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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/June 1909/Training College Teachers

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 74‎ | June 1909

TRAINING COLLEGE TEACHERS
By W. B. PITKIN

NEW YORK CITY

YOUR American is quite willing to admit that his children, on commencement day, are not what they should be, but he is sure that he and his fellow taxpayers are not to blame. They support twice as many teachers as saloonkeepers. They have built all the machinery of education. Never were more kinds of schools, never better equipment. If, therefore, a college president were to sigh over the scarcity of good instructors, your American would not understand. He would say:

You have your buildings and your professors and your students. You offer graduate work for all who would teach. You even have teachers' colleges. And I see many young men of exceptional attainments becoming college instructors every year.

And probably the college president, too, would join in his mystification, or—what amounts to the same thing—repeat "nascitur non fit," and fancy the shortage explained. But the machinery is not complete, as either party may discover when asked to point out the exact process of training college teachers. Suddenly it will appear that there is no such process.

Every other sort of teacher is being broken in. Normal schools are swiftly filling elementary and high schools with men and women who can manage not only their subjects but also their pupils. A teachers' college prepares its students

for university and college professorships or instructorships in education; and for work as supervisors, principals and superintendents of schools, and as heads of academic or educational departments in normal and teachers' training schools; as well as professional training, both theoretical and practical, for teachers of both sexes for secondary, grammar and primary schools and kindergartens; and for special teachers of such technical subjects as domestic art, domestic science, fine arts, manual training, music, nature-study and physical education.

"Professorships in education," but no classes for ordinary professors who would educate! And so everywhere else. The university specialist is drilled for research and for the management of graduate classes during the years of his doctorate and later assistantship in laboratory or library. But where does the college teacher, the man who is to teach freshmen English and economics, pick up the tricks of his trade?

If he ever picks them up, it is by chance or cleverness and in spite of obstacles. The special knowledge he is to impart he gets well enough —perhaps too well. The collegiate post is approached through the doctorate. In the later stages of this way, he is sometimes allowed to correct examination papers, lead quizes, and, if his professors are kind, even give a course of lectures. But usually this last boon is reserved for the days of assistantship, when, left to his own resources, he takes charge of a brawling roomful of sophomores. Of pedagogy knowing only the name, he sets about instructing by the method of trial and error; and the result is mostly trials and errors. The holy law of individualism locks the door against the professor who might be tempted to stroll into the beginner's class-room and help him along. But, if he were only left alone at his teaching, he might hope to pick up practical wisdom in a few years. He has not even that good fortune, though. If not by word, then by attitude, his colleagues often discourage him from becoming a "mere teacher." There is earnest in the old jest: "A college would be a fine place, but for the students." Our young instructor sees his seniors' names at the head of articles in his technical journals and they spell: "Go thou and do likewise!" At department conferences, problems of economy and research are broached, but beyond the broader question of schedules, text-books, periods and general manner of treatment, teaching is untouched: Is it because even the professor thinks his colleague nascitur non fit, and so dares not advise him for fear of insinuating that he is not fit? Be that as it may; pedagogy is suppressed as by a. censor and investigation exalted until the university habit is set in grooves too deep to leave. And the freshman is left a foundling in inhospitable or palsied hands.

The results of this familiar unbalance are so grotesque that the writer, for one, would not believe them save on the evidence of his own eyes and ears. One instructor, whose researches have been a credit to his college, makes his freshmen learn the French for all parts of a full-rigged ship—and this, too, after he has taught several years. A scientist, with an important investigation half finished, turns his undergraduates into laboratory assistants; and, when confronted by a complainant committee, is honestly thunderstruck to hear that nobody is getting anything out of his courses. A mathematician of international repute lectures to his beginners on the great controversies of the geometers since Descartes. And a student assures me that, in the second semester of freshman German, he was set to translating "Macbeth" into the tongue of Goethe.

Let us not berate anybody for such absurdities, least of all the teachers themselves. Their pedagogical ignorance is due neither to slovenliness nor to neglect, but is a more or less inevitable incident in the great turmoil through which all our educational ideals, methods and means have been and still are passing. The hour calls less loudly for criticism than for a remedy. And the sky has cleared enough to bring the latter into sight. Though the purpose of college may still be beclouded, and though there is still much fighting in the dark over the curriculum, at least two things are pretty sure: first, within fairly wide limits, it makes little difference what the undergraduate is taught in his first two years, provided he is really taught;[1] and, secondly, teaching is not a trick that any man can pick up for himself. These two facts leave us with only one thing to do—train graduate students to be college teachers.

Our normal schools and teachers' colleges have proved this possible. They are turning out excellent high-school teachers, and, if that can be done, then at least good teachers for the first two undergraduate years are makable. The difference between high school and college is narrowing. The National Association of State Universities, in its efforts to create a Standard American College, aims to "differentiate its parts in such a way that the first two years shall be looked upon as a continuation of and a supplement to the work of secondary instruction, as given in the high school." Let us restrict our problem, then, to the making of a freshman and spohomore faculty. If we can furnish this much, the rest will be easy.

There are many reasons why the normal school should not be called upon to do this for us; but the chief one is that the institution offers no opportunity for genuine apprenticeship. And without apprenticeship, training is greatly hampered, as the normal schools themselves have learned in the case of the high-school teacher. To the college, then, falls the training. The larger universities must offer it in a graduate school, and somewhat after the following manner.

1. A three-year course, of which one year shall be given over to pedagogy and two to actual teaching, shall lead to a doctorate. I trust the pedagogy needs no explanation. The two practise years, however, may. They find their defense in the axiom that the only way to learn how to teach is to teach. And they find their excuse in the fact that the young teacher is a necessary evil. An ideal college, to be sure, would have, say, a professor ordinary for every freshman class of fifteen; but not even Mr. Rockefeller is willing to finance such an institution. And not all the money in the world could make all college instructors finished scholars. So surely as teachers must be born and bred, just so surely must the undergraduate always suffer more or less from immature instruction. But he will suffer least if led by young men who are engrossed, not in writing a thesis, but in their class work.

The course of training I suggest should lead to a Ph.D. in order to attach the same dignity to the expert teacher that now attaches to the skilled investigator. This means, of course, a sharp break with tradition. The doctorate has always stood for original work, discovery, scientific attainment. It has generally been assumed that these virtues are superior to those demanded of the man who at once imparts knowledge of a special sort and shows to growing minds its wider bearings for the building of character and the perfection of culture. This is, nevertheless, pure superstition; the sooner we smash it, the sooner will business and professional men cease to look down upon teaching, and the sooner have no ground for saying that the academic career attracts inferior men. Let us frankly rate teaching as a specialty on a par with those now pursued in graduate schools; it will prove not only just but, I think, excellent diplomacy.

2. The candidate for such a degree shall specialize in some general subject. His first year shall include the elements of teaching (if these have not been mastered in undergraduate courses), and also as much special drill in the pedagogy of his elected field as is feasible. If the university can not offer the latter, an arrangement might be made whereby the student could spend his first year at an institution where the work is provided. There is no reason, though, why, after the proposed system is inaugurated, one professor from each of the freshman and sophomore departments could not find time to offer such work.

3. When, in the second year, the student becomes a teacher in the department of his choice, be shall be assigned to full teaching work. Perhaps an ideal apportionment would be two freshman and two sophomore sections of fifteen students each in three-hour courses, making a total of twelve hours' classwork a week. Half this amount might be preferable in the first semester of teaching. At least one professor in the department shall devote part of his time to supervising the student-teachers. He shall visit the sections as often as he deems necessary. He shall question the student-teachers about the individual men in their classes and their difficulties. At the close of each semester, he shall examine the sections himself; and his marking shall be counted in upon the term marking both of students and their student-teacher on some equitable fractional basis. (For instance, the supervisor's markings might weigh equally with the term markings of the student-teacher against the student; and the supervisor's average marking of the class might weigh equally with the student-teacher's individual knowledge of his subject in the computation of the student-teacher's total efficiency. These proportions are, of course, merely illustrative.)

4. The student-teacher shall be required to attend no classes in his last two years of work; but, he may have the privilege of so doing; if, in the opinion of the department, he will profit thereby. In general, however, the policy of the department should be to encourage wide reading, not only in his specialty but in cognate branches, the aim always being to give him his bearings in the world and make him see things in such a perspective that he may speedily become a competent adviser.

5. If after two years of teaching, the student-teacher shall have convinced the professors of his department that he has mastered his subject satisfactorily and has developed sufficient teaching ability and has shown a character suitable for the calling, he shall be awarded the degree of Ph.D. The degree shall be given in whatever subject the recipient has taught. The method of determining ability may vary considerably, no doubt; but some combination of examination ratings and "general impression" should be struck, in any case. The student-teacher receiving such a degree shall be placed upon a preferred list of candidates for recommendation to college appointments.

What, now, are the advantages of this system?

1. It will provide the best possible young teachers. Under any system the young teacher is a necessary evil; but he is the least troublesome when wholly devoted to his class-work. And he is most completely devoted to it when in it he finds the way to a higher degree and to advancement, and when he knows his success or failure as a teacher is being checked up on his score-card.

2. It will permit the nearest practicable approach to individual teaching. The supreme difficulty in the way of individual teaching is the cost. Some day one or two of our richer colleges may hope to have a staff of mature men large enough to give every student a faculty adviser and a private tutor; but most schools must resign that prospect. The next best thing, however, is the small class with closely supervised instructors who are teaching without pay (or on small scholarships) in the hope of an advanced degree and preferment.

Let us see how nearly the goal may be approached. Imagine a very large college whose freshman class is, say, 1,000. Suppose one course of English is required in each semester of the first year. The English department will then have all these 1,000 students to deal with. Suppose there are in this department altogether, 12 professors and instructors (Harvard has at least 5 more, not counting her assistants). And let us assume the purely ideal condition of having a student-teacher manage only 2 sections of 15 students each. Suppose, on the other hand, that neither of the required freshman courses could be partly or wholly given by lecture. We should then have the ideal arrangement fulfilled, if each of the 12 instructors took only one freshman section and were assisted by 27 student-teachers. By increasing the class unit to 20 students, only 19 student-teachers would be called for. Does anybody imagine that a university with a college entering class of 1,000 would have much difficulty in securing nearly that number of student-teachers for at least each of the five chief departments under the terms of the system we have sketched?[2] Needless to say. could only half the ideal number of student-teachers be secured, undergraduate instruction could still be revolutionized; if in no better way, then by putting half the students in small sections one semester, and the other half there the next. With a little careful adjusting of schedules, most students would then receive close attention in two of four departments each semester.

3. It would not add one dollar to the annual budget, but, on the other hand, would actually reduce the latter by a considerable sum, inasmuch as many assistants could be dispensed with. It is impossible to compute accurately here, for the necessity of assistantships varies greatly from department to department. In the natural sciences, for instance, laboratory helpers will always be needed, however many student-teachers there are. But, in the freshman and sophomore work, the assistants in most of the departments only correct papers, hold quizes, etc.—all of which could as well be done—and better—by the student-teacher, who would have time for it and ought to learn it. If, now, we assume that only half of the assistants now employed in our leading colleges are doing such work, we shall find that our system would reduce the yearly running expenses of Brown by $2,522, those of California by $14,025, those of Harvard by $7,808, those of Chicago by $9,990, and those of Columbia by $17,500. These estimates are based upon the number of assistantships and the average salaries of the same as given in the second bulletin of the Carnegie Foundation. Half of these savings, devoted to small scholarships for worthy student-teachers, would doubtless help materially in maintaining the quality of candidiates. Part of the other half, added to the salary of those professors who supervised the staff of student-teachers, would stimulate competent men to turn from research and graduate teaching to education. At universities with good pedagogical departments, not a single new chair would have to be created; the general pedagogical work of the student-teacher's first graduate year is already offered, while the special courses for history teaching, mathematics teaching, etc., may be given by the already installed professors of these subjects. Probably every university of rank has, in each department, at least one man who can give such courses. He is, I fear, often inconspicuous, thanks to the overshadowing discoveries and books of his colleagues; but he can, for all that, be found and turned into his proper work.

4. It will hasten the differentiation between college and university. And, while these two institutions are still "siamesed," it will provide for the fairer division of effort and attention between them. Student-teachers will relieve some members of the faculty from elementary work; it will let others pass over completely into the graduate schools in the course of time. After ten years, a respectable number of student*teachers will be ready to fill purely collegiate professorships.

5. While effecting this differentiation, it will also unify college life. If it does nothing else, it will clarify the aim and policy of each department simply by concentrating attention upon teaching problems. But it may also lead to a more thorough system of faculty advisers than has yet been found feasible. There is no reason why a student-teacher, at least in his third year, could not profitably serve as personal counselor for a few undergraduates. At present, as is generally known, the faculty adviser rarely does more than talk at long intervals with his protégés, and then on nothing more than the narrower questions of electing courses. He has no time for intimacies, as he usually carries from 14 to 16 hours of lectures a week, and has from a dozen to a score of students assigned to him. If, however, there could be an instructor for every thirty or forty students in each of the five chief undergraduate departments, then only six to eight students would have to be assigned to a single adviser.

6. It will help bridge the gap between high school and college. A common and well-grounded complaint to-day is that college teachers are not drawn from the ranks of the better high-school teachers. The trouble has not been with the latter; there has simply been a tradition that a college teacher must be a Ph.D. and a scientific investigator—and few high-school teachers have ever entered either of these select circles. Give the doctorate, though, for mastery of college teaching; and two things will eventually happen. First, many student-teachers upon receiving their degree, will be unable to secure college posts; and so they will then turn to high-school work, against which they will not be prejudiced, as your ordinary Ph.D. is to-day, and for which they will naturally be preferred candidates. Secondly, student-teachers thus installed will not be rooted forever to their high school, for they are known to college professors; they have taught two years in college and have established something of a reputation there which will help the best of them into college chairs some day. It is also possible that a small movement from high school to college will be set up by high-school teachers leaving their work to try for the Ph.D. in the hope of getting permanently into college work. During the next decade, this movement might be considerable, were the student-teacher system generally adopted. There are many excellent teachers in high schools who could teach freshmen and sophomores infinitely better than half the young doctores eruditissimi now thus engaged. And among the younger of them quite a few would prefer college to high school so strongly that they would be tempted to become student-teachers.

7. It will so improve the first two years of undergraduate work that students will be much better prepared to take up courses leading to professional and graduate pursuits in their junior year. And this is what many educators, together with the National Association of State Universities, wish to bring about.

Several objections to this plan are already on the reader's lips. It will make the doctorate equivocal. It will remove the professor from the freshman, who really needs him most. Nobody will try for such a doctorate. Or, maybe the opposite; every senior anxious to get a job will rush into this line, and there will be no candidates for research. With all the younger students under young men, discipline will become lax, A student only five years beyond his freshman days can not teach freshmen. To all these and many more, I think, good answer may be given. In the meantime, if we admit that some project for training college teachers is urgently needed, this one recommends itself to trial because it can be put fairly well to the test without cost, without change of curriculum, and, if necessary for prudence's sake, in only one department.

  1. Not that Choctaw is just as good as chemistry, but the lower levels of all grand divisions of knowledge lie in about the same plane.
  2. As closely as I can estimate from the Harvard catalogue, individual training in English could be given at Cambridge, if the present staff were augmented by only 25 student-teachers, and the 11 assistants now employed dispensed with. Were the latter converted into student-teachers, the department would have to find only 14 more graduate students, in order to fulfil the very severe conditions named.