A look at recent proposals to reform the teaching profession confirms that many educators and policymakers have chosen the medical profession as their model. Whatever the merits of the specific proposals, I believe the analogy is wrong, for teaching is a performing art, not a science. Indeed, the inappropriateness of following a “scientific” model in teaching is already apparent-- in the misguided insistence on the use of required textbooks as the chief materials of the classroom teacher.
In imitating the medical profession, education has created an industry, namely textbook production and distribution, analogous to pharmaceutical companies. Book salesmen offer their wares to teachers and school districts, just as drug distributors bring the products of pharmacology to doctors. The medical model for teaching has led, therefore, to the belief that products of educational research are superior to older materials, just as modern “wonder drugs” are superior to the herbs and nostrums of prescientific doctors. Some products of the educational pharmacology are even given their own wonder aspect by claiming to be “teacher proof.”
However, experience has shown--and some recent statewide rejections of textbooks have confirmed--that teaching materials produced in this way are anything but an enhancement of education. Many modern textbooks seem to have the blandness and impotence of a placebo, rather than the vital power of legitimate medicine. Were teaching to be seen as a performing art, the reason for this failure and the means for its correction would become obvious.
A performing artist might choose for his material the work of a contemporary composer, but the staples of the musical art remain the masterpieces of the past: products of our cultural heritage, affirmed by the passage of time, that have outlasted inferior products that have slipped into obscurity. New material can be created, but unlike the Salk vaccine and new, broader-spectrum antibiotics in medicine, the products of contemporary composers are not, ipso facto, superior to the music of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries, any more than modern drama is necessarily superior to that of the Elizabethan stage. A musician who used only the works of the last 10 or even 50 years would be severely limited in his art. So, too, is a teacher who uses only the products of modern educational research embodied in required textbooks.
I believe that the materials for teaching already exist within our cultural tradition. Would it not be more instructive, for instance, to use an essay from Addison’s Spectator or The Federalist Papers to teach vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and paragraphing than to rely on a specially prepared grammar or reading textbook? Logically, we should not be spending our limited resources creating new material on the false premise that “newer must be better.” Far better to use that money to find and train people who can perform the established works of our culture, the true materials for the art of teaching.
This is not to say that the “Great Books” should merely be placed in front of the students. Adequate interpretation by teachers is needed in order to make classical works accessible and acceptable to a modern audience. The material can be edited or even modified, a practice that is not unusual in the performing arts: Italian operas are performed in English, symphony scores are used for ballet, and a Bach fugue can be properly performed by singers or a synthesizer. The interaction of a performer and a work is the primary creative act, engaging the attention and involvement of an audience. The value of this approach for discouraging pupils’ passivity and fostering the creative element in teaching argues strongly for my thesis.
And I certainly do not mean to imply that only the older classics should be used in teaching. Children’s books written by contemporary practicing authors are often superior to “scientifically” prepared graded readers; and commercial films are usually better as visual aids than specially prepared educational films dealing with the same subject. In fact, the graded readers and educational films are the product of a bogus science. Fortunately, they are increasingly being seen as such, and are being rejected by some performers. (The audience--the students--rejected such works some time ago.) One illustration of this is the Chicago school system’s rejection of its regimented Mastery Learning Reading program in favor of a return to authentic books of literature.
Mathematics is an example of a subject that is enriched by a historical approach, and it is also an area in which current materials are often those designed by teachers or by others working closely with actual students. Indeed, teaching materials are best generated where teaching takes place, not by the professional textbook industry. Just as much of Bach’s work was influenced by his performances in church service , those who create the material for the teaching art should do so in close relationship with its performers and its true audience.
As for science, we may have to wait until this century’s Great Revival of fundamentalism passes before valid materials can be developed. In the meantime, using the great works of our culture in some form, instead of relying on bland synthetic textbooks, might be of help.
Moreover, if portions of the Bible--that collection of writings that Northrup Frye calls the “major element in our imaginative tradition whatever we think or believe about it"--were to be used as a part of humanities instruction, materials in the natural sciences would no longer have to bear the religious burden they are now being asked to carry. Not using the religious works of our culture as teaching material not only eviscerates an understanding of our heritage, but denies students an introduction to spiritual issues, and-among other things-ultimately impedes their ability to comprehend a non-Western culture.
How then to improve teaching materials? Certainly one should continue to reject vapid products of the textbook industry, as a doctor would an inferior drug, but we should also employ the best existing material in the teaching art. Its selection would help ensure that learning takes place in a meaningful context, rather than in isolated “work-units.”
In addition, some new works can be created, just as good new music can be composed; teachers gifted in the art of “composition” should be put to work. There might even be some who can do this well who are not teachers. All composers were not performers, but many of the best ones were, and all lived within the matrix of the performance of their art. And, if teaching and the production of teaching materials were joined, would we not enrich the professional environment of teachers and the process of education itself?
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 1987 edition of Education Week