The Miseducation of American Teachers, by James D. Koerner
The Miseducation of American Teachers.
by James D. Koerner.
Houghton Mifflin. 360 pp. $4.95.
Dr. Koerner’s book is the latest, and quite possibly the best, in a long series of attacks on us educationists and our imputed control of the apparatus of American public education that began with—to make a somewhat arbitrary choice—Canon Bernard Iddings Bell’s Crisis in Education in 1949. A more direct ancestor of The Miseducation of American Teachers is Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands; for Bestor is a founder and principal intellectual source of the Council for Basic Education, of whose board of directors Dr. Koerner is currently president. Dr. Koerner develops Bestor’s position further, and, as the title of the work implies, focuses it on the quality of teacher preparation provided by education courses at both graduate and undergraduate levels.
Dr. Koerner finds that quality extremely low, and considers that required training in professional education—as distinct from general education or the courses in the teacher’s particular field—probably does more harm than good. The education courses drive out more useful material by sheer bulk and are intolerably repetitious, banal, and trivial. They also actively miseducate through the vulgarity of their basic assumptions and language; and they keep able students who are unwilling to risk grievous and protracted intellectual insult from even trying to become teachers. Worst of all, educationists establish a flaccid, sentimental, and fundamentally anti-intellectual ideology as orthodox and rebuke any effort to clarify objectives or improve their intellectual quality.
Educationists, moreover, constitute in Koerner’s view an Establishment—though what he describes sounds more like a conspiracy. State licensing authorities collaborate with education faculties to maintain their vested interests by requiring their useless offerings for certification; a huge lobby, the NEA, and a paramilitary arm, NCATE (National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) protect this hegemony and punish deviations from the ideology. We, the educationists, utilize this support to demand even more credit hours in education than the unjust law provides. We are not deterred or embarrassed by having no subject matter of our own to offer; Dr. Koerner sees us as magpies, thieving from the nests of psychology and history—he does not seem to be aware of sociology as a discipline, referring only, and pejoratively, to “social sciences”—or as cowbirds, laying our own eggs in those nests.
But birds we are, of a feather; and the birds are what education courses are strictly for. “This book,” Dr. Koerner writes as the first sentence of his fourth paragraph, “dealing with one of the most controversial and most protean areas in education, pretends to no scientific detachment, either in conception or execution.” This statement is the first of many incontestable truths in the book.
Neither Dr. Koerner’s complaint nor his viewpoint is particularly novel; but this, I think, tends to justify the book rather than detract from it. It is ten years since Bestor’s Educational Wastelands was published, and if the abuses he discussed had been adequately corrected, Dr. Koerner’s book could not have been written. In fact there has been little effort to respond, and Dr. Koerner is justified in reopening the issue. The whole matter is of the greatest importance in American education, both because the public schools are the foundation of subsequent academic and intellectual development and, in their present state, perhaps the major limitation upon it; and because, as Dr. Koerner points out, schools and departments of education are in themselves the largest single component of the American academic enterprise:
Professional Education constitutes a considerable industry. It is the largest single field in higher education. It awarded 143,000 bachelor’s degrees in 1962, about a third of all those awarded by U.S. institutions. It produces more doctorates by far, 1,500—2,000 a year, than any single field.
Serious weakness in so large a part of the body is obviously cause for alarm. Yet weakness is generally one consequence of hypertrophy; and Dr. Koerner sees the growth of professional education as cancerous in its disorder as well as in its magnitude. Coming to the heart of the matter, Dr. Koerner writes as follows:
It is an indecorous thing to say and obviously offensive to most educationists, but it is the truth and it should be said: the inferior intellectual quality of the Education faculty is the fundamental limitation of the field, and will remain so, in my judgment, for some time to come. Although a number of able men are to be found, as I have said, in Education particularly among the younger people, their number is minute in relation to the whole. Moreover, there is still a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through the typical Education staff, despite their increasingly frequent apostrophes to academic quality.
Dr. Koerner’s procedures are careful and scholarly; he is meticulous in describing them and in citing sources on which he has depended. Most of the abuses he complains of, moreover, do exist and are serious as any intellectually honest “educationist” must grant. Yet, for these very reasons, I find it hard to explain why Dr. Koerner has not written a better and more penetrating work.
My own response to it seems to me odd. There is first the shock of agreement. There is the more cautious and reluctant recognition that the critic has got his facts right, but also the sneaky awareness that, since he is an outsider, he still doesn’t know that things are even worse than he says they are, and a thoroughly selfish hope that he never finds out. But withal, there is an underlying sense that he hasn’t got it right; that his whole frame of reference makes it impossible for him really to understand what is happening or basically why. Koerner on educationists seems as wide of the mark as Sartre or Brecht on the Deep South—not very wide, really; only just enough to miss.
Part of the reason is that he is blinded by his own contempt for us and all our works. He samples textbooks widely used in education courses, and justly deplores their triviality and bias; but he does not refer to the texts that cite original research of high quality in a format that encourages analytical and original attacks on educational issues. There are a number of those in my own field (educational sociology), of which the most recent, W. W. Charters, Jr. and N. L. Gage’s Readings in the Social Psychology of Education is a model. This is a book of readings, most of which are complete reports or summaries of significant research of high quality organized around topics like social class and family influences, school desegregation, student relationships in the classroom, teacher-student interaction, student motivation and teacher control, the American teacher, and adults in the school and community. This is by no means innocuous material; in fact, the research reported here, taken all-in-all, provides a basis for more fundamental and precise criticism of American public education than any Dr. Koerner offers. But such a book simply cannot be accounted for in his scheme, which maintains that the research we do is trivial and that we have no subject matter of our own.
Some of the contributors to Charters and Gage are “educationists”; many are sociologists and psychologists and could therefore be cited as evidence for Koerner’s position. But Koerner himself recognizes that nobody maintains that the mind functions differently in school than elsewhere, or that the school as a social institution is a law unto itself. Educational psychology and educational sociology courses, or courses in the history or philosophy of education, are not offered separately because they involve a special psychology, sociology, history, or philosophy; when they are said to, as Koerner correctly notes, they become meretricious. But with so large a proportion of students taking these courses as a part of their preparation as teachers, it seems sensible and economical to organize them around and with special reference to the school and its activities. Whether they are offered by sociologists, psychologists, or educationists seems to me unimportant, so long as the instructor is qualified. Dr. Koerner, however, would bar persons whose graduate work has been in professional education, and who have no recognized qualification in an academic discipline, from teaching courses, such as the above, “that are derived directly from the academic disciplines.” Some of Dr. Koerner’s most sensible strictures are directed against the rigidity of current accreditation practices; and how higher education could be improved by extending them further I cannot see. The issue clearly hangs on what is meant by “recognized qualification”; he is certainly correct in observing that many educationists accept responsibility for academic assignments beyond their intellectual means. But this must be dealt with by more discriminating faculty policy, not by further bureaucratization.
Dr. Koerner does not trust educationists enough even to permit them the normal administrative functions associated with their jobs. “School systems,” he warns, “generally delegate to administrators the basic responsibility for hiring teachers and in doing so often abdicate their responsibility for defining the qualifications they want their teachers to have.” Elsewhere, he complains that the doctoral dissertations of these administrators may have dealt with custodial functions and their graduate work probably included courses in school-bus scheduling. He is right to object to this kind of training, but if administrators had as little responsibility as he would leave them, it might be their best preparation.
Yet the important thing about The Miseducation of American Teachers, surely, is that what Dr. Koerner complains of is so largely true. The book, being innocent of social analysis, does not tell us why it should be so. But it provides a number of clues to readers more interested in understanding and less anxious to condemn. One of Dr. Koerner’s most cogent passages asserts:
Although there are no precise criteria defining when a field is or is not a profession, the condition of the teaching field does not even measure up to such gross standards of professionalism as these: exercising significant control over the caliber of people entering the training programs, establishing standards for admission to professional associations, policing its own ranks and guarding against abuses, administering qualifying examinations to graduates of approved programs before admission to the field or creating some other means for insuring minimum competency on the part of its members. . . . Whatever else teaching is, it is not yet a profession. . . .
No, it isn’t; and knowing that it isn’t, Dr. Koerner ought to have done more than he does to draw inferences from some of the most interesting and revealing data in his book. These are the comparisons, presented in Tables IV and V, of the “academic profiles” of graduates of teacher training programs in liberal arts colleges, universities, and teachers’ colleges (or former teachers’ colleges). Quite uniformly, on all the criteria that Dr. Koerner finds significant, the liberal arts colleges offer better programs than the universities, and the universities better ones than the teachers’ colleges. Better for Dr. Koerner means more liberal—more semester hours offered to liberal studies and fewer to education courses.
I, too, believe that this would be better. But these data, in view of Dr. Koerner’s recognition that teachers are not a profession, ought to be enough to reveal to him that what he is dealing with is not just the ideology of a special interest group. What he is confronting is a massive set of social class characteristics. For the most part, the schools, along with their prevailing values, the language and customs of their personnel, represent lower-middle class life in America; there is a wide range, but this is the norm. Educationists, too, as Dr. Koerner justly observes, are more likely to represent this way of life than are members of the more liberal faculties; and this is especially true in the liberal arts colleges. In a school primarily devoted to teacher education even the liberal faculties tend to be of this stamp.
But it is absurd to blame school administrators because the schools are shabby-genteel and vulgar, or for being so themselves. The history of the schools and their present social function require it. The schools must continually support the absurd insistence of an open society that institutionalized instruction can turn anybody into anything regardless of his earlier (pardon the expression) life-experience. The entire staff of the Riverside Chapels, granted carte blanche, could not have produced in Pal Joey the semblance of the Dartmouth graduate he pretended to be—and neither, unfortunately, could Dartmouth. But it comforts us to treat as casual the one status characteristic that can be most widely, though crudely, counterfeited—education; and to expect it to make up for all the subtle and informal learning that has already been missed, or that may have made academic experience incongruous.
Public education proceeds on the assumption that plastic ivy is just as good as real. In some ways it is better. It can be mass-produced and installed anywhere; and it can be made so strong that any number of people can climb on it without destroying it; if it gets dirty it can be sterilized. We “educationists” are part of the plastic ivy system; and our presence in the Halls of Ivy must be tolerated in order to legitimate the public school system. If we are rejected as an unconvincing fake, the common people of America will be forced to face the fact that the kind of education they can fit into the lives available to them under our social and economic arrangements really is not going to get them anywhere much. This might be a factor tending toward social instability.
Dr. Koerner, of course, maintains that we are the not-very-efficient cause of this futility; and suggests that we be replaced with real ivy. But real ivy does not flourish in the anti-intellectual climate of American public life, and it does not easily take root in the pragmatic dirt that covers the foundations of American public institutions. Nor is it very well adapted to the task immediately at hand. The critical problem of public education at the present time does not arise from any academic failure, but from its inability to accept, discipline, and imaginatively conceive the lives and potentialities of lower-status students to whom the traditional form and content of liberal education are as foreign as Japanese. It is still possible—I should say probable—that a liberal education would contribute more than the professional curriculum of education to the solution of this intensely human problem, which must be attacked in humanistic terms rather than as an exercise in group dynamics. But Dr. Koerner’s own reliance on comparisons between the numbers of semester hours of preparation in “academic education” versus “professional education” suggests too limited a conception of liberal education to support its use as a truly liberalizing force that could be brought to bear on the existential plight of all students, academic and non-academic alike. This, I believe, is the only use of academic preparation that is fundamentally relevant to the public school teacher’s job, today.
The difficulties of public education, then, are too deeply rooted in their social context to be attacked as the consequences of Establishment policy. If we were turned out of what Dr. Koerner regards as the seats of power tomorrow, our successors, be they all specialists in Chaucer or the history of the Renaissance, would still be obliged to do much as we have done. What would be of more help than trying to loosen the hold of “educationists” and deploring bitterly the difficulty of doing so, would be to strengthen alternatives to it. Along these lines, recent proposals to allow students to designate the school of their choice, whether it be public, private, or parochial, as the recipient of the funds the state would in any case provide for their education, seem to me the most direct and promising way of helping students to escape our thralldom; and of forcing “educationists” to deal respectfully and realistically with the actual capacities and tastes of their students. In particular, it would end our hegemony over the poor, who would thus be provided with the equivalent of a scholarship and could apply it to an education less devoted to cleaning them up and teaching them to mind their dress and their language and more to developing their tremendous wasted human and intellectual potential. It is paradoxical that a nation so terrified of creeping socialism that it cannot even care for its sick and aged, and that would rather subsidize individual farmers to produce a perpetual glut than control agriculture by public policy, should be so chary of providing any public support for education independent of the Establishment that Dr. Koerner so sharply criticizes.