Teachers and Universities: Vive La Difference

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The English dither about most things. In some moods and phases they gaze across the Atlantic, seeking to imitate the powerful American example, exploiting the advantages of a (more or less) common language, and trying to protect themselves by cultivating the historic special relationship. At other times, they prefer to look across the Channel, trying to persuade themselves that they live on a European island, that they need a common currency, and that Brussels must be for them what Washington, D.C., is for Texans.

These perennial themes play themselves out in the global struggles around power and wealth, but also in the smaller worlds of teacher training. For many years, and especially during the 1950's and 60's, the leaders of teacher education in England emulated the example of the States. If only, they thought, education could become a major discipline, comparable in its own right to psychology or sociology. If only the prestige of great graduate schools of education could be whisked across the Atlantic as readily as the glitter of Disney or the delights of fast food. If only education, and teachers with it, could acquire the status (if not the wealth) of medicine and of doctors, whose rise in the world had been inseparable from an association with the very heart of the university.

These English optimists (now mostly silent if not dead) had, by the time President Johnson succeeded President Kennedy, much upon which to congratulate themselves. The old teachers' colleges were about to be renamed colleges of education, with their preparatory courses for elementary teachers lengthened from two to three years. Many of those teachers would earn, for the very first time, university degrees. Within the universities themselves, future teachers were trained in ever-growing numbers in graduate courses, and advanced work (although very little, now or ever, at the doctoral level) became more visible. The prevailing orthodoxy was that teachers should be educated rather than trained, that the basis of their education should be in the social sciences, and that educational research should be a distinguishing mark of the university enterprise. Aspiring teacher-educators began to meet in conferences (never more than a puddle compared with the surging ocean of the American Educational Research Association) and to inflict papers upon one another.

All this was directly related to the American example and all of it was about to be challenged. No sooner were the 60's over than Margaret Thatcher, as Britain's Secretary for Education, received an official report (the James Report) questioning academicist assumptions, insisting that teacher preparation needed to be more professional, more relevant, more rooted in the schools and in the cities, focused on lifelong development rather than on initial preparation. Then demography took charge (yet again) and within 10 years the size of the teacher-education machine had been halved: Optimism gave place to insecurity as the system failed to adapt to a changing world. It was not difficult in the 1980's for a determined government to seize control of both the ideology and the machinery of teacher training, imposing its own London-based agency to determine what should count for certification and licensure and shattering what it perceived as a pernicious (and dangerously socialist) university monopoly. Finally, in 1994, it snatched from the universities the whole of the funding of teacher education in all its many forms, handing the money over to a body appointed by and accountable to the education secretary in London. Schools (real ones) and not ethereal universities are now to be the basis for teacher training. In a phrase, the main paths to teacher qualification are to be alternative routes.

The American example had therefore been rejected, even if (paradoxically) much of this dramatic shift of national policy was yet again referred to debates on the western side of the Atlantic. University-based teacher education had been having a hard time there, too. Does this shift suggest that the English are again sliding from one end of their seesaw to the other, that they now intend to follow a European and (in the year when the Channel tunnel opens) specifically French example? Not quite.

French traditions had indeed been very different from those of the Anglo-Saxons (as Parisians quaintly describe the conspiratorial Americans and British). The French system was and is highly regulated and directed from the center--as indeed the British system has also been, however much we might lie about it. Teacher training in France for the primary (or elementary) schools had been dominated for a century and more by a pragmatic tradition, with "inspectors" managing the programs and laboratory-type schools attached to the normal schools, as they were still called right down to 1991. The system of teacher training for secondary schools was fundamentally different from all this. Here the business of the universities was, until a few months ago, strictly confined to rigorous academic preparation for future secondary school or university teachers, with a tough competitive examination in which pedagogy, educational theory, and practice-based knowledge had no place whatsoever. Preparation for work in secondary schools was accomplished after those teachers had been appointed, in somewhat vague establishments directed by government inspectors and having something in common with teachers' centers in other cultures.

Someone who had been asleep for the past five years might therefore suppose that in 1994 the English deserted the American for the French model, by loosening the connection between education and the university, emphasizing practical preparation in the real world, and giving power to government rather than universities. But the awkward fact is that at one minute past midnight on Oct. 1, 1991, the French (for such is their way) turned their own traditional arrangements upside down. For they then created a new system which, at least on the surface, looks suspiciously like the one which their English neighbors were at the same moment busily destroying. In France, 26 brand-new "university institutes" were created, the old normal schools were abolished along with the centers for training secondary teachers, and the whole of teacher education became an enterprise inside higher education. Of course, there were howls of protest (and not least at the pernicious effects of following the American example), and change was significantly checked by the victory of the right in the legislative elections of 1993. But the plain fact remains: Teacher education in France is now for the first time the business of the universities.

The experience of each of the three countries--America, France, England--therefore illuminates the perplexities of the others. In the United States, education (as a discipline related, among other things, to the education of teachers) is deeply embedded in the life of the university. But it is not comfortable there, its critics are noisy, its privileges are under constant attack, and its monopoly is being steadily weakened. There is much less reason at the end than there was in the middle of this century to hope, or to fear, that education would one day enter the pantheon of the human sciences or that its graduate professional schools would come to share the prestige of their distant cousins in medicine, law, or business. The French experience, on the other hand, suggests that--however strong the statist traditions--in the late 20th century the education and the training of teachers need to be associated with the life and quality of the university. Young people in France are now beating on the doors of the university institutes. But in France the primary responsibility of the core of the university is still seen as being academic training in a discipline: A university should do what, in Gallic eyes, it does best. The university institute is, to be sure, now part of that university world, but does not need to be dominated by, or even to include, social scientists who are neither specialists in the subject matter of what is taught in schools nor experts in the daily lives and needs of those schools. Training more precisely defined is the business of practitioners in and around the public schools, although now they too must work under the umbrella of the new institutes.

Teacher education in the States may be uncomfortable in universities, but it is very much there. In France it has only just been brought into the universities where it is taking root, albeit in a specifically French style. England, for its part, seems to have rejected the strong American example of the past and moved into the space just vacated by the French. In the words of two American scholars who have recently studied these matters in a cross-national context, teacher education in England is now without a home.

Vol. 14, Issue 15, Pages 47, 56

Published in Print: December 14, 1994, as Teachers and Universities: Vive La Difference
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