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19th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 19, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

  When I read in the New York Times last Sunday that Leon Botstein, the overachieving president of Bard College, was starting a program actually to teach high school teachers the subject matter that they are supposed to pass on to their students, I was delighted beyond words. 

    The subject of teacher training is one that has concerned me for a long time. Prospective public school teachers are caught in the stranglehold of the state-run monopoly that controls certification requirements. These programs seem to drain their energy and creativity, not to mention their bank accounts. 
    Somehow private schools, freed of those constraints and in most cases even paying their teachers less, seem to attract staff members who can get more out of their students. How can this be? 

    So to hear the head of this famously ultra-liberal institution, long known for its advocacy of “progressive” educational orthodoxy, call the stuff that is taught in most educational schools “pseudo-science” was refreshing to say the least. However, a closer examination of the new Bard program discloses that in reality, little is new. 

    Mr. Botstein is a fascinating personality. I have a particular interest in his career since he grew up in the Riverdale community of the Bronx, the area I call home. He graduated from New York’s storied High School of Music and Art and went on to study at the University of Chicago and Harvard. He became the president of Franconia College in New Hampshire at the age of 23, and took over at Bard College five years later. He is a worldclass musician and scholar, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, a man who not only has published many scholarly books and articles but has a long list of classical recordings to his credit as well. He is a Renaissance man. 

    Of course, Bard College is not your run-of-the-mill educational institution. It is famous for its left-wing politics, so much so that it has an endowed Alger Hiss Chair in Social Studies. The Bard campus was politically correct long before there was political correctness. So when the Times quoted Mr. Botstein as saying: “The education schools in the United States have had an unfortunate stranglehold on teacher training…they have created a pseudoscience in pedagogy and wasted the time of future teachers by not deepening the knowledge that future teachers need,” the maestro seemed to be playing my song. However, a close examination of the Bard College catalog reveals that the $24,500 a year Master of Arts program may be less than it’s cracked up to be. 

    Mr. Botstein acknowledged the constraints put upon Bard — and every other education school — by the state Education Department. There must be some “pedagogy” in the curriculum or else it wouldn’t be approved. However, that doesn’t mean that there must be as much as the Bard program allows for. There are as many courses in pedagogy as there are in content area. Nor does it necessarily mandate the one-sided philosophical direction clearly present in many of the Bard offerings. 

    An examination of the Bard curriculum reveals a number of courses that reek of the kind of touchy-feely pedagogy that has made teacher education a cruel joke. In this, the Bard program is no better than any of the others. In the final analysis, all we are doing with new teachers is siphoning the dollars from the pockets of these earnest young people. They enter the field with high ideals that are quickly dissipated by the intellectual emptiness of the coursework they are subjected to. 

    Here is a sampling of some of Bard’s troublesome course offerings: “ED 020. Schooling in the 21st Century: A Learner Perspective. Incorporating practices developed by the Institute for Writing and Thinking, this oneweek writing seminar introduces students to an alternative pedagogical model in which writing is treated as a technology that helps students participate in teaching themselves.” 

    Teaching themselves? Sounds like pseudo-science to me! In the ED 220 and 240 series, “research focuses on the ways that the skills and literacies of a particular discipline develop in the classroom setting. Students develop an understanding of the particular issues involved in teaching in their disciplines as these concerns relate to diversity, learning differences, race, ethnicity, class, and English as a second language.” 

    Translation: We can’t figure out why minority children are doing so poorly in schools. Instead, we will enter into a long discussion of ethno-centric claptrap that will try to explain away these results by shrouding them in a cloak of politically correct jargon. 

    “Reflection” is a big part of the Bard education curriculum. If you’re the kind of person who is always reflecting on what you do and how it impacts on the meaning of life, this program may be for you.Take for example ED 320, Teaching as Reflective Practice I: Contexts for Learning. “A forum for linking educational literature and research to experiences in the field, this course addresses the question, ‘How do we learn from our teaching?’” A good friend of mine, prominent in the educational field, describes this as “navel gazing.” Good teachers focus on the children, not themselves. 

    My sad conclusion is that the Bard story in Sunday’s Times was nothing more than a clever public relations plant to help sell prospective teachers on an extremely expensive program at a remote campus. Bard is located nottoo-far south of Albany, and the $24,500 does not include room and board, which is not available for students in this program. 

    What Mr. Botstein needs to do is not merely talk about the “pseudo-science” of pedagogy, but banish it from his own campus. As far as the state Education Department is concerned, I agree that, ultimately, this is where the real problem lies. This son of the Bronx is willing to march alongside my accomplished former neighbor and storm that bastion of stupidity — but Mr. Botstein needs to lead the band with something better than the same old tired tunes.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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