October 8, 2014

Public servants safeguard our nation

So much of what makes our country great has been in short supply in recent years. Politics as the art of compromise is long gone. Civility in public discourse has almost disappeared. Respect for the scientific method, and the supremacy of facts over feelings, is no longer abided. We choose our own news channels according to what we already believe to be true. This nation of immigrants now devalues the concept.

Much has been turned on its head, but nothing strikes me as quite as misguided and dangerous as the demonization of public servants — those who serve the public — including law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers, public safety workers, those who answer our questions and provide our basic services. These individuals are lionized when we need them and then treated with disdain when their services are not in urgent demand. When did this happen? Why did this happen?

Most individuals who go into public service sacrificed higher pay and far better working conditions to make their communities a better place. Many have a high degree of education and specialized training, which means they had many career options. They chose to serve the public.

All perform vital tasks that make their neighborhoods safer places — road repair crews, bus drivers, park rangers, and those at every level who work every day for the public good. Compared with equivalent jobs in industry these individuals are not especially well paid. But the work is steady and the benefits tend to be reliable. That was the bargain we made with them long ago.

I am closest to teachers and those who work in the educational profession, so I am particularly concerned about the way they have been treated. In many countries teachers are revered and compensated highly. Those countries tend to have the highest achieving students. That is not a coincidence.

Some people criticize teachers because they “only” work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That allegation could only be made by someone totally unfamiliar with a teacher’s workload. Most teachers work till late into the night, grading materials, preparing lessons, talking with parents, keeping up with curriculum and instructional strategies. They work over weekends, holidays, and summers, refining their professional abilities, gathering materials, and evaluating student work. The job cannot be done without these efforts.

We don’t begrudge athletes or entertainers high salaries, though their work seasons are very short and their work does not always contribute to the public good. But some people then turn around and disparage teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, and all those whose work is so vital to our community and our nation. Many of these public servants struggle to get by on their full-time salaries.

Military veterans receive pensions after completing a term of service. Surely we should not deny them access to health care, mental health services, or quality facilities. We should be particularly grateful for those who serve our nation.

Certainly there are areas that need reform in the public sector, just as there are in the private sector. Let’s make those needed reforms while remembering who the true heroes are among us.

Why have these hard-working, sacrificing public servants become the target of contempt? Who gains from scorning educators and nurses and first responders?

Generally those quickest to criticize our community heroes are those whose agenda has to do with dismantling public institutions. The guiding force behind that agenda seems to be that individual taxes would be lower if we didn’t have to pay our public servants. Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously said that taxes are the price one pays for civilization.

If we continue to degrade public service jobs, who will teach our children, tend to the sick, keep our streets safe, and fight our fires?

Also, it seems clear that those who attack teachers and public education in general seem to be fueled by special interests who want to dismantle the system and privatize education. Where would our democracy be without free universal public education for all? We would devolve into a system of “haves” and “have nots,” like the aristocracy of old Europe. Is this what we want for our country?

I say again, shame on those who denigrate the true heroes in our communities, or remain silent while others do it. We should all rise in indignation that our country is being diverted from its roots of freedom, fairness, and justice for all. In the end, it is our public servants who safeguard these founding values. We should support and thank them for their service to all of us. We could not be a great nation without them.