What separates scholars from bureaucrats is that scholars stand by their own research and beliefs.
I happen to be a scholar, but in a very important way it doesn’t matter that I am. I am a tenured full professor, and it doesn’t take any courage for me to stand by my research and my beliefs.
I am writing this post to acknowledge scholars who take serious professional risks to stand by the conclusions they have reached about what students need to know and how they learn – scholars who show courage. These scholars might be teachers who push back against principals who don’t value opportunities to learn important disciplines like physics. One remarkable teacher gave up her planning period this year rather than drop her physics class – the only physics class the school offered.
Or these scholars might be administrators at the school or district level who understand better than their superiors how upper level science and math courses open opportunities for students. It takes courage for these scholars to act on their beliefs because such actions put their professional advancement at risk. And professional advancement isn’t just an ego trip – it usually impacts how well the professional can provide for her or his family. For me, watching somebody in this situation push forward is a humbling and inspiring experience.
Often, these courageous scholars face pressure from multiple directions. A teacher or administrator is sometimes in a situation in which she or he is trying to hold off misguided pressure from a supervisor with the left hand while educating parents in the realities of the modern economy with the right hand. There are times when a strategic retreat is the prudent and right thing to do in such a situation. But I’ve often seen professionals err on the side of boldness – pushing ahead despite pressure from both supervisors and parents.
Unfortunately, there are professionals at the other end of the spectrum. These are people who have written masters’ theses or doctoral dissertations – fine documents that cast light on important educational issues. But when these people are put in situations that expose their motivations and character, they cast aside their own research results to pander at the altar of easy political groupthink. The strength of their convictions isn’t sufficient to lift a feather. These professionals make “bureaucrat” a dirty word, and they damage the futures of many thousands of students.
Sheltered scholars like me have an opportunity to both support courageous colleagues and confront those who undermine the meaning of the word “scholar”. More of us need to do so if our society is going to make progress in expanding opportunities for its young people.