A GOP Candidate Seeks to Abolish... Teachers’ Lounges?

In the first Republican presidential debate earlier this month, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, surprised many with a performance that seemed to rescue the concept of “compassionate conservatism” from its oxymoronic meaning during George W. Bush’s presidency. When asked why he chose to expand Medicare in his state under Obamacare, the GOP-reviled health-reform bill, Kasich said, “I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio, to do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons at $22,500 a year. I’d rather get them the medication so they can lead a decent life.” And when asked about his stance on gay marriage, Kasich was similarly open-minded. Though he advocates traditional marriage, he accepts this summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and recently attended a gay friend’s wedding. And he brought the issue home:


“If one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”

With these big-hearted positions, it was a surprise to see Kasich turn retrograde in his comments a few days ago at an education forum. The governor has little compassion, it seems, for teachers. “There’s a constant negative. ... They’re going to take your benefits. They’re going to take your pay,” he said, referring to conversations teachers’ unions inspire in their members.

“If I were, not president, if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.’”

Abolish teachers’ lounges? You might dismiss this comment as a tongue-in-cheek throwaway. That’s a mistake. The urge to eliminate fora for democratic exchange among teachers — and to reduce their collective bargaining power — is a worrisome dream in a presidential candidate, even if he knows he will not be able to quite realize it once in the Oval Office.

Kasich’s dictatorial impulse to close teachers’ lounges because they give educators a place to air and share grievances and commiserate a little reminds me of a story embedded in W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 collection The Souls of Black Folk. In chapter 13, Du Bois juxtaposes the fates of two playmates named John in a Georgia town called Altamaha. One John is black; one is white. The former, full of promise, leaves town to get an education and, with some fits and starts, succeeds. When he returns to his hometown, black John is offered a teaching job by the town judge. But when somebody catches wind of what black John is teaching at the school, things turn ugly:

“Heah that John is livenin’ things up at the darky school,” volunteered the postmaster, after a pause.

"What now?” asked the Judge, sharply.

The whole school started in surprise, and the teacher half arose, as the red, angry face of the Judge appeared in the open doorway.

“John!”

 “John, this school is closed. You children can go home and get to work. The white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks to have their heads crammed with impudence and lies. Clear out! I’ll lock the door myself.”

To be clear, I am not saying that John Kasich is a racist. The point of comparison is, rather, the worry that when dangerous ideas percolate in a particular forum, the forum itself must be shut down. When blacks learn about liberty, equality, and fraternity by studying the French Revolution, they become more likely to fight for those rights for themselves. So the school must be shuttered. And when teachers hear their colleagues complain about work requirements or salaries, they become more likely to agitate against the city or the school board. Better to nip all that conversation in the bud by padlocking the sites of deliberation.

This comment was disturbing, but it is mild compared to what others in the GOP presidential field are saying. Some of the candidates want simply to close the Department of Education. All of them seem to have it out for the teachers’ unions. But Kasich is on the record as the only candidate who wants to shut teachers out of potentially rabble-rousing conversations in the break room. That’s neither conservative nor compassionate.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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