship to them is not one of neighborly give and take. Their relationship to us is patriarchal.

    Thus when we approach them to negotiate, our expectations are based on our perception of history; of promises kept or not kept. We are wary of their power.

    Perhaps the desire for separation you see is merely a call for clarity and care. We are after all, not out to have a tea party.

  • 2 TFT
    · Aug 1, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I don’t think Gates is too concerned with any classrooms. Indeed, his ilk are pining for an end to classrooms–a more 24/7 type of digitized, personalized education where adults don’t matter!

    Bring in the TFA for a couple years, burn ’em out, and move on.

    Lengthen the day/year.

    Build teacher housing in New Jersey for the Charter-ligarchs–a company town!

    More money for edupreneurs!!

    In other words, what Bob Calder said.

    I call for at least clarity and care, if not downright respect.

  • 3 Karen
    · Aug 1, 2010 at 1:47 am

    The real sectarians are not the teachers who booed Gates’ presence at the Seattle convention and then walked out: they understood the insult of inviting Gates, one of the top players in a reform movement that is blaming and punitive toward teachers. Nor are the real sectarians the supporters of teachers, like the education blogger mentioned above who is known for her meticulous research skills, and who revealed the vast influence Gates has attained by dint of having unlimited resources to invest in the reforms he fancies — some of which have proved to be unsound. And the real sectarians are not union leaders like Karen Lewis, the new president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who dares to challenge the architects of reform, and who openly and repeatedly defends teachers as they are being scapegoated for the current problems in education.

    The true sectarians, exemplifying Douglas’ theory of political impurity, are voila`: Gates, Bloomberg, Klein, Obama, and Duncan. They have shown great inflexibility as they go about implementing their reforms, even in the face of research and test results which prove to be unreliable. They have devoted considerable energy to attacks on the “pollutants” of reform, namely teachers and their unions. And they keep these ” impurities” in check by demoting and firing teachers if they do not extract the desired test results from their students, and by threatening Democratic unions with political isolation if they do not acquiesce to these changes. And it is the sectarians who disregard teachers, the people with the most direct classroom experience, and do not invite them into the dialogue on how best to improve our schools.

    If teachers and their unions do not start speaking out strongly and fighting against these reforms, which research continues to reveal are ill-conceived, then the sectarians will win. We cannot let their tactic of using fear to cow us into accepting these reforms, which we know will not assist us in helping children to learn.

    And our arguments must be firm and consistent. Our union cannot one minute publically characterize standardized tests as unreliable measures of student progress, and then the next minute help broker an agreement to evaluate teachers on these same scores — and allow them to be used to fire teachers. Why worry about a “completely unified corporate front,” who might be “…. of one mind in eviscerating public education and eliminating teacher unions? ” If we pretend to take a tough stand against these reforms, while privately accepting them as inevitable, then they will surely happen. Or we can use our guts (they’re there for a reason) and join with other states, unions, organizations, and advocates fighting these reforms throughout the country. If we don’t, then we will be active participants in our own demise and in the destruction of public education.

  • 4 Akademos
    · Aug 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm


    You have a case only if Gates has substantially altered his screen palette since e-painting himself as a dangerous educational imbecile in rhetoric and deed. And if that’s the case, then THAT is what you should be communicating, not silly divisive stuff like this.

  • 5 Schoolgal
    · Aug 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Let’s see. You invite Gates, make fun our own delegates that walked out, invite a dialogue, and a few days later he goes on record attacking pensions and seniority.
    You opened dialogue with Klein and we got the ’05 contract, ATRs, mayoral control (not to mention a 3rd illegal term in office),school closings, and lost our parking spots to boot. Randi opened dialogue with Rhee and 200+ teachers got fired.
    So how’s this dialogue working for ya???

  • 6 John Powers
    · Aug 2, 2010 at 10:10 am


    You take a criticism of the left and some groups’ rigidity on moral purity and use it to justify the appearance of Bill Gates at the AFT Convention. Gates and his ilk have helped implement and “normalize” a system of education that regiments teaching and learning and seeks to destroy teachers’ unions and privatize education. Isn’t it time to draw a line in the sand? Somewhere in the sand? Anywhere in the sand? What a disappointing blog post. Where has the practice of capitulation and appeasement landed us? The UFT/AFT continues the “we have a seat at the table” argument to the detriment of its members and schoolchildren. It might be time to start defining this particular “table” that is laid out for us more and more each year. Perhaps the “chopping block” is a more appropriate label.
    It’s time to choose a side.


    P.S. “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • 7 Celso Garcia
    · Aug 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    These billionaires heard want to be heralded as heroes. They want to leave a legacy behind in an area where they can boast most rich people will not venture into. Why do they have to attach their names to all gifts and programs they create? A true altruistic person would give just for the sake of giving. After years of greed now they want to act humble as id they care what working families are dealing with especially education. Come work in the schools and get off your high-horses and see first hand what we are dealing with everyday. Go to the toughest schools with the highest teacher turnover. Maybe we will watch billionaires cry like many first year teachers do. Maybe we can have a exchange program where he tell me how to run my classroom and I tell him how to run his company. I do not think he would not allow ne running his company just like I would not like him running my classrion. In this era where corporations rule and everyone including the government just bow down and listen waiting for their next command we have to be careful not to change because someone openned up their wallet. This change mqy hurt not help children so we do not mind hearing Bill Gates viewa but when will he listen to those in the frontlines? We do not want to fight reforms we want responsible democratic forms of hearing all sides instead of jumping into fads that may not work.

  • 8 Tom
    · Aug 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm


    To me it’s a long, esoteric way of saying you think the union should play politics, instead of standing up for what we believe in. Which is okay, I guess, but if that’s the leadership’s view, they might want lay a bit lower on all the Albert Shanker stuff. The comparison does not work in your favor.