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.