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Lower-Middle Classroom

The Education of American Teachers

by James B. Conant
McGraw Hill, 228 pp., $5.00

Dr. Conant’s new book sets a high stylistic standard for administrative documents. It is bland, slightly tart, and absolutely clear; at times lightly personal, never contentious, often convincing. Its calm and precision are surgical; the surgery proposed, however, is not radical, but extensive and superficial.

This superficiality is a consequence of Dr. Conant’s conception of the subject as an administrative problem, rather than a moral and social one. Indeed, within this framework he could not have done more, nor done it more scrupulously. He and his collaborators spent a year of a two-year study visiting seventy-seven colleges and universities in twenty-two states. These schools graduated in 1962 27 per cent of the teachers granted degrees in those states, or about one-fifth of all the teachers graduated in the country. Dr. Conant himself visited fifty-two of these institutions, including the one in whose Department of Education I was teaching at the time. I remember very clearly the care with which those of my colleagues who were to confer with him were selected, and the satisfaction with which they later reported their encounter. What Dr. Conant knows about the preparation of teachers, he learned at the horse’s mouth. It was probably the safest place to stand.

This is, above all, a practical book devoted to shrewd observation of the structure and content of the teacher-training process and pragmatic recommendations for improving it. Dr. Conant manages to avoid both theoretical insight and social controversy with traditional American good-humored disdain. By focusing sharply on teacher training, to the exclusion of any consideration of the way students, schools, and society are related to one another, he manages to avoid scholarship: he cites none of the significant social, anthropological, psychological, or economic studies bearing on the schools and their function, but uses only descriptive and demographic data.

This is paradoxical, because Dr. Conant’s book is much more than just a survey. Its neglect of social dynamics is matched by a contrasting perception of, and sensitivity to, the political dynamics of American education. Thus, one of the best things in the book is the clarity with which it describes the complex relations among the various self-appointed accrediting agencies linked to the National Education Association, which compose the American educational establishment. Conant traces the precise pattern of their influence on state educational policy. This is a very important matter: Those who protest most against NCATE1 and TEPS2 seldom say exactly what they do and how they do it. Dr. Conant, who protests too little, completely dissects the power structure which controls the accreditation of teacher-training programs, in about three strokes. Similarly, his analysis of the consequences of the “approved program” approach, by which state departments of education grant or withhold approval to an institution for teacher-training without stipulating its program in terms of credits and hours, is masterly. The “approved program” approach is generally accepted as giving the institution more freedom than do licence requirements that specify particular courses. Conant shows that in fact it often does not:

The problem is inherent in the structure and composition of State Departments of Education. Even the best of the Departments include few persons with significant amounts of experience in college teaching or administration. Most of the Department staff is made up of experts in public school administration, curriculum design, or the teaching of some subject—music, mathematics, foreign language, physical education, etc.—on the elementary or secondary school level. Rarely is an experienced college teacher of educational psychology, educational history, or philosophy of education included; and it is even more unusual to find a college teacher of English, history, mathematics or science…. After a brief visit, the Committee makes its report and recommendations…. Ironically enough, the reasons given for withholding approval are never those I would consider most important. A college is never told that a careful evaluation of the actual standards of teaching and grading on the college campus proves them to be of very low quality; that careful testing of the college’s graduates showed them to be still too ignorant to teach; or that in observing its candidates actually teach, the state Department found them incompetent. This type of question is never asked, not only for political reasons, but also because of difficulty of measurement.

This passage illustrates Conant at his best; but also, I should say, at his most profound. His strength lies in understanding how things work; and on that basis he makes crisp and decisive policy. He meets the situation just described with an eleven-point recommendation, the core of which is stated in its first item:

For certification purposes the state should require only (a) that a candidate hold a baccalaureate degree from a legitimate college or university, (b) that he submit evidence of having successfully performed as a student teacher under the direction of college and school personnel in whom the State Department has evidence and in a practice-teaching situation of which the state Department approves, and (c) that he hold a specially endorsed teaching certificate from a college or university which, in issuing the offical document, attests that the institution as a whole considers the person adequately prepared to teach in a designated field and grade level.

In the succeeding chapters of the book, Conant develops in detail his recommendations for the college teacher-training program: the basic principle of which is to make available what, in his judgment, would be most useful to the teacher as technician. Practice teaching, certainly; and Conant recommends the establishment of a new kind of clinical professorship of teaching in particular fields, to serve as supervisory liaison between the school of education and the public school in which practice teaching is done. Subject matter, emphatically; Conant goes through this field by field for both elementary and secondary teachers, and stresses as a general proposition that “we should endeavor to recruit our teachers from the upper third of the graduating high school class on a national basis.” (Italics his.) This, however, would make less difference than Conant seems to think. A very large proportion of college graduates, and hence of those who become teachers, are already drawn from the upper third of their high school class; and teachers, being mostly lower middle class in social origin, make their high school records in mediocre high schools, which are quite numerous enough to lower any possible “national basis” for comparative evaluation of high school records. This is what happens now. The young people who become teachers do well enough in high school; later, they help to make the high school the kind of school they did well in, and in which students with their constrictive lower-middle-class patterns of value and behavior most easily succeed.

Education courses? Conant goes to great lengths to defend colleges and college departments of education against the general and bitter condemnation with which other critics—most notably and recently James D. Koerner in The Mis-education of American Teachers—have approached us. While, as a member of this target group, I am grateful for Dr. Conant’s courtesy, it seems to me that it not only softens his criticism, it deflects it. Koerner’s intemperate and biased book gets closer to the issues than Conant’s does. Koerner deals specifically with the pretentious and self-righteous vulgarity that so frequently color the practice of public education in this country; and with the hostility to intellectual distinction implicit in the way the public school defines its commitment to equality. These dismal and grievous faults are indeed reinforced by the “Educationist” (as Koerner calls us) ideology, though they do not have their source there. Conant simply does not raise such offensive questions. Yet the recommendations of both men would have strikingly similar consequences. Both would sharply curtail the influence of the NEA and its counterparts at state level, eliminate prescriptive licensing requirements, and restore substantial autonomy to colleges and universities in teacher preparation. Both would retain and emphasize practice teaching; and both would eliminate most of the present course offerings in education—especially those at the graduate level, as they are now conducted—or transfer them to the hands of persons trained in academic disciplines, such as psychology or sociology. Conant’s proposals appear less drastic than Koerner’s, because they are made without anger by a man almost over-anxious to give to us Educationists credit where due. Koerner sounds like Herakles trying to clean the Augean Stables, while Conant sounds like a Wildlife and Conservation official who recommends that a few valves be opened and others closed, so that the waters will be redirected to encourage trout and eliminate the breeding places of what conservationists call “coarse fish.” But he does not dislike coarse fish personally; Koerner does.

As one of the coarse fish, I find my enthusiasm for both books tempered by a combination of critical judgment and enlightened self-interest. But I prefer Koerner; there really is a coarse fish problem, and he faces it. Conant avoids it by a curious maneuver.

In our own society…the education of a leisure class is no longer an issue; and now the use of the adjective “liberal” to denote the content of an educational program can only add to confusion. One of my friends…has pointed up the issue as follows: “…A liberal education, one might say, is a process begun in childhood, carried on through a varying number of years cess of educating liberally is not conembraces…. Accordingly, the profined to the classroom and is not circumscribed by the subjects of study or the experiences which may contribute to it.”

In accordance with this view, I should like to urge that “liberal education, if the term be used at all should be used in reference to a person rather than a program of study…

And with the completion of this paragraph, Dr. Conant dismisses liberal education as a useful concept in planning the preparation of teachers. But its clear implication, surely, is that no formal program of collegiate education can affect the performance of teachers as strongly as their upbringing and general background; and subsequent criteria for selecting the more competent among them must still make do with what is available. In short, one of the things Dr. Conant should have been considering all along is what kind of people become teachers and where—in the old illiberal sense—they come from.

Liberal education is not the education of a leisure class, but of free men. From our grubby, Protestant-ethic viewpoint, the most striking thing about an aristocracy is that it does not have to compete for status and a living. But the social function of an elite is to preserve and express the values in a culture that are constantly threatened by petty social and economic pressures; and liberal education is designed to teach it what those values are and how to protect them. It seems very riskly for a mass society to vest this crushing responsibility entirely in the hands of nine elderly attorneys.

Teachers ought to be our first line of defense—indeed of attack—in the maintenance of dignity and freedom; and preparing them to be so is a fundamental function of teacher education—assuming that it is not too late by the time they get to college. As the schools now function, teachers are too often a profoundly illiberal force: easily threatened by exuberant intellectual activity, so hostile to sexuality that they punish youngsters for wearing form-fitting clothes or walking down the hall holding hands, and terrified of a public opinion that a liberally educated individual would take to be impertinent. Conant himself calls the first “component of the intellectual equipment that would be a prerequisite to the development of teaching skill” the “democratic social component”; and asserts that “Public schools and the teachers in those schools are charged with the responsibility for developing certain attitudes.” But he never considers what, in the public schools of today, those attitudes have become; though E. P. Torrance, Patricia Sexton, Jules Henry, and other competent social scientists who study the way schools function, see this as crucial in assessing their role in society.

Perhaps the best way of discussing a book like this—as valuable for what it includes as it is distressing for what it ignores—is to supplement it. The heart of what Conant omits is conveyed in a single essay by Herbert Gold “A Dog in Brooklyn, A Girl in Detrott, A Life Among the Humanities,” an account of the experience which led him to renounce college teaching in a lower-status metropolitan university. In this short piece, he shows the consequences of entrusting the humanities to a clientele more interested in using them to qualify for a teaching position than in understanding what they mean. The piece might have been called, but fortunately wasn’t, “The Education of American Teachers.”

  1. 1

    National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education

  2. 2

    National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards

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