Duncan’s bus-tour myth about history of education classes

From an article September 8 about Arne Duncan’s bus-tour stop at the University of Michigan School of Education:

One “big thing I hear consistently” from young teachers is that they spend too much time in college studying educational theory, history and philosophy and did not receive enough hands-on experience in actual classrooms, Duncan said.

I don’t know which students Duncan is speaking to, but all the evidence that historians of education can gather in this country shows that most teacher education programs today require minimal history of education if any, let alone serious study of the philosophy of education.1 The horrific irony of my field is the fact that over the past few decades, the quality of research has climbed while available jobs have declined precipitously.2

What may be happening to explain Duncan’s remark is a set of very poor attempts at “infusing” the history of education or social-science writings about education into various courses, the use of bowdlerized versions of John Dewey and Nel Noddings, and the like. I can easily understand that students exposed to bad lectures on Nel Noddings could rebel against any humanities or social-science perspectives on education. That is not an argument for stripping teacher education of academic content but rather an argument for doing it well.3

A related phenomenon is the pattern where graduates of almost every teacher education program (and quickie alt-cert programs) will complain that they did not have enough support in classroom management regardless of the quality of such education. I remember seeing the results of mid-90s surveys of graduates from a top-notch special education program, and while I know the students had some very good training, they wished they had had more. New teachers frequently yearn for immediately-practical suggestions, or what John Holt called “what do I do Monday?” answers. In that context, learning how to put the latest fad into a broader context seems less useful, though I have never known an experienced teacher in any class of mine who did not praise Tyack and Cuban’s Teaching toward Utopia after reading it.4

The common irony in attacks on history of education or philosophy of education classes is that such criticism often comes from those who also attack teacher education for its lack of rigor. So where might one find more rigor in colleges of education… except in courses taught by those with liberal-arts perspectives?

Unfortunately, Duncan appears to be following Arthur Levine in the myth that philosophers and historians run colleges of education. His off-the-cuff remarks this month are substantially different from his prepared talk two years ago at Teachers College. There is an argument to be had about the extent of history and other liberal-arts perspectives within teacher education, but Duncan’s comment does not reflect the reality of teacher education in the U.S.


  1. This evening I cannot find the relevant paper produced internally in the History of Ed Society and will link to it when I do. U.S. DOE officials who have different data are welcome to provide that. []
  2. The same is true of “social foundations” and “cultural foundations” courses more broadly. []
  3. “Oh, Snap!”, a defunct blog written several years ago by an anonymous masters student in a very well-known college of education, demonstrated to me how bad teaching in my area can easily alienate students… though the same is true for bad teaching in any area. []
  4. I could say the same about a number of other books, but Tyack and Cuban’s will stand here for the general utility of the history of education for experienced educators. []

One response to “Duncan’s bus-tour myth about history of education classes”

  1. Tim Lacy

    You wrote: “The horrific irony of my field is the fact that over the past few decades, the quality of research has climbed while available jobs have declined precipitously.”

    Amen brother!–says the guy with a history of education specialty (one of three, thank God) who is preparing to re-enter the academic history job market. – TL