Stories, Learning & Place

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Forgotten Heroes of American Education
   Putting teacher education first

George Will’s recent call for the abolition of teacher education programs stirred up all the old debates.

Who will teach, and how will they be prepared? This really is one of a handful of fundamental questions America should seriously wrestle with. It’s important enough that we should be drawing on the riches of our cultural heritage, reading thoughtful books from the past. What we lack is not new ideas so much as wisdom. 

You’ve probably noticed that relatively little that is said today about “teaching” has much to do with teaching. Much of it has to do with how we might re-shape or interact with the bureaucracies we’ve built. It’s easy to be completely absorbed in the present, trying to untangle knots we ourselves have made.

We see flyers for workshops that will show us how to comply with Special Education law or No Child Left Behind requirements. We read about legal strategies to force legislatures to dance to tunes ordered by courts. Articles about new schedules or new team organizations land on our desks. Noisy debates about charter school effects on this or that population jostle for attention. We get caught in arguments about merit pay or vouchers.

Much of it is necessary, but little of it is essential.

What is essential? The best way to get a sense of that is to leave the clamoring present and spend time considering the arguments of the past. The more one does that, the better sense one gets of issues that--in various forms--are always present. Those are the enduring concerns--the essentials.

An up-to-the-minute place to start might be with a new book by Diane Ravitch and Wesley Null: Forgotten Heroes of American Education.

In an interview at, Wesley Null introduces the argument of the book: theories of progressivism have led Americans to place diminished value on teachers, curriculum, and standards. This has weakened teacher education programs, which need to have a “coherent, morally defensible, and intellectually substantive vision” for their curriculum restored:

Teaching teachers is a crucial part of the educational ladder that stretches from the gutter to the university? that Aldous Huxley talked about. This ladder has been broken in half. It has been broken economically, culturally, and politically. Only 50 years ago in this nation we had entire institutions dedicated to teaching teachers. They are now gone. These were the teachers colleges. Well, they abandoned (or at least radically marginalized) the profession of teaching when, like everyone else, they began to hanker after money, purely intellectual prestige (instead of moral prestige), and power. Teaching teachers is the most important task that any institution of higher education does.

Of particular interest to Montana teachers, one of the “forgotten heroes” they call attention to is William C. Bagley, who began his career in teacher education by taking a job in “frontier” Montana--he taught for four years at the Normal School in Dillon, just before 1910.

Throughout a fifty year career, Bagley tried to integrate the subject-matter disciplines, the techniques of teaching, and the moral purpose of education. He called his approach essentialism. He believed students should wrestle with the essential insights and methods of the established academic disciplines. “Gripping and enduring interests frequently grow out of initial learning efforts that are not appealing or attractive,” he said.

According to Diane Ravitch, the essentialists believed that common schools should not decide whom to educate, and they sought federal aid for education to promote equality of educational opportunity long before doing so was popular. The essentialists criticized Progressivism for being anti-intellectual and utilitarian. They championed the liberal arts tradition.

The main ideas of essentialism include:

  1. Learning involves hard work and often unwilling application.
  2. The initiative should lie with the teacher rather than with the pupil.
  3. The heart of the educational process is the assimilation of prescribed subject matter.
  4. The school should retain traditional methods of mental discipline.

Here’s an article about Bagley (which includes a sketch of his Montana years):

J. Wesley Null, William C. Bagley: Scholar, Gentleman, and Committed Educator of Teachers,? In They Led By Teaching, ed. Sherry L. Field and Michael J. Berson (Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 2003), pp. 6-17. (PDF)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/12 at 06:08 AM
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©2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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