Saturday, February 28, 2009

“The End of Education”: Will the Social Foundations Stand Up?

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Teacher Education, the editors—Dan Liston, Jennie Whitcomb, and Hilda Borko—offer a provocative editorial on “reclaiming the role of social foundations in teacher education.” They suggest that teacher education has become overly instrumental, calcifying into a “growing professional orthodoxy.” Even if that orthodoxy is seemingly “progressive” and “child centered,” the editors suggest that teacher education should demand more than a narrow and singular vision for what teaching and learning should be. The editorial is seemingly prompted by the ever-expanding emphasis on the ever-decreasing vision of what constitutes appropriate teacher preparation. In turn, the editorial calls for a re-engagement with the liberal arts (through the social foundations) that can provide a more expansive and reflective and critical take on the multiplicity of perspectives of what constitutes education.

This vision, the editorial acknowledges, has massive obstacles: the progressive master narrative can be dismissive of alternative perspectives and countervailing arguments; the visions propounded by foundations may be sorely lacking in preparing prospective teachers for the realities of the classroom; accrediting standards shortchange foundational perspectives and theorizing; the self-marginalization of foundations faculty; and the utilitarian approaches of alternative routes that make little, if any, time for deep and careful reflection and critique.

(I of course have quibbles with some of the specifics of the editorial. For me, the social foundations are about much more concrete and varied aspects of the schooling process: the role of schools in a democratic society (philosophical and historical foundations), the relationships between school and social change (multicultural and sociological foundations), and the perspective of school as an organization (anthropological, political, and legal foundations). Moreover, the readings held up as exemplars (Parker Palmer, Sam Intrator, Tom Barone, Mark Edmundson), are, for me, inspirational texts much more so than foundational texts. Give me some good classics anytime: David Tyack and Larry Cuban on the grammar of schooling; Phillip Jackson on the hidden curriculum; John Ogbu on voluntary and involuntary minorities; Audrey Thompson on whiteness. This makes my students not just “reflect”; it helps them to act in new ways by helping to break the cycle of teaching as we were taught and thinking in the default narrative of radical individualism. But these are “insider” debates. Let me stick to the big picture of the editorial.)

In one respect, this editorial is an extremely useful support for and an acknowledgement of foundations faculty and the field as a whole. It suggests to me that the acrimonious and fruitless debates about the relevance of teacher preparation have somewhat cooled off, enough at least to take a step back and see what has occurred in teacher preparation since NCLB. It also indexes current broad debates about the value of a “liberal arts” perspective in all too-instrumental times.

Yet such support is also saddening. It reminds me of when politicians start speaking in superlatives of their opponents; as the political pundits will tell you, such good words are a sure sign that the other candidate is done for and everyone in the room knows it.

The marginalization of the social foundations in teacher preparation has been long in the coming. It has been a combination of self-marginalization and external pushing and prodding. See my past posts on marginalization, CSFE, the role of AESA (here also), and writing (here and here also), as well as those of many others, to see the context for this. Suffice it to say that the social foundations field (as embodied by AESA) has no voice at any major educational policy table that I am aware of. It is no longer a part of NCATE; it is no longer a part of AACTE; the last comprehensive study of the state of the field of social foundations was done in the mid-1980s; CSFE, the policy arm of AESA, has been more or less defunct for half a decade. Though, I know, I know, the history of the field has seen such ups and down from its very beginnings (see, for example, Mary Rose McCarthy’s wonderful history of the original foundations course at Columbia).

This is not about throwing stones or settling grudges. Rather, my post is about wondering whether this editorial is a call to action or a call for an elegy.

I am not naive enough to think that this one editorial is the tipping point, the fulcrum, the moment in history that will decide whether the foundations field succeeds or fails. But if JTE and its editors put forward this call, shouldn’t someone stand up and answer them?


A. G. Rud said...

The cultural foundations of education are better appreciated by older, returning students. They can reflect upon their work and contextualize it with the help of the old saws like Plato, Dewey, and the other, newer, livinng folks you mention. But your eloquent and thoughtful post has a simple unexamined assumption: That people are reading books and serious essays. There is plenty of evidence that they are not. The audience of book buyers for serious fiction, or even any fiction, is mostly middle aged women. For younger people it is even more scant. Look at Rebekah Nathan's remarkable anthropology of a freshman year at AnyU. _My Freshman Year_. Students at AnyU (NAU Flagstaff as it turns out, but could be most anywhere) don't read books. Many of us don't read enough books either. I spend most of my time reading emails, reports, dissertation drafts, blogs, drafts of colleagues, and such. And not to criticize today's students and clear one's geezer throat of spit, these kids today don't appreciate the classics, brrrmph, cough, cough. It is that many of them, as Nathan perceptively points out, are too busy with part time work, part time school, social life, juggling course, and such to have the time or inclination to do so.

AESA and other such conferences are nice times to reflect and chat and present and comment on each others' papers. As you point out, such activity by higher education scholars has little to do with what is valued or even understood by the general public, much less teachers and administrators.

Fine post though, and raises many issues I don't have time to think through thoroughly!

Craig A. Cunningham said...

This is an extremely important issue, Dan (at least for us foundations folks), and I thank you for bringing the editorial to our attention. But just in the short conversation among JTE, you, and A.G., there seems to be multiple disconnects about what even COUNTS as social foundations. Is it Parker Palmer, Larry Cuban, or John Dewey? One can't do everything, so every foundations course (especially those that are required--if any--of those studying to be teachers) have to be focused on's hard to "focus" on the liberal arts in ONE course (!!!!)...and in the struggle to remain relevant (and keep our jobs), foundations people try to "serve" the needs of the larger teacher-education effort, even if that is somewhat instrumental, or "calcifying into a 'growing professional orthodoxy.'"

Yes, "teacher education" should "demand more." And thank you to JTE for saying that. But what I'm hearing from teacher education faculty is that the wider social expectation that new teachers can hit the ground running (so-to-speak), knowing, for example, how to conduct an effective literacy curriculum, leads those faculty to want even the social foundations course to support those vocational goals.

A.G., of course people aren't reading serious books and essays. (You and I spend way too much time trying to figure out how to keep up with the younger sets newer forms of communication... :-)). I don't think the excuse that they are "too busy" is the best explanation...people (like us) make choices about how to spend their time...people aren't CHOOSING to read serious books or essays...the question is why this particular activity has a low priority for people.

But there's a REALLY important element to your comment, A.G.. More seasoned teachers get more out of social foundations than preservice teachers. We need to find a way to tap into their ongoing professional development needs...I think that's more fruitful ground for us than the ever-instrumentalized arena of preservice teacher education.

So, how do we get ourselves situated to be preferred providers of professional development to veteran teachers?

Dan W. Butin said...

Good points, Craig and A.G. The issue for me, though, is not what we read or don’t read per se. I’ve framed the foundations as one of three types of change that teacher preparation should encourage: the opportunity to learn (methods); the opportunity to practice (practicum); and the opportunity to change (foundations). ( When it happens I really don’t care; which is why I completely agree with you Craig that we are missing a really important point of helping experienced teachers through in-service and professional development. Aaron has written lots about this as well. Finally, in terms of buying into the instrumentalism; that, to me, is a theoretical and empirical cull de sac. See Eric Bredo’s nice analysis of this:

A. G. Rud said...


I have seen some interesting ideas and some beginning research asking whether the Internet has shortened our attention spans. I believe many of us multi task and thus cannot focus for a long time on one thing, and that may be due in part to the Internet and other forms of electronic communication and information sharing.

My only sabbatical I remember fondly for reading Don Quixote. Aside from the pleasure of that task, I certainly thought Cervantes needed a good editor! There was lots of stuff that I or any red-penned editor would have slashed, and ole Miguel would not have gotten that book published today in that form and length.

But that aside, I was able to relax and savor the book on sabbatical. Why? I chose it, naturally, but I also had the time to do it. Many of us, even if we are not administrators, have our time controlled by other things and other people, and we *can’t* choose to focus on a book. We may be too tired after a day of work to read text.

And too few of us take the time to explore other interests on our free time, such as a sabbatical, choosing instead to distract, or engross ourselves, in multiple activities or to pack a sabbatical as just more "work." But the role and use of sabbaticals is a topic for another time!

A. G. Rud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Flanagan said...

Interesting discussion. I agree with A.G. that older students--especially career-changers pursuing new opportunities in teaching--are more likely to appreciate the necessity of studying educational foundations. They're further away from the K-12 stream than traditional students, and have likely had to do some deeper thinking about education as a pursuit and field of study--things like the impact of policy or reasons why the schools their children attend are unsatisfactory (or terrific). Perspectives.

I work with a group of novice teachers who are moving from lucrative careers at a large corporation into teaching. They have lots of misconceptions about what happens in schools to debunk, largely around the "all public schools are failing" myth--but they consistently report that their education coursework (including foundations and philosophy classes) are valuable.

As for the assertion that teacher education wars are abating, I offer the following quote, from an EdWeek On-line Chat this week. The Chat guests were Michael Horn and Clayton Christiansen, authors of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns." Is this an example of cutting-edge thinking (the book claims that half of all formal learning will take place on line, by 2010)--or just two hucksters trying to capitalize on what they see as a window of opportunity to sell on-line "content?"

Clayton Christiansen: "A common misconception of on-line learning is that it happens out of schools. We believe that most on-line learning will happen within our schools, transforming teachers' roles from crowd control and monolithic lecturing, into tutors that work with individual students.

If history is any guide, the leading schools of education will resist the need to change the way they prepare tomorrow's teachers. We think it will be institutions such as Teach for America that lead the way. Rather than expect the Ed Schools to change, creating disruptive institutions and mechanisms for teacher training offers a much higher probability of success.

Sherman Dorn said...

Liston et al. are comforting in one way, praising the importance of keeping humanities and social-science perspectives in teacher education. But while I wince in recognition at some of their description, I think they're missing a few important parts of the picture.

One is the pressures on teacher-education to shrink, reduce, and bowdlerize--something that is self-reinforcing because it reduces specialization. In some colleges of education, turf battles serve this cannibalistic function; I don't understand this, since the claim that "I read Dewey 20 years ago, so we don't need a philosopher of education," or "I read Lincoln and Guba, so let my department teach 'qualitative research'" undermines the claim that teaching involves professional specialization. But that happens even without internal cannibalizing when there is a cram-down of credit hours. Gotta get rid of something.. oh, well. There goes social foundations. There goes curriculum theory. There goes educational psychology. Oh, no -- we teach it all in one three-hour course. Don't worry. And assign a T.A. for it... as I said, a reinforcing dynamic.

The second is the status dynamics within and without teacher education. Part of the denigration of colleges of education comes from the history of teaching as a woman's occupation, and that is both inside universities an outside them. But marginalizing social foundations rids teacher education of some of the more creditable links to the liberal-arts disciplines.

Erik said...

Thanks for the link to this editorial. I also enjoyed your post and the comments above.

I can't help but wonder if there is a larger assumption underlying this discussion, namely that teachers actually play a meaningful role in defining the larger goals of education, curriculum development, etc. In other words, are everyday teachers even a part of these discussions which in many ways, are the focal point of the social, philosophical, and historical foundations of education?

It seems to me that they are not, at least not in a particularly meaningful or influential manner.
I think the politicization of education has meant that it is policy makers that define goals, curriculum etc. and it is up to educators to merely teach it. I also wonder if this lack of participation in broader philosophical discussions only serves to reinforce this relationship, not to mention the notion of teaching as a vocation.

Thus, while I agree with the editors that teacher education has become overly instrumental, I wonder how effective social and philosophical foundations coursework will be if future teachers are not meaningful participants in these types of discussions once in schools. While I would still argue for its inclusion in teacher education, namely because I think practice that is not grounded in theory(ies) is relatively lost, I think the role of teachers in defining the goals of education, curriculum, etc. is the larger issue in terms of teachers becoming professionals.