As a high school teacher approaching my third year, I look back in despair when I think about how little of what I learned in graduate school was actually connected to the craft of teaching or to what goes on in real classrooms. My experience in the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program at Ithaca College is a mirror to a larger trend: that today’s programs seem to focus more on indoctrinating prospective educators into the “social justice” faith, thereby creating more ideological homogeneity throughout the field. I post my story at Heterodox Academy in order to expand the discussion around the impact of intellectual orthodoxy in teacher-training degree and certificate programs.
At Ithaca College, the education department makes no bones about the fact that they expect prospective educators to be, first and foremost, activists and social justice champions–more so than teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers. Visit the department’s homepage, and after two social justice quotes you will see the following disclaimer: “We believe that true excellence in education requires a commitment to equity and social justice.” In fact, to even be considered for the M.A.T. program I had to take a prerequisite course for which the primary text was a book called Teaching to Change the World. This move towards “teaching as activism” is a trend I am seeing proliferate in the field of education, in addition to the humanities and social sciences.
Each course in the M.A.T. program started by criticizing No Child Left Behind, behaviorism, and other theories not currently “in vogue.” At the end of the program we were required to put together an “e-portfolio” explaining, defending, and essentially swearing an oath on the core values of the Ithaca College education department, with special emphasis throughout the program placed on the standards related to diversity and creating a safe learning space. When I asked questions about details or the efficacy of certain methods or philosophies, I was assured firmly and repeatedly that it was “best practice.” When I asked what “best practice” meant, I was told that it is what most scholars in the field believe is the right way of doing things.
I entered the M.A.T program at Ithaca College in 2013 because I expected to be trained in the art of teaching. That is to say, I expected to learn practical pedagogical strategies that would enable me to become an effective educator. Instead, what I got was a militant crash course in ed-psych theories like constructivism and sociocultural theory, and a series of pontifications on issues of race, gender, literacy, and second language acquisition. I also expected that since I was receiving an M.A.T. with an English concentration there would be some kind of rigorous immersion in American and British literature, or even young-adult or children’s literature. Not so. Instead we were required to take “Multicultural Literature” and “Global Literature.”
Throughout the 13-month program, we were constantly put through what felt to me like social justice litmus tests. My first presentation had to do with ensuring comfort and safety for gay, transgender, and other marginalized students. Another module involved a unit on understanding African American English–with the goal of convincing us that African American English has its own internal system of logic that often improves upon that of standard written English. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the amount of time we spent on these types of issues is difficult to justify. Teaching is a high-stakes, high-pressure profession. We are expected to teach five or more classes a day, advise clubs, contact parents, plan lessons, grade assignments, and, most importantly, equip students with the knowledge and skills they will need to survive and thrive in a complex world. A curriculum that focuses narrowly on diversity, cultural literacy, and identity politics does little to prepare prospective educators for the day-to-day realities of the job.
Such narrow-mindedness is not just bad for viewpoint diversity and intellectual curiosity, but by pushing teachers out in the world who are generally unprepared to deliver high-quality instruction, the result ends up being even worse for students. When teacher-preparation programs work like corporate “diversity training” sessions; when theories of inclusion and problems like institutional racism are the main focus; when teacher-preparation is disproportionately geared towards urban students, English language learners, and special education students–teachers enter the workplace bewildered by classroom realities and, as a result, tend to be intellectually unfit to help any students reach developmentally appropriate learning objectives. Teachers need to develop specific pedagogical skills in graduate school, including strategies for classroom management, principles of fair grading, awareness of common student mistakes, and procedures for text-selection, as well as deep levels of content-knowledge. These things were only briefly and tangentially covered at Ithaca College.
During student teaching, whenever my lessons were observed or critiqued, the criticisms leveled were not focused on my command of the material, my presence, or my ability to convey information, nor were they questions about my ability to engage students or plan lessons. The criticisms I received were almost always about some “implicit bias” or slip of the tongue, some unconscious stereotype or microaggression. One example will suffice: While teaching S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to 8th graders, I introduced the class to the actor Paul Newman, a 1960s heart-throb and celebrity fixation for characters in the book. I then briefly mentioned his charity work with Newman’s Own. After the lesson, my professor told me that my comment may have referenced “privilege” and “alienated some of the students who were poor and likely could not afford to buy Newman’s Own products.” The irony is that the rural town in which I taught this lesson only has a few restaurants, the cheapest being McDonald’s–which exclusively serves Newman’s Own coffee and salad dressing. This punctilious language-policing was a daily regularity in our program, and our constant awareness of it produced a frustrated hesitancy in our teaching, as well as an Orwellian dullness in our verbal expression.
Now lest I sound like a disenfranchised conservative, I should add that I consider myself both a pluralist and a liberal democrat who is passionate about free speech and expression. I teach both 10th and 12th grade English, in addition to a college philosophy course for juniors and seniors. I am just as comfortable teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X as I am Macbeth. In my philosophy course, we discuss a weekly current event article, and we have studied and debated some of the most controversial topics imaginable, such as third wave feminism, tattoos, race, marijuana, income inequality, affirmative action, and even Haidt and Lukianoff’s pivotal piece in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” My students were shocked by this article. They could not believe that “adult” college students wanted safe spaces, free speech zones, trigger warnings, and administrative protection from words and ideas that might oppose their worldview or make them uncomfortable.
As a class, moreover, I suspect that the spirit we created together throughout the year–fostered by an atmosphere of critical thinking and maturity–has empowered and emboldened my students. They have seen first-hand what active discourse and a free and open marketplace of ideas can do for their own learning of difficult theories and concepts, and it has given them a sense of confidence and self-sufficiency. Most students do not want to be seen as victims; they want to learn. They want to examine ideas thoroughly and consider them from multiple and varied perspectives. Increasing viewpoint diversity among faculties at schools of education will be a big step forward in toning down the current ideological indoctrination and will help prepare teachers to truly master their noble, chosen craft.