Reciting the Sins of a 'Professional Education Industry'

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In 1988, the New York-based writer Rita Kramer set out on what she characterizes as a voyage of the "ed-school establishment." Her log of that voyage, which included class-taking and interviews at more than a dozen schools of education in all parts of the country, will be published this week. Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers has garnered a considerable amount of pre-release praise and condemnation. In the excerpt below, taken from the final chapter, Ms. Kramer levels some of her sharpest criticisms of teacher education:

No amount of restructuring or empowerment, no amount of money spent on salaries or programs, will make much difference until we place knowledge itself at the center of the educational enterprise. At the present time, knowledge--real knowledge in the form of facts, not "thinking skills" or feelings of self-worth is about the least concern of the professional education industry. It despises "mere facts," chronology, traditions, rules, memorization, practice--all of which are dirty words in education today. It prizes "cognitive skills," self-determination, creative thinking. As though anything really creative could go on in an empty head. But what choice is there when teachers themselves don't know beans about anything? The only possible fallback position is the progressive emphasis on being a "facilitator" of "cognitive strategies" for problem solving. This trend, fashionable in schools, colleges, and departments of education all over the country, along with the preference for self-expression over self-control, is a particularly cruel disservice to the many disadvantaged youngsters who are being deprived of the very habits and background knowledge that could enable them to make it in the modern world. For all our children, it is a catastrophe.

How to teach English literature should be the concern of professors of English, not experts in curriculum and instruction. The methodology can best be integrated with the subject itself, with the subject as the main focus, not the methodology. Everything you need to know about how to teach English that can be taught didactically--can be learned within the framework of an undergraduate English major. What can't be learned that way is most of what counts, and it is learned in context, on the job, by trial and error with an experienced teacher looking over one's shoulder and offering pointers. A professor of English can suggest ways of making Chaucer come alive for 10th graders. A mentor teacher can show how it's done. The new teacher can try things out. These are all useful. What is not useful is a course in theory divorced from the daily practice. How you teach Moby Dick or binomial theory requires some art, some individual style, and judgment in the interaction between a teacher and a specific set of individual pupils. It requires being at home enough with the subject matter and alert enough to the responses of the students to have considerable latitude in how one teaches each lesson each day.

Those who call for higher standards are accused of being discriminatory-elitist, if not racist. Of course, standards imply having to meet them, and some will do so while others will not. As long as success or failure depends on effort and achievement and no one is excluded from the chance to make that effort and achieve the best results of which he is capable, the criticisms are misleading. The real racists are those who assume members of minority groups are not capable of the same effort and achievement as anyone else, that they need different rules. So convinced are they that members of minority groups will fail that they are prepared to change the rules for everyone to ensure the same outcome for everyone. It is a low outcome, and it demeans the minorities, the rest of the society, and the very idea of education, which if it means anything means possessing knowledge.

That is what schools are for, because that is what schools can do. They can transmit knowledge how to read and compute, of what the sciences tell us about the nature of the world and what the philosophers and poets tell us about the nature of men and women, of what countries have in common and how they differ, what a string quartet, a cathedral, a fresco are made of. What they can't do-or can't do well--is what families, psychotherapists, ministers, social workers, and police are trained to do. What the politicization of the schools has led to is the usurpation of the teacher's role by that of the so-called helping professions ....

If our children's schools are not meeting our expectations, let alone our hopes for them, much of the reason lies with the institutions that prepare men and women to teach in them. The most prestigious of them are largely concerned with academic reputation within the university setting, competing for funds with the professional schools of law and medicine, and cranking out enormous amounts of research, much of it trivial, with much faculty time and energy going into writing grant proposals and designing model projects. Little of this helps the classroom teacher.

The worst of the ed schools are certification mills where the minimally qualified instruct the barely literate in a parody of learning. Prospective teachers leave no more prepared to impart knowledge or inspire learning than when they entered.

In between these extremes there stretches a wide range of programs, most of which have in common a set of required courses on methods of teaching and theories of learning that are deadly dull. There is almost universal agreement among teachers, who say they are too much, too soon. What teachers find useful in their preparatory training is practice teaching and advice from experienced teachers. What they get in the methods courses means little to them until they get into the classroom. And even then what they find useful that can be learned from lectures, readings, and classroom discussion could probably be taught in one intensive summer or a single year of evening classes. Anyone who couldn't learn it in one full-time year shouldn't be thinking of becoming a teacher.

Why then the years of pedagogical training, which produce people who have a lot of information about how to teach but have little or nothing to teach? The answer lies in the vested interests of the accredited schools, colleges, and departments of education, graduation from which is tantamount to certification in most states. It lies in the tendency of legislative bodies, unions, state, district, and local school boards to prefer the status quo. It lies in the inertia which tends to perpetuate all established institutions once they have taken hold. The status quo is a system that does not produce the teachers we need, the best teachers our children could have.

The public school, once charged with the task of transmitting the common culture and imparting the skills required to understand it, participate in it, and extend it, has come to be seen instead by those who prepare men and women to teach in it as an agency of social change. No longer is there said to be a common culture, but a multiplicity of cultures, each of equal value and significance. The function of the schools is to achieve educational equity as a means to social and economic equity. Not equality of opportunity but equal grading is the accepted goal, and objective standards are agreed to be an obstruction to that goal since not everyone does equally well by them.

The accepted means to the end of everyone doing well is the encouragement of self-esteem, which is achieved through being taught about oneself and about one's own community by people as much as possible like oneself and of the same community. The sense of "otherness" is to be banished, since in this scheme any distinction, any differentiation, is looked upon as invidious, if not odious.

The idea of a common culture stretching from the ancients to our own times, bequeathing a literature, a history, a body of knowledge, and a set of traditions that define our political institutions and are of unique value is said to be a myth kept in place by the powers that be in the service of domination, of keeping the lower classes in their place and of exploiting them. Hardly anywhere, among those who shape the aims of our public schools today, does one hear a word about love of classical learning, music, drama.

The people who become "educators" and who run our school systems usually have degrees in education, psychology, social sciences, public administration; they are not people who have studied, know, and love literature, history, science, or philosophy. Our "educators" are not educated. They do not love learning. Naturally enough, they think of the past as dead because it has never been alive to them. And they will not bring it to life for their pupils.

The single most important factor in an individual's education is his teachers. All of us remember particular individuals who influenced and inspired us and gave direction to our lives. Not buildings, programs, curricula, philosophies of education, but men and women who by virtue of their personalities and their love of some discipline, some book, some kind of learning, opened the world to us, and showed us things we had not seen before, gave life a meaning it had not had before. What we need if we are to touch the minds of children, rescue the public school system and the democracy it should nourish, are inspiring teachers. They are precisely what the present system militates against. Although they exist here and there, they do what they do in spite of the present system of preparation and in spite of all the odds against them which that system presents. Isn't it time we changed it?

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 36

Published in Print: October 23, 1991, as Reciting the Sins of a 'Professional Education Industry'
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