Civility in education politics is a bit like pacifism in international relations. It’s a worthy goal, but it can be exploited to serve the interests of war. Famously, Woodrow Wilson and later Neville Chamberlain tried to create world order based on pacifism and appeasement, and in so doing set the stage for a world war that cost nearly 50 million lives. On the flip side, realists such as Otto von Bismarck and George Kennan paired diplomacy with military balance, helping prevent large-scale wars for most of the 19th century, as well as in the 70 years since World War II. The toughness of these men does not mean that they liked war; on the contrary, Bismarck’s most famous quote urges leaders to always remember the horror of war. Realists like Bismarck, however, believed that naive pacifism made war more likely, not less. The same idea applies to civility in education. If we want a civil debate, we should first and foremost strive to be civil. Swarthmore professor Kenneth Gergen, a leading scholar on how communication can produce collaboration, has said civil discourse should avoid antagonism, never attack another person’s moral worth and avoid excessive persuasion. As with pacifism in international relations, the ideal of civility runs into problems when people use it to try to take advantage. For example, last year Russian President Vladimir Putin used the language of pacifism to justify an invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Putin claimed that the Western nations in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had threatened Russia (“They attacked first.”); he denied sending troops to the Ukraine (“I’m not attacking.”); and he relied on Europe’s preference for peace to ensure that he would not face resistance from NATO armies (“Can’t we all just get along?”). Putin’s rhetoric was false. He was a warmonger using the language of peace as a weapon. Similarly, in education policy, although some genuinely seek productive discourse, calls for civility often serve as cover for nasty personal attacks. In 2010, New York University Professor Diane Ravitch wrote a column attacking former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee for a lack of civility. Per Ravitch, Rhee’s failure was that she did not “practice the democratic arts of persuasion, conciliation and consensus-building.” In the same article, she extolled the importance of civility in education debates, saying that, “The very behaviors that schools are supposed to teach—how to think, how to participate, how to reason with others, how to find common ground—are the same behaviors that we expect to encounter in public life.” Those are persuasive arguments. We should, indeed, look at the facts, look for solutions and work together on behalf of kids. The problem is that Ravitch has violated these norms so egregiously that her calls for civility look a lot like Vladimir Putin’s calls for peace—a hypocritical smokescreen rather than a genuine plea. While Ravitch was attacking Rhee for lack of civility, she was receiving financial payments from the teachers unions that were funding a secret campaign to personally demonize Michelle Rhee. An anonymous website, which switched Internet addresses to stay hidden, posted photos of Rhee in a tiara, with animation that made Rhee’s nose appear to grow like a Pinocchio’s. The website posted links critical of Rhee’s family relationships, including her style as a mother and unrelated attacks against her husband. When news broke linking the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to the website, Ravitch was silent. She could have spoken up but she didn’t. No one held either Ravitch or the AFT accountable for this ugliness. As a result, the waves of highly personal attacks on education reformers only intensified. In 2013, journalist Campbell Brown launched a campaign to reform New York’s teacher tenure and seniority laws. Ravitch was the leading voice of a union-backed effort to dismiss Brown as a clueless celebrity trading only on her looks. The unions openly funded a campaign to mock Brown’s appearance, autonomy, credibility and family relationships. As recently as this weekend, the New York state teacher’s union organized a protest against Brown. Ravitch justified her attacks on Brown by saying that celebrities without personal experience should not have a voice in education reform. This, however, was mendacious. Two years earlier, Ravitch praised actor and prominent reform opponent Matt Damon as a “true American hero” when he introduced her at a major speech. Unlike Campbell Brown, Matt Damon has no experience as a journalist or a teacher, and, like Ravitch, he declined to send his own children to public schools. Let’s be realistic about civility in education politics. Civility is a high priority, but truthfulness and integrity are even higher. When the call for civility is used to cover up efforts to weaken policies that help children then it’s really hypocrisy and it must be challenged. As the old saying goes, when you ride into town on a white horse, the mud really shows.
Dmitri Mehlhorn is an education blogger as well as a partner with Vidinovo, an investment group focusing on early-stage businesses.
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a parent and school volunteer, as well as a Democratic donor and activist. He is a member of several boards, including that of StudentsFirst and several early stage companies, and he was a co-founder of Hope Street Group. He has earned degrees in political science, education policy and law from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, respectively.