“Another time I fought the professional Educationists, the most dangerous, wasteful, and thoroughly ignorant single group in America. They creamed me, of course. I got twenty-seven of them fired, before I was through, but in the end they creamed me. If I’d had time I’d have gotten them all, every one. But one never has time finally, and in any case they weren’t really the heart of the matter, I realized later. If the public wants cheap and worthless education – not schooling but a sop for the public conscience – someone will come to provide it.” – The Sunlight Man in The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner
FOR NEARLY FORTY YEARS I HAVE had strong misgivings about the “Education” courses that students are required to take in order to qualify to teach in elementary and high schools. I think it is a serious problem so hidden from view that it is very seldom mentioned anywhere although almost everyone who ever attended college is aware of it. Colonel Haydon’s article in the November, 1977 issue of the Johns Hopkins Magazine stimulated me to publish a slightly expanded version of his manuscript under the title: “Capital E Education; Bah, Humbug!” and also to try to sort out my thoughts on the matter.
When I started to college in 1939, I went to a teacher’s college. I think the only degrees that they gave were in Education. I was too ignorant to know that; I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an academic discipline called Education. (Not that it would have made any difference in my decision to go to that college. I went there because I got a workship that enabled me to go. I would have gone to Peppermint Patty’s obedience school if it had been called a college and had granted me a workship.) The whole point here is that I was entirely innocent, meaning ignorant, and had no notion what a college course would or should be like.
Since it was a teacher’s college, I was required to take courses in Education, and in particular I was required in both semesters of my freshman year to take a course called “Introduction to Education.”
I was completely bewildered by the course and by the teacher. The textbook, so far as I could tell, dealt with the obvious, the trivial, and the useless. I mean there was little in it that seemed worth knowing from either a practical or an intellectual standpoint. The most notable thing that I recall was a whole chapter devoted to discussing the fact that some schools were divided into eight-year elementary and four-year high schools and some were divided into six-year elementary, three-year junior, and three-year senior high schools. The rest of the book was worse.
The teacher was an ignoramus. Haydon spoke of teachers using improper English; this teacher talked the language, Appalachian illiterate, of the elementary students in my hometown when they were not in the classroom. His grammar was so bad that it was hard to believe that he’d been to school at all. It was rumored that he had gotten his position on the faculty through political pressure, and it is quite possible that he was the unemployable brother-in-law of a Kentucky legislator. (I know that political pressure could be exerted on the school because my workship had been obtained by just such a method, but that’s another story.)
After a year on introductory Education, I had a course in “Educational Psychology” that was almost as bad except the instructor was a man of some imagination and humor. Also he could speak our native tongue. About all I recall of this course is that when we turned in our final exam the instructor told us to write on the cover of the exam book the letter grade we thought we deserved. I had not read much of the textbook because I had to budget my book buying to the ones I thought essential so there were a good number of questions in the exam that I could not answer, but I unhesitatingly wrote an A on my paper as the grade I thought I should get. As it turned out everyone got exactly the grade he asked for. (I guess there was some education in that experience, somewhere.) I’ve always wondered how well the grades fitted the normal distribution curve.
Now I knew from the start that I wasn’t in Princeton or Yale so I rather dismissed my Education experiences as being part of a bad college though many other departments in the college were respectable by my standards then and now.
After a sojourn in the army I went to the University of Kentucky, still no Princeton or Yale but a lot better than my first school. I had pretty well forgotten my Education experiences and never took another course in the subject. But I soon became aware that at the University of Kentucky any student who couldn’t cut the mustard in mathematics, physics, engineering, or almost anything could transfer to the Education Department and get along swimmingly. In graduate school the disparity reached the level of a joke.
Many people must go into Education for the compelling reason that they cannot get by in their first-chosen fields. Haydon’s example of the quick and easy degree is repeated thousands of times yearly at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It is a field that seems to be designed to garner the lower level of college students. Unfortunately, that lower level is woefully inadequate for important mental tasks.
Obviously I cannot say that Education Departments are this way in all colleges, but it was certainly true in the few I have attended. There is certainly a virtual unanimity of opinion among non-Educationists.
I disagree with nothing Haydon said in his article, but our assessment of the situation is a bit different. It is unfortunate that a person of his academic standing is not permitted to teach in public schools, but I believe we must have some formal qualifying procedure for teachers. In Maryland, at least, we must maintain some protection from our politicians. We can’t even trust our governors – our last two are felons. How could we possibly trust our school superintendents to hire teachers on the basis of merit?
My major concern about the Education situation is that I think it does cause the brightest young people to turn away from teaching. It’s not everyone who can put up with the nonsense that passes for course work in Education. Think what hurdles we erect for would-be teachers. Teachers are paid rather poorly, they are less respected professionally than a barbershop owner, and they are subjected to years of garbage in order to get their certificates of qualification. If it weren’t for some factors mentioned later in this article, it would be a wonder that we have any teachers.
One of the worst effects of the Education requirements is that it makes it unlikely that the people who run our schools (principals, superintendents, and administrators) are very bright. It’s not as if their jobs were easy or simple. The problems that school principals have had to face in recent years would curdle milk. It seems a little strange that we have qualifying procedures that tend to reduce the level of capability of people for jobs that most of us would not know how to handle and certainly have no wish to handle. Is it any wonder that principals so often take the very action that makes a bad situation worse?
Haydon’s description of the course content: “ridiculous” is quite apt. Education courses have the intellectual challenge of a PTA meeting. In fact they may be good training for the interminable PTA meetings that are inflicted upon hapless teachers.
The only Education course that even looks as if it might be beneficial is “Practice Teaching.” In every college I know of, this course has been turned into a nightmare of nitpicking and paperwork. Probably nothing is so discouraging to would-be teachers as “Practice Teaching.”
One of the unfortunate effects of majoring in Education is that it is likely to turn one into an anti-intellectual who has contempt for knowledge and scholarship in all fields. If you spend years in a field where the course work is ridiculous, it becomes very easy to believe that all education (no capital) is the same, and therefore we are likely to find Educationists displaying contempt for education (no capital). That’s why they have the nerve to tell specialists how to teach their own subjects, and why they do not think competency in any subject is of much importance for a teacher.
In private correspondence Colonel Haydon took me to task for saying that I thought nothing could be done about the situation. As a matter of fact, except for one small ray of hope, that is my view. After all, everyone who has been to college is aware that Education courses and Education degrees are a scandal and have been for many, many years. So it is unlikely that there will be any sudden uproar simply because the problem is being pointed out.
Further, the Education business is dominated by, and is under firm control of, the stupids. Once any field or organization falls under leadership of the stupids, it is almost impossible to redeem. I don’t mean that everyone in the field is stupid. I know several who are very intelligent and, in fact, had a college friend who was very bright who deliberately went into Education. When I argued with him about his choice, he said it was an important field that badly needed people of some intelligence who might change things. I have long since lost track of him, but I’ll bet that he’s found out that it’s not true that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” That’s not the way the stupids operate; they always protect themselves. They grind people of intelligence into small bits and spit them out. And unfortunately there is no cure for stupidity – it’s permanent.
How did they get control of the field? Most likely it was through the fact that there is not enough valid subject matter in the whole field for two years of courses, and thus the field is almost unbearable for normally intelligent people.
Once an organization falls under the control of people from the bottom of the barrel, there is no reasonable way it can be wrested from them; a major upheaval is required. Now, there is a major change on the horizon in education – computer assisted instruction may virtually eliminate the classroom and will certainly alter the teacher’s role. Perhaps in this changeover Educationists will lose control of elementary and high school education. I’m not very hopeful.
No group of people that I know of seems at all likely to attempt to alter the present situation.
Ordinary students who want to be teachers take Education courses purely and simply because they have to, and they suffer through Education in the same way they do some other required courses they know are merely a waste of effort. Once they are through it, they have little interest or thought of changing anything. Most of them probably never want to hear of it again. If they think of it at all, it is probably considered as a four-year hazing as a part of their initiation into the teaching fraternity.
The ordinary citizen is concerned about school only as long as his children are involved. He sees it as a temporary problem like his required attendance at PTA meetings and is relieved when it is no longer a personal problem. There’s small hope of any outcry of the public against Educationists.
We are often told that we get what we deserve. Note the quote from John Gardner on the reverse of the title page. A case can be made that we really don’t much like our children. More likely, we simply treat them as we do any powerless group. For example, it is a law that all new automobiles must have seat belts. A casual inspection will show that the most dangerous passenger vehicle in America is a school bus – no seat belts required. Your dash is padded so that if your head is thrown forward you will meet some crushable material – the school bus rider has typically a steel pipe (the top of the seat in front of him) to hit his head against. Your car must protect you from whiplash with high seat backs or head supports – the seat backs on school buses are always low. Malice, neglect, or indifference?
As you might guess, Haydon’s article in the Johns Hopkins Magazine brought letters of approval and protest. Several of them were printed in the January 1978 issue.
One Educationist wrote that Haydon’s experience was limited to a controlled environment (the military) and the gifted or highly motivated students of preparatory schools. He said that in such circumstances “an instructor can spew out exciting details about his/her specialties with disregard for concerns that plague the majority of America’s teachers.” And his letter went on to say, “It can be argued that the knowledge gained by gifted and/or motivated students under Haydon’s rules would be limited, specialized, and possibly irrelevant.”
From the “spew” of the above statement it is evident that this Educationist cannot believe there are any “exciting details;” most likely he believes that the subject matter of all disciplines is as dull and emetic as his. The last quote in the above paragraph might well be considered a prototype for an Educationist’s argument. At first blush it seems to say something, but let’s look a little further. I don’t know what he means by Haydon’s rules or where he got them, but let’s ignore that and the statement reads that the knowledge gained by the students would be “limited, specialized and possibly irrelevant.”
First, we may be sure that it would be limited – Haydon nor anyone is going to give students unlimited knowledge; second, it is undeniably specialized – Haydon is a history teacher and would therefore not include mathematics in his lectures; and “possibly irrelevant” is a rather shop-worn buzz expression that is meaningless. By the time buzz words get to the clergy and Educationists, they are normally old enough to sound quaint. If you want to say meaningfully that something is irrelevant, you have to say, or at least imply, to what.
In court scenes in whodunits lawyers are forever shouting, “That’s immaterial and irrelevant,” but it is understood that they mean irrelevant to the trial in progress, not absolutely irrelevant. It is true that history may be irrelevant to a student’s background, home life, inclination, well-being, and mental health, but presumably if a school offers a course in history, history should be taught in that course. It will not help to have a teacher who is not well grounded in history. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but the quotation we have been examining is exactly the kind of nonsense I found so infuriating in Education courses. It’s enough to drive a reasoning man up the wall.
Why in spite of the obstacles do we have a continuing supply of teachers? And in spite of Gardner’s quote, one can observe that they seem to be better than we deserve. First, there are many fields of study, Colonel Haydon’s history for example, where most of the people trained in the field can only hope to practice it by teaching. Bluntly, we have them in a trap. Second, teaching seems to be a natural thing for a person to want to do. However little the community respects teaching as a profession, it satisfies something within a person and allows him to feel that he’s doing something beneficial and worthwhile. A teacher may become cynical about his job, but at least he knows that he’s not trying to do active harm to society as many of the more respected professionals are. Self-respect is no mean thing. In many ways teaching is man’s finest endeavor. Here I mean the passing along of skills and information, not the hassle of behavior problems, paperwork, and extra-curricular activities that can turn actual teaching into a nightmare.
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Having presented, with stops pulled out, one side of this matter, I will entertain contrary opinions, especially from people who have no printing press, for possible publication in the Boxwooder. This offer is not made so much in the interest of fairness as from curiosity.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is News Gothic. Initial is a gift from Jim Walczak. Paper (a very easy paper to print on) is Hammermill Ledger (not Hamilton as erroneously reported in Boxwooder 105). Edited and published by Jake Warner and 520 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.