Dismantling an Unstable Discipline: Education without Foundation

“Whether we are willing to admit the role or not,” Lou LaBrant wrote in 1943, “schools cannot escape responsibility for some share in determining whether the peace which comes will last” (p. 225).

As the U.S. approached the mid-twentieth century—after decades of vibrant debate about the purposes of schools, the promise of universal public education—LaBrant and many progressive educators remained optimistic, if not idealistic, about the power of formal education to create broad social change.

LaBrant mused about the teacher as scholar, demanding from herself and other educators very high expectations for content knowledge and pedagogy among teachers. And she also “advocate[d]…that we attempt to develop the kind of students who can themselves make a world of peace even though we do not give them the pattern” (p. 228).

Over seven decades ago, LaBrant called for embracing authentic critical thinking over basic transmission of knowledge:

What I started to say was that we must not depend upon presenting a body of facts, useful as facts are, but that we must in our classrooms constantly remember that it is thinking about facts which is the important thing, and that this is as true in science and English and mathematics as it is in history or economics or the arts….(p. 229)

But she added:

Thinking is not sufficient. We must also have people who are accustomed to work with others (not against them), and who know that regardless of color, religion, clothing, occupation, or skills, people can work together….Teachers who are themselves striving to find answers will lead children toward those answers. (p. 229)

My career as an educator has spanned from the early 1980s until today, but my classroom practice and educational scholarship have much deeper roots, ones richly grounded in the history of U.S. education that was made real to me by the life and career of LaBrant.

Having taught from 1906 until 1971, LaBrant wrote her memoir as she approached 100 years of age, brushing aside the back-to-basics movement under Ronald Reagan as something she had witnessed herself twice before throughout her career as an English teacher and university scholar.

LaBrant’s last decade was spent in the first decade of the current accountability era, but even as her eyesight faded, LaBrant saw through the facile political and bureaucratic rhetoric and policies that now define the field of education, a discipline that was never very robust but which is now nearly completely dismantled.

Education, A Discipline Denied

During a video-taped interview of LaBrant for Missing Chapters, LaBrant claimed that despite having been born in the 1880s she had never experienced any sexism.

Of course, she was an exceptional woman in many ways, and had achieved many accomplishments that during the early twentieth century were stereotypically male endeavors. But primarily, LaBrant was always a teacher, and being a teacher has been historically and continues to be a profession and discipline of women.

Currently, as John Warner writes, education remains plagued by sexism—as demonstrated in the low pay and dependency on adjuncts to teach composition, about which Warner highlights while attending a composition conference: “The attendees were also overwhelmingly female.”

There was no Golden Age of education as a profession or discipline, by the way; once again, something the study of the history of education reveals. But since the progressive era of the early to mid-1900s, when LaBrant published frequently, the steady bureaucratization of education has eroded any chance that education as a discipline could rise above teacher training and sit among the core disciplines in the academy.

Published years after Joe Kincheloe’s death by co-editor with Randy Hewitt, Regenerating the Philosophy of Education examines the disappearance of educational philosophy in education degrees and certification programs.

Standards, standards everywhere—it seems—but not a spot to think.

And now, Stephen Sawchuck in Education Week reports:

Once an ubiquitous course requirement that nearly all aspiring teachers took, the history of education seems to be going the way of land-line phones, floppy disks, and shorthand.

Crowded out by an ever-expanding teacher-preparation curriculum in the latter half of the 20th century, such courses are now almost exclusively electives reserved for graduate education students, according to scholars who have documented the decline.

To put it simply: Is the history of education, well, history? And more to the point, does that matter?

Increasingly, then, education practitioners and scholars are watching our profession and our field being bled of all the essential elements of either a profession or a field.

Education without philosophy is education without a mind.

Education without history is education without a past.

While there is much hand wringing (and little action) about the so-called corporatization of public education, there is little being done to save education as a discipline. And soon it will be too late.

Absent philosophy and history, education will in fact be mere technocracy and will be easily managed by temp workers (TFA, adjuncts) and technology (on-line education).

Absent philosophy and history, no one will be asking if that should happen, no one will be demanding the big demands that LaBrant and other progressives yearned for in the quickly dimming 1930s and 1940s.

Yes, I am here to fight to create the sort of universal public schools we have so far failed to produce, but I also am here to fight for education as the discipline it has never become.

“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” LaBrant wrote in 1961, but could write the same today, continuing:

By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. (p. 390)

Finally, LaBrant built to—and speaks to us now:

“They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (p. 291)

5 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    The pressure is worse today than it was in the 1960s and the 1980s, and most of that pressure is coming from a handful of billionaire autocrats with political and religoius agendas that all lead to increasing their wealth and power. These psychopaths want the world rebuilt their way.

  2. howardat58

    Your last extract (p.291) should be carved into the wall of every classroom.

    “… freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others.”

  3. Shirley Ende-Saxe

    Thank you. Six words (and thoughts about Vonnegut and Carlin) are something I’ll remember, “inevitable inadequacies of the human heart”.

  4. Pingback: Purging U. S. Education History: Ignoring Past Mistakes and Successes

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