What I Learned at the School of Education

by Andrew Titus

Andrew Titus recently received his accreditation from Central Michigan University’s School of Education. With a high grade point average coming out of his undergraduate work, a year of foreign study, and a knowledge of Russian, he is the type of student whom, one would think, professors of education would want to send into the public schools. But Titus found that the curriculum for aspiring teachers was more concerned with correct attitudes than with genuine knowledge.

A few years ago, acting on a long-standing desire, I decided to become a teacher. I already knew a great deal about the state of public education, and felt some discouragement, but I had recently attended a seminar on charter schools put on by the Governor’s Office. Here was a context, I thought, where my ambition made sense, and within a month I had signed up for Central Michigan University’s “Introduction to Teaching,” a course offered by the teacher training program. “Introduction to Teaching” is, in fact, the foundation of CMU’s education curriculum.

When I took the course, it was taught by two professors, one of whom conducted a morning session of standard lectures, while the other conducted a “video tape laboratory” in the evening. I was astonished at how propagandistic this course was.

A substantial portion of class time—probably the greater portion—was spent, not on inculcating pedagogical skills, or in discussing the ethics of teaching, but in converting the students to a certain way of thinking.

A major thrust in “Introduction to Teaching” was to give students what I would describe as a “Peace Corps” attitude toward the public schools and, in particular, to get them to adopt a missionary state of mind toward public “inner city” schools. While critical of modern public schools generally, I nevertheless hold no specific brief against “inner city” schools; I merely thought it odd that, in a course described as concerning education generally, the emphasis was on the sociological conditions of America’s worst schools. Session after session was devoted to testimony by visiting teachers about the public schools and their special sectors. By contrast, there were no visits from private school, parochial school, charter school, or country school teachers. Those types of schools were evidently of no interest to the two professors who were running the course.

One evening, we watched a film—for nearly an hour—about how middle school children differ greatly from elementary and high school pupils. At its conclusion, the film urged students to sign up for middle school certification. Even though nothing in the film was objectionable by itself, disguising a plea, which might well be legitimate, for more middle school teachers as a lesson in cognitive psychology seemed to me to be needlessly tricky. Why not just say to the class: “There’s a need for more middle school teachers, here’s what’s special about middle school, and are there any takers?” But the incident typifies the education curriculum as I experienced it. Far too much of it is a come-on of one sort or another and far too little concerns knowledge.

Near the end of the course, we were given the assignment of making a collage about “our feelings on an aspect of education.” We were not, I add, asked to express our reasons for wanting to be teachers in a closely reasoned essay, or asked to define the role of the teacher in rigorous terms. We were asked to make a collage—in effect, a poster—about our feelings.

The low intellectual level of the assignment aside, responses to it showed the powerful effect that a semester of indoctrination had on students, most of whom are in their early twenties. (I am thirty years old, having resumed my education after a lapse of a few years.) Nearly all students conformed to the ideas espoused during the course, possibly because they had been exposed to no competing ideas, possibly because they sensed that conformity was the correct procedure. Grades of “A” and “A-” were awarded liberally.

I had chosen “discipline” as the aspect of education about which I would express my “feelings.” The centerpiece of my collage was a photograph that I had taken from an opera magazine showing an angry king scolding a lackey. It read: “It is the tone of voice that one remembers.”

Of course, like mathematics professor Alan Sokal when he submitted his nonsense article to Social Text, I was mocking the institutional assumptions. What I did was completely opposite to what was expected. Yet I, too, received an “A.” How could this be? It happens that the teachers of “Introduction to Teaching,” when I took it, were adherents of a doctrine that is known as process teaching. In this method it is not what a student produces that matters but only that something is produced. In completing the assignment—which I still regard as useless—I had “gone through a process,” and it was automatically assumed that I had learned something. The quality of my work was irrelevant.

The student who successfully completes “Introduction to Teaching” may enter the education department and follow the rest of the program.

The department has made matriculation very long and complicated. They have published, for several years, a 135-page book explaining their policies and the many stages of their program from “pre-entry” through student teaching. By comparison, Hillsdale College, whose program I investigated, explains their education curriculum in less than a page of their general catalog. Besides state mandated tests, CMU requires many of its own tests. You could say, “Oh, CMU imposes a stricter regimen than the state at large,” but the additional examinations aren’t additionally difficult, they’re merely additional.

There is one exception of a peculiar sort, the “Teacher Perceiver Test.” This is a formal, orally administered personality assessment of about 65 questions. A passing grade is fifty percent. But the criteria of judgment is not in any way objective. Rather, answers are classified as right or wrong according to their conformity to a statistical average of what “good” teachers have said in response to the same questions.

The first-time failure rate on this hurdle is high. But a passing grade is a requirement for entry to the program and the test may only be taken twice. A second failure locks a student out of the program permanently, a policy unique in the university. Again, you could say, “Oh, the educators are very careful about whom they admit to the program.” Well, yes, but their criterion is, quite literally, conformity to the existing orthodoxy. Dissenters hardly need apply.

Now it is possible even for a person of critical disposition to pass the test: He can memorize the “right” answers and deliver them the second time around, but it is an exercize in doctrinaire concession, not a measure of intelligence or ability, in my opinion.

The “right” answer for some questions is obvious. When asked, for example, “Are you organized,” one says, “Yes, I’m organized.” Follow-up questions probe sincerity, but, once again, in an obvious way, easy to detect. Other questions are more subtle. Some require a highly developed knowledge of “correct” classroom procedure or agreement with certain ideas in contemporary pedagogy.

In preparing this essay, I asked about fifteen of my fellow students whether they thought the personality test was a fair test of their ability as teachers. Several were taken aback by the question, wondering why I even bothered to pose it. When one student said that she simply “went through the motions,” she expressed a common sentiment that the test is a sham. One student said bluntly, “You just have to lie.”

Students do this because they must and because honest disagreement will get them nowhere.

Of course, the department justifies its matriculation requirements by claiming that it weeds out inappropriate students. I cannot speak to that, but I know of several students who have left CMU to earn their teacher certification elsewhere because they were revolted by the department’s admissions process.

In closing, I would like to offer some entirely unsolicited advice to CMU’s teacher-educators: Scrap the personality test and raise the grade point average required for admission; stop imposing contentless education courses on students paying a stiff tuition-fee and let them take meat-and-potatoes courses in their fields of specialization. If they did these things, the quality of Michigan’s teachers—the ones who come from CMU—would be greatly improved.