Education Is Not a Discipline

Bill Roden

It’s a temperate but busy autumn campus. Sunny, no chill in the air. Football season—“Hook ‘em horns!” heard on the radio and on the sidewalks of the University of Texas at Austin. While groundskeepers for the Longhorns prepare stadium turf, across the commons doctoral students, ages 25 to 50+, from John Roueche’s twelve-credit course in his Community College Leadership Program (CCLP), cinch up their mountain-climbing gear. 

These are students preparing for careers as administrators of America’s community colleges.  How does a would-be community college dean or president get ready for the ascent to the academic heights? 

Helmets secured, ropes connected, they practice their “climb” for their trip to a local park, a course requirement, established by the endowed professor John Roueche.  His two other endowed senior professor colleagues tag along. This climb embodies “teamwork,” an exercise in esprit de corps demonstrating how, as practicing community college administrators, graduates will work to keep each other connected, networked, and employed. Folding chairs will be set up facing a low, rocky, hillside so the professors can enjoy the park tableau of pseudo-mountain climbers, giving their recitations of how each classmate represents an important member of their cohort, or in the CCLP, their “Block.”   

Later that week, back on campus, one of the doctoral professors arrives with forty or so paperbacks and piles them in front of his students in class. He preens around the pile to show how much he has read this past year: Angelou, Morrison, and others.  Quantity replaces quality in this sixty-year old post-graduate program. Later that day, his other colleague will sing to the class, the two of them “lecturing” in community college administration throughout the semester, offering follow up by telling hands-in-the-pockets war stories. 

I witnessed the mountain climbing and the ersatz lecturing ten years ago.  Back then, the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Getting on the Fast Track to Run Community Colleges,” 12/14/01) questioned the rigor and theory in the CCLP, the reliance on anecdotal research, and pointed out that Roueche was adept at “wooing Texas oilmen and willing foundations”).  Alas, all good things come to an end.   The Chronicle recently reported (see “For Profit University Hires Leader in Training Community College Leaders,” 5/31/12,) that the CCLP will be shut down.   Its scholarship funds are low and ever fewer students are enrolling: four this year, compared to the fifteen to eighteen in years past.  

Why did such a silly program ever get started in the first place and how did in endure so long?  It is easy enough to blame Professor Roueche and people like him who stepped in to fill a void.  But I think that’s a mistake.  The deeper problem is the void itself: the idea that “education” is an academic subject in its own right apart from the substance of the disciplines that teachers actually teach. A math teacher needs to know math, first and foremost.  An English teacher needs to know grammar and literature.  Beyond this, a teacher needs to acquire practical skill in teaching. That skill isn’t to be taken lightly. Some would-be teachers never get beyond a rudimentary level, while others excel. And teaching is clearly a skill that people learn.  It doesn’t appear unbidden from out of the blue.  But it is one of those skills that develops in the context of performing it, not in the classroom—and not climbing park slopes in mountaineering gear.  

We can, of course, theorize about education, as we can theorize about any activity.  But such theorizing has little value for practitioners.  The theory of pitching a softball doesn’t put one over the plate, and the theory of a golf swing doesn’t put the ball on the green.  

Early on in the 19th century normal schools (taken from the French teacher training institutions, the Ecole Normale Superieuere) were established to prepare women for careers in teaching. Normal schools were strictly second-tier institutions, inferior to traditional liberal arts colleges in entry standards and the scope of their curricula.  Individuals were trained to be teachers. Normal schools required an eighth grade education to enter and occupied that gap between high school and college. 

The normal school emphasis on pedagogy made them close kin to trade schools:  they taught students how to do something practical and offered no pretensions to making “education” an academic discipline. This didn’t mean they lacked a sense of pride.  Horace Mann regarded teacher schools as a key step toward improving the quality of schools.  In time, however, advocates for teacher training entertained larger ideas. John Dewey and other “progressive” educators grafted in the conceit that teaching could be improved by turning teacher training into something greater—a combination of theoretical psychology and philosophy. We have been living with the heady consequences of this ever since. Among other things, it put normal schools on the path to redefining themselves as colleges, then as universities. 

Today, of course, with few exceptions, to teach in a public school, one must graduate from a school of education and become certified. This applies as well to school principals and superintendents. The Ed.D and PhD are now the coin of the realm to qualify one to lead a school and ultimately a college. 

The actual programs by which aspiring principals and other administrators acquire their qualifications combine banality with sometimes derisory content.  Ed schools today promote the research of such topics as the “Effects of note cards on achievement and motivation,” “the role of churches as a forum for sex education,” and “the appeal of the Internet for young girls.” 

Nature abhors a vacuum, and ed schools, which are rather akin to vacuums, must fill the place where standards, proofs and cogent arguments might exist with something else. Education courses for the budding college leader explore “student centered learning,” the student cohort model, team building, and “hands-on activity.” 

“Student-centered learning” means whatever the latest campus consultant wants it to mean, much like “developing critical thinking skills.” In the absence of efforts to identify ideas with substance, college and university strategic plans suffer. Statements about mission and vision are compilations of clichés. 

Back to community colleges, which were long held to be the place for nontraditional students to begin their college careers. That’s become less likely.  Many are now limited to offering massive remediation programs to uplift the sagging literacy of their incoming students. Education graduates, now deans and presidents, continue to look for solutions, with precious little understanding of their own.  Ed schools don’t offer roadmaps to help their graduates distinguish what is worth learning from what isn’t.  As a result, their graduates turn like weathervanes to the prevailing ideological winds:  multiculturalism, social justice, sustainability, whatever.    

A recent survey of community colleges, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” declared, “If community colleges are to contribute powerfully to meeting the needs of 21st-century students and the 21st-century economy, education leaders must reimagine what these institutions are.” The national project, touted as a “landmark study,” was commissioned by the head of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), who is a former UT “blocker” himself. Many members of the commission who enabled the costly survey also graduated from the UT school of education and applauded patently obvious observations that, for example, point to low student achievement as a problem, for the need to work with industry. 

These leaders have no theoretical substance upon which to draw to judge the survey’s results, given their “prestigious” doctoral program awarded credit for driving speakers to the airport, attending evening functions and keeping journals. As doctoral candidates, they had been exposed to PC-driven stories from Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and “war stories” from their minority professors, which apparently enhanced their education department courses in politics, economics, ethics, and sociology. 

I’ve singled out “education” as a superfluous field in American higher education—one that exists for no good intellectual or theoretical reason but which serves the interests of practitioners who seek to be recognized (and rewarded) for their professional credentials.  Surely the same criticism could be leveled at other quasi-disciplines within the academy, such as business and social work, and in subsequent posts I will expand on this theme.

Bill Roden has served in higher education as professor, dean, college General Counsel, President and Chancellor. He recently returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he spearheaded a successful US accreditation effort for campuses of the UAE's Institute of Applied Technology. Bill also retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the JAG Corps. He currently teaches online for a law school in California and consults for higher education. Email: [email protected]

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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