Yesterday the Swedish government decided to introduce a legitimacy for teachers, some kind of permit for teaching certifying that the holder is actually qualified both pedagogically and scientifically to instruct students. One of the reasons behind this measure, saluted by both government and opposition, is to raise the social standing of the teaching job, which in later years has become populated with those who simply were too unqualified to find any other type of professional career.
This suggestion made me think about the prestige associated with the activity of teaching. Even if the Swedish government has its eyes on the lower education levels, I think the image of the teacher in general has suffered a slow decay in the past two decades or so. It appears that teachers, even those in the higher education, are perceived as performing a menial job, which they do because they simply could not fare better elsewhere. They lack something: academic qualifications, or ambition, or desire to earn money. They cannot possibly be doing this because they chose to, because they actually like it, even more, prefer it to alternative careers.
The common perception in the society is, in my view, that teachers, educators in general, have lost control over knowledge, and thus they are not seen as having any kind of influence or power. Are we obsolete as a profession? Everyone can learn on their own (see the abundance of Do-it-yourself books and videos), with the Wikipedias of the world as their materials. More seriously, the availability of almost unrestricted information (think Google Books and the immense virtual library now present at anyone’s fingertips) has undermined the extraordinary claim for knowledge that teachers or the intellectuals in general used to make before the digital era.
Is there any prestige left for teachers, for the intellectuals? Do we have any type of capital, call it social or cultural or whichever way you like? Do others perceive us as performing a useful action, contributing to the common good, having access to a higher order of understanding that can also be communicated, shared? For me, the answers to all these questions can easily be in the affirmative. Yes, we are important, indispensable I would like to argue, yes, education should be the object of “high politics” not some lower tier obscure area; and yes, we are providing a common good: not the transfer of knowledge but the development of individual self-critical assessment necessary in all democratic societies.