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?

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