Can the Contempt for Educators

Posted on December 15, 2020


In “We didn’t just hate the Dr. Jill Biden op-ed by Joseph Epstein for its condescension. We hated it for its contempt for educators” by Heidi Stevens, Dr. Lola Burnham, journalism professor from Eastern Illinois University, commenting on an opinion piece that attacked Dr. Jill Biden for using the professional title she earned, said:

“In America, we have this strange need to tear down people who have put in the effort to delve into and specialize in an academic field, to make themselves expert by their intense study,” she wrote on Facebook. “We celebrate athletes who rise to the top of their game. We celebrate actors who win awards. And we just love rich people whose only accomplishment was to inherit wealth. … But as a society we seem to have nothing but scorn for people who make reading, observing, studying, experimenting, and, yes, thinking, the focus of their professional lives. These days, a huge chunk of our society even scorns those with medical degrees and advanced degrees in the sciences. But we seem to reserve special scorn for those who try to pass on their knowledge of and enthusiasm for a subject to their students, to try to light a spark in them so that they will maybe think a little more deeply about and be a little more aware of the world around them.”

Reading that statement triggered a cascade of memories of the heaps of scorn I’ve received for passionately working to educate myself, my students, and my colleagues as a literacy and citizen educator. I love teaching and learning. To this day, the first thought I have upon waking is “What will I learn?”, and I savor the learning process, even when it can be frustrating or unpleasant, as well as the knowledge, understanding, and skills I attain from engaging in it. When I get to share what I learn with members of the community, it’s icing on the cake!

One thing I’ve learned about being a scholar who is also a woman is that some men experience cognitive dissonance when they encounter a woman who has more knowledge, experience, or expertise than they do on a subject, and, unable to process their negative emotions, may lash out. Faced with information or expertise beyond their known world, their insecurities can boil up. They can get agitated, then angry. I’ve also seen this reaction in some men who have been denied things they are not entitled to, but feel entitled to have.

Over my time in the workforce, which spanned the years 1974-2019, I have worked in private homes, at a hotel, in many restaurants, in retail and MLMs, in home construction, in childcare, at summer camps, at elementary, middle, and high schools, and at university. As a woman, I’ve endured gender-based harassment on every job, and looking back, I notice an interesting difference between male coworkers in “blue collar” jobs and those who are professional educators.

To put it bluntly, my blue collar coworkers in restaurants and construction were dick-obsessed, trash-talking, low-level sexual harassers. This type of shit starts in childhood, develops until about eighth grade–and is carried into the workplace. It’s total bullshit, but women in low-wage jobs have no real way to secure their legal rights to harassment-free workplaces, so we endure.

This type of bullshit is what caused me to become an expert at language, and by being able to not only hold my own, but throw daggers in this type of trash talk, I could earn the respect of my coworkers. Then, once they learned that I was good at my job and that they could depend on me, they realized that working with me made their job easier, and I could sometimes turn a bully into an ally–or at least get them to lay off with the dick jokes. Or I’d just tell them to fuck off.

A lot of my male coworkers in the blue collar sector were garden-variety assholes, but they were “out and proud” about it. On the other hand, I knew how to navigate those waters, and I was fine. I faced a shit-ton of run-of-the-mill sexual harassment, BUT it was “all in good fun” (for them), and not intended to actually threaten or harm me. At the end of the day, I trusted my blue collar coworkers, and they trusted me; we respected one another, for real, and had each other’s backs.

When I entered the education workplace, I was NOT prepared to navigate the kind of male meltdowns I observed. As the first member of my family to earn a university degree and join a profession, I had no role models or mentors from which to seek advice. Laws, policies, and labor contracts that spelled out my right to a harassment-free workplace and legal redress if targeted turned out to be empty words that offered no protection from male coworkers who “reserve special scorn for those who try to pass on their knowledge of and enthusiasm for a subject to their students, to try to light a spark in them so that they will maybe think a little more deeply about and be a little more aware of the world around them.”

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the trigger for the cognitive dissonance-anger-scornful attack-cycle for professional male colleagues was attaining knowledge and expertise in my field!

“What did that look like?” you may ask.

It looked almost completely different from the blue collar world. It’s much more subtle, insidious, and disturbing–because it comes from men who are employed to foster academic, artistic, and social success–of all members of the school community.

Without going into the shitstorm of their scornful behaviors, I want to focus on what triggered my professional male coworkers, because that’s the part I find most troubling. Professional male coworkers have lashed out at me in response to:

learning that my proposal was accepted and I’d been invited to make a presentation at my professional organization’s national convention; learning that an article I’d written was published in a professional journal; learning that I was working with PhDs in my field and across disciplines from universities across the country in literacy, land ethic, and mindfulness/wellness; learning that I would be presenting my interdisciplinary work in land-based language arts at a national convention in my professional organization; learning that my interdisciplinary work in land-based language arts would be part of a book project; learning that my wellness work would be included in a national database; learning that my research showed many academic, emotional, and social benefits of incorporating outdoor experiences in language arts courses; learning that my research showed many academic, emotional, and social benefits of incorporating mindfulness and self-care practices in high school classes; learning that students read and retain more when allowed to choose their reading selections; learning that my work as a teacher-researcher would be featured in a book aimed at pre-service teachers…

But it’s not just scorn for me and my accomplishments that’s at issue here. The bigger problem is the scorn for teaching and learning. My fellow educators, were scornful of real academic achievement and willing to deny students access to information and experiences that would benefit them. It is unethical and unprofessional behavior.

By far, the WORST example I’ve seen by far is the administrator who told the Adrian High School English Department that “students don’t need to read entire works.” There is no more scornful attitude toward education than being ANTI-READING. Likewise, promoting standardized tests as valid measures of literacy over actual reading and writing shows scorn, not only for education, but for students. Standardized tests have NO role to play in students’ lives outside of school; but students’ lives literally depend on reading, writing, speaking, listening, and research. No life will ever be saved as a result of taking a standardized test!

The anti-education, anti-woman scorn that is being heaped upon Dr. Jill Biden for her achievements as an educator is disgusting, disrespectful, and harmful to women, educators, and society at large.


And now, as we face a deadly global pandemic, scorn for academic achievement takes the form of school administrators who lobby for opening schools and sports programs rather than for taking all necessary precautions to stop the spread of COVID19, as advised by medical experts. If that isn’t an example of scorn for education, I don’t know what is.

I can’t believe I have to say this, but every “expert” that we rely on in every field is an expert because of their teachers. Harassing and attacking those with the most knowledge and expertise among us is the most ignorant and self-destructive thing we, as a society, can do. The challenges we face in climate change and health care alone require immediate attention from highly-educated specialists; we cannot survive without the educators who train, teach, and mentor them.

Related Content

Joseph Epstein’s “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.”

Guest column: Republican scorn is ruining the education profession

Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake.

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
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