Commentary Magazine

The Education of American Teachers, by James Bryant Conant

From Ed. to Education

The Education of American Teachers.
by James Bryant Conant.
McGraw-Hill. 275 pp. $5.00.

It is mainly through the guidance of James Bryant Conant that middle America has been coming to terms with current educational predicaments. Every two years or so this good gray missionary of the public interest emerges from the dark regions of the schools with another report of troubles and travails and reassuring reforms. Having hacked his way through the jungle of secondary school curricula and traversed the gulf between slum and suburban schools, he has now come to the very heart of darkness—teacher education.

Dr. Conant and his staff spent one year investigating the teacher-training programs of some seventy-seven representative institutions, and another year studying certification regulations and the state agencies that administer them. He confined himself to the sixteen most populous states, which contain two-thirds of the population and produce about the same proportion of teachers. As the representative of the “broad public” to whom the book is addressed, Conant, with his sure sense of what is mainly true, has seen through the various partis pris of the educators and their critics, their squabbles over detail. Moreover, he has usefully noted some major areas of consensus—that teachers should hold a baccalaureate degree, that a period of practice teaching is necessary, and that teachers need more and better academic preparation. Beyond that, he perceives some obvious but frequently ignored truths: that most colleges and universities are involved in teacher education; that most “extension” courses and master's degree programs for teachers are a pious fraud; that reform cannot possibly come about through adjusting patterns of certification because the system itself is “bankrupt”; and, above all, that judgments can be formed only after a close look at what is going on in a particular state, at a particular level of education, and even within a specific field. His exposition of the involuted relationships among NCATE, TEPS, AACTE, and the NEA is masterful, although I have known and questioned several high officials of these organizations, Conant is the first to bring me any true illumination. The Education of American Teachers would be valuable solely because of the amount and reliability of information it contains.


However, its primary impact will come from Conant's twenty-seven recommendations, which he regards as an integrated program, so that all of them would have to be adopted to make any major improvement in teacher education. His central recommendation would take certification requirements out of the control of the state departments and give them to the individual colleges. Within this more open and rational framework, teacher training could then undergo a thorough revision. Individual colleges and universities would have complete freedom—and responsibility—for developing their own programs of courses for future teachers, using the resources of the “whole faculty” to provide a core of general education, followed by specialized training. The test of the new curriculum would be the status it achieves in the field and the performance of the students in practice teaching and, ultimately, in their own classroom. The role of the state departments of education would be reduced to such functions as approving practice-teaching arrangements, providing information about school programs and teacher supply, as well as enforcing the rule that teachers be assigned exclusively to levels and subjects for which they are adequately prepared. Elementary teachers would prepare—in rather different ways—either for grades K-3 or 4-6; secondary teachers would confine their preparation to a single field. All students would do their practice teaching under the supervision of a “clinical professor” appointed by the colleges for each level (elementary) or subject (secondary). (Small colleges unable to afford an adequate staff of these specialists would be expected to stop preparing teachers.) As usual, Dr. Conant's prescription includes liberal doses of money. In general, Conant wants to set up a more efficient shop with increased specialization and control of standards throughout. In theory at least, his plan would certainly come close to achieving that goal.


On the other hand, Conant has ignored a number of important difficulties, sometimes by blandly conscious choice. He refused, for example, to deal with the preparation of teachers of non-academic subjects or of those with administrative functions. Nor does he even acknowledge the existence of, much less the problems posed by, the hordes of ill-trained, poorly motivated teachers who would remain in the schools even if his recommendations were to take nationwide effect tomorrow. Other weaknesses result from this same lack of concreteness; it is difficult to visualize how his notion of the “institutional” endorsement of teachers would be effective in a state university enrolling twenty-five thousand students, or how the concern for institutional “reputation” would create and sustain needed reforms. Academics are usually far more concerned with the interests of their disciplines, departments, or selves than with those of the institution to which they are (often temporarily) attached. His chief idea of shifting the responsibility for determining course requirements for certification from the state departments to the colleges would certainly encourage some of them to experiment, but I suspect that most of the others would dully and cautiously maintain the status quo. As with various foundation-sponsored experiments in education, the net result might be a few teachers produced by model programs, some superficial reforms elsewhere, but little in the way of prompt and sweeping change. Nonetheless, such criticisms mainly raise problems of implementation that are not insoluble, and should not be allowed to obscure the main value of Conant's labors. After all, the book does give us the first really decent word on the subject.

But not the last. Working in a state and a college where many of Conant's recommendations are already in effect, I can say that: (1) they work; and (2) they do not solve the major problem. Inevitably, the very talents for quantification and abstraction that fitted Conant for his career as scientist-administrator also partially disqualify him as an educational thinker. Dr. Conant's heavy bias toward the first half of the Society-vs.-Individual equation permeates the whole book. His prose warms up only when he is describing an administrative arrangement, and the smell of chalk dust and the echoing playground shout are totally absent. His view of society—and hence of the classroom—is singularly joyless. The school is merely the long track along which the squirming young must pass to be processed and broken to the task of shouldering the burdens of vocation and citizenship. And despite his obligatory bows in the direction of history, Conant seems unable to imagine a future much different from the present or, for that matter, to perceive how the present differs from the past. This even distorts his calculations—his various graphs and tables fail to account for demographic and economic changes that will increasingly influence future education practices. Indeed, Conant's administrative (and dated) cast of mind is quite apparent throughout—even on the very first page, where he introduces the current conflict about teacher education as merely a “power struggle among professors,” as though no ideas were involved, no commitments beyond crass self-interest.

For that matter, he even has the sides wrong. The real “struggle” is not between the academic Dissenters versus the Established Church of education professors, school administrators, and state department hierarchies. What Conant misses altogether is the arrival of new men, both in subject fields and in professional education, who know and care more about what is happening and should happen in public-school classrooms than do either their older colleagues in the same discipline or the traditional educationists. They know that in education today almost everything is up for grabs—and that the issues and victories of yesteryear, with their mounds of accompanying ed. research, are becoming supremely irrelevant. They know that the object of education is to prepare one to meet demands that cannot be foretold at the time of education, as well as to impart some degree of mastery of the symbolic systems—verbal, mathematical, aesthetic—through which we grasp reality now. What Benjamin DeMott has said in these pages about the duty of the college teacher, “to teach new heavens and a new earth, to show his student into the world of Now, to drive himself toward that full consciousness of times which is the only armor left against mere irony or mere wanness,” is increasingly becoming conscious in the mind of the younger public-school teacher.

Who would want to enlist in Conant's gray army of Duty? Certainly not the brightest among our future teachers, who, capable of responding to Goodman, Mayer, Friedenberg, Lieberman, et al., look forward to their careers as something intensely personal and hence exciting. They seem to want for themselves the security of technical competence, a grasp of the best new knowledge, and the freedom to take certain psychic risks for themselves and their students. Starting from such a highly personal center they grope cautiously toward each other, toward a new vision of education and thus, perhaps, of American society.


The school in the coming decades may develop around one of two visions—as a factory or a temple. If the first vision prevails (and it is the more likely one, given Conant's book and its close relation to current trends), we may envision a fragmentation of the teacher's functions, with the more prosaic tasks being taken over by an army of para-pedagogical personnel. “Master” teachers of various grade levels or subjects will head teams of internes, audio-visual technicians, clerks, programmers, and testers, who will efficiently convey masses of information and concepts to masses of pupils. The alternative is to view the school as temple, as a holy place for forming self-determining individuals. The task of the schools would be to lead the individual child through successive encounters with imaginative and dedicated teachers who would give him an increasingly sophisticated picture of reality and some of the equipment for operating within it. The frightening thing about The Education of American Teachers is the author's inability even to conceive of the school as a temple, which means that his book can lead only to another half-reform that works to prevent achievement of a full one.

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