Private Schools are F*cked

The New York Times ran a story on 1/11 that Fieldston had fired a Jewish, transgender history teacher for remarks made online and at school that were critical of Israel. The teacher, Dr. Brager, referred to Israel as a “colonial” “ethnostate.” They were fired for being antisemitic. This incident brings into sharp focus the difficulty of being a history teacher at private schools in the United States in the age of Trump and the climate of intense identity politics. As a former private-school history teacher, I can tell you that firing these teachers does not help students. Firing teachers for their politics demeans the intellectual abilities of young people, when we should be empowering kids by teaching them to question authority.

History is an inherently political discipline. Even if a teacher never overtly expresses an opinion in class, students and colleagues can still ascertain her political viewpoint. What events does the teacher include in her curriculum? Does she spend a full month teaching about the rich history of indigenous peoples in the Americas to start off a United States history course? Maybe she makes sure to include the role of women in every event, rather than saying “And also there were women but they just stayed at home.” Does the teacher explain that the Civil War was caused by slavery (yes) or “state’s rights” (no)? Does a World History course focus on Europe? Does the teacher use a Peters projection map in class, or keep to the Euro-centric Mercator map? All of these choices indicate a political point of view, without ever saying anything. 

But teachers of history are expected to address current events. On an almost-daily basis when I was teaching history at three different elite, expensive prep schools, kids asked me questions about American and/or world politics. When Scotland held it’s referendum to leave the United Kingdom, I replied to a student’s question about the issue by giving an answer about British imperialism and nationalism that directly showed my views on the subject, and moreover on British presence in the north of Ireland (which I oppose; I am by trade an Ireland expert). 

Questions about American politics are stickier. I have been asked about Trump’s “Muslim ban”; students have asked me to explain constitutional issues about Supreme Court cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop (the “gay cake” case) and Roe v. Wade. I am a very vocal supporter (just look at my Twitter feed) of LGBTQ+ rights and of abortion rights, and while I explained the constitutional issues involved in those cases, I honestly made no effort to hide the morally correct stance. There are few issues in the United States, within and without education, that are more of a lightning rod than abortion—but one of those, especially in New York, is the state of Israel. 

Indeed, Riverdale Country School, down the road from Fieldston, lost two teachers who also took a stand on the human rights of Palestinians. I am a Jewish woman who supports the right of Israel to exist and of Israelis to live peacefully and freely. But, surely we can all agree that assertions that Palestinian civilians deserve the same rights is not an antisemitic statement? Apparently not at New York City’s private schools. 

To be sure, I have never worked at Fieldston, and I don’t know Dr. Brager. But I do know the ins and outs of New York City’s private schools. And it is abundantly clearly that Dr. Brager was fired because powerful parents didn’t like the way they were doing their job—not because they were a “bad” teacher. I have seen many teachers lose their jobs for similar reasons—including myself. And because there is no standardized process, with oversight from a state board of education, for dismissing teachers—and because all teaching contracts at private schools are “at will” contracts—schools can sack teachers for whatever reason they want. And, believe me, schools absolutely fire excellent teachers for personal and political reasons. They probably fire teachers for such reasons more often than they fire teachers for being bad teachers. 

Teaching history is an extremely important job, and it’s one that is frequently diminished in our STEM-obsessed society. Historians, after all, don’t usually found start-ups that make billions of dollars; you don’t choose history as your life’s work because you want to be a millionaire. But teaching history helps young people to understand the world they live in, figure out what their values are, and articulate those values in oral and written formats. History courses help shape active global citizens. 

So schools should not fire teachers because they don’t like a particular point of view expressed in class. Students can and should question their teachers—especially in the United States, where the right and, indeed the duty, to question authority is an important national value. There is a vast difference between saying something racist or antisemitic, and suggesting that Israel’s governmental policies mistreat Palestinians. Criticizing a government is not de facto a form of hatred of the Jewish people, though in some cases, yes, criticism of Israel can be antisemitism wrapped up in a more palatable package. Is criticizing Donald Trump code for hating America? Some people think so, but few of those people work at New York City’s private schools. 

Stop firing teachers for their political viewpoints, and start teaching our children to question authority. This kind of education will empower them in the present and the future

Reform the Senate like the House of Lords

All 100 senators have sworn an oath to be impartial jurors in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Yet the chances that any senator will be genuinely impartial are so minuscule that they cannot be measured with any existing mathematical methods. As a result, despite overwhelming evidence—that continues to emerge, even as the trial begins—that the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the Senate will acquit Trump of the two articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives. 

This trial is an affront to democracy. But, because it takes place in the Senate, it couldn’t be any different; the Senate is an anti-democratic institution, and it was designed to be. As a result, the most tangible steps that our elected representatives can take to restore American democracy involve reforming the Senate. And we needn’t look far for a model. We need merely follow the example set by the reform of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords.

For centuries, the House of Lords, composed of the Lords Spiritual (clergy) and Temporal (nobility), was more powerful than the House of Commons. The latter was an elected body, although the franchise was quite limited until a series of acts in the nineteenth century gradually expanded the electorate, and then a dramatic expansion in the twentieth century when women were given the right to vote. 

The members of the House of Lords (called peers) enjoyed a large and permanent Conservative Party majority. Regardless of the wishes of the House of Commons, the Lords held veto power over bills passed by the “lower” house. As recently as the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902, prime ministers were chosen from the Lords. As more people gained the vote, the Commons gained power and prestige—but still, it remained subject to the reactionary will of the peers. Many dramatic historic battles resulted from the clashing desires of the Lords and the Commons. Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar to you, because we see it today between the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and the GOP-controlled Senate.

But, the MPs resolved their problem by forcing the Lords to give up power in order to preserve the integrity of their auspicious body. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Liberal-controlled Commons battled the Conservative Lords. In a row over David Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget,” the Commons threatened to pack the House of Lords with Liberal peers unless the Lords relinquished power. In the Parliament Act of 1911, the Lords agreed that they could only delay legislation—they could no longer prevent its passage. In 1911, the Act allowed the peers to delay bills for three sessions and up to two years. The Act also revoked the authority of the Lords to reject money bills. After WWII, Clement Attlee’s Labour government reduced those periods to two sessions and one year, via the Parliament Act of 1949. The House of Lords lost its teeth. 

By making the House of Commons the dominant governing body in the United Kingdom, the government enhanced democracy in its territory (notwithstanding its colonies and, to this day, the undemocratic government in the north of Ireland). The 650 members of the Commons are responsive to the people in a way that the Lords could never be. In this parliamentary system, the majority party or majority coalition is almost always in power (minority governments can occur, but they are rare and happen only in special circumstances). This model of democracy should serve the United States when we undertake the inevitable task of reforming our own system.

To be sure, the analogy isn’t perfect. The Senate is an elected body, and the House of Lords never was. Plus, the British Constitution is not a written document, and it is thus easier to reform. But that is a key point in itself: the United States is subject to a dictatorship of the Framers, who set a high bar for amending the Constitution (though admittedly not as high as the bar for amending the Articles of Confederation, which is one key reason why our first governing document failed). 

The Framers designed the Senate to be anti-democratic. The body is the result of the so-called Great Compromise, that allowed less populous states and larger states to sign on to the same document. (A compromise for a similar purpose over a disagreement related to representation and taxation led to the compromise that resulted in the shameful “3/5 clause” that counted enslaved black people as 3/5 of a person, so we should be careful about lauding Constitutional compromises.) Until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, voters did not directly elect senators; rather, state legislators chose the senators. The Framers did not trust common people to make intelligent, informed decisions when voting. Thus, they vested more power in the less democratic body. 

According to the Constitution Center, James Madison argued in Federalist #39 that the House of Representatives represents “the people of the nation at large and the Senate represent[s] the residual sovereignty of the states” thereby making the government “part national” and “part federal.” Yet the small country comprised primarily of Thomas Jefferson’s idyllic virtuous small farmers is not the nation we know in 2020, and indeed, the Senate does not function in the way that James Madison—an opponent of the Great Compromise before he argued in favor of it—envisioned it.

Today we are reaping the whirlwind. The population of the United States is not evenly distributed over all fifty states, yet each state still has two senators. In terms of pure numbers, there is a substantial liberal or center-left majority in the US as demonstrated by the elections in 2016 and 2018 and virtually every opinion poll on Donald Trump. Vast numbers of those left-leaning citizens live in the northeast and on the west coast, with large pockets in urban centers throughout the country. Thus, like the House of Lords of old, the United States Senate has a built-in and nearly permanent Republican/Conservative majority. And this majority exercises veto power over legislation passed by the House of Representatives. The representatives of the minority thwart the will of the majority in the United States—the very definition of anti-democratic. 

How can Americans reform our government in order to restore a semblance of democracy and regain our status as a shining “city upon a hill,” a model of democracy for countries around the world to emulate? Following the example of the UK, we must neuter the Senate, and give more power to the House of Representatives, the body that is closer and more responsive to the citizenry. 

We could split up populous states such as California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania and continue to give each state two senators. Doing so will go a long way toward evening out the number of people each senator represents, and balancing out the electoral college in the process, so that my vote in New York counts the same as someone’s vote in Wyoming. 

We could reform the Senate so that it only has the power to delay legislation from the House of Representatives, and cannot impede money bills, as the parliament of the UK did in 1911 and 1949. But without a simultaneous reform of the electoral college, a minority president could merely veto legislation passed by Congress. 

Or we could scrap our system—and our Constitution—altogether and call a new Constitutional convention in order to create a government that fits the modern world that we live in. Despite the many scholars and pundits who laud the eternal wisdom of the Framers to create a Constitution that can evolve over time, we are still subjected to the “wisdom” of the eighteenth century when the country was comparatively tiny in terms of territory and population; when women and people of color were not citizens; when advocates for unregulated speech and guns could not foresee the Internet or automatic weapons. 

We need a new Constitutional convention—and I challenge every candidate for president to stand up and declare that she or he will call for one if elected president of these United States. 

In that new system, perhaps President Trump could receive a trial from an impartial jury. He won’t receive one as the system exists today—and our democracy will continue to wither on the vine as a result.