- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

A good teacher (as anyone who has ever had one knows) awakens natural curiosity, excites the pleasure of reading books, challenges the mind to learn new things and whets the appetite for knowing more, more, more.That's why a new survey of education majors is dismal, indeed. College students who are training to become teachers have little intellectual curiosity themselves.

The Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition (FAST), a nonprofit student advocate organization with members across the ideological spectrum, is worried about the fashionable academic frenzy to dumb down education.

FAST surveyed 1,005 college students and found that 49 percent of the education majors surveyed had read no book, or only one book, that was not actually required in their courses. Barely a majority, 55 percent, regarded a liberal arts education as better than an education in a trade, and 60 percent think there's too much emphasis on the study of great books.

These are the men and women who are going to educate the next generation, though it certainly isn't clear how. "K-12 education is a top priority for most Americans this election year," says pollster John Zogby, who conducted the survey. "This survey reveals some compelling data about the nation's education majors."

I'll say. This is but a small sample, and every earnest student who majors in education shouldn't be tarred with the result. But the problem is not new, and it's not exactly news that education majors are rarely the intellectual heavyweights on campus. The term "education major" is in fact an oxymoron.

But what's so damning about this survey is that the latest of these potential teachers indict themselves without an awareness that that's what they're doing. They're not only products of the dumbing down of education, but they don't see how they're contributing to the process. Serene and satisfied in their limitations, they're happily ignorant of their ignorance.

Why on earth would anyone want to train to be a teacher if he is only barely interested in expanding his own knowledge? Only students majoring in physical education and business exceed the education majors in regarding as too taxing an emphasis on the great books.

The typical schoolteacher of yore was often described as an old maid, plain and modest, the most rigorous of whom suffered being called names like "old bat" and "sour ball." But the best of them knew their subject matter, believed in high culture and grooved on opening resistant young minds to the knowledge accumulated through the ages.

They taught not only the knowledge found in the textbooks, but appealed to our imaginations to read and learn more. If we liked "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," we were encouraged to try the more difficult "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." If "David Copperfield" kindled a class discussion of Dickens, we were encouraged to read "Great Expectations" on our own.

Miss Howard, my fifth-grade teacher at John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary School in Washington, brought her precious and fragile old "78" records of grand opera to class, handling them carefully lest she crack them, and told us poignant and fascinating stories of the authors and artists and their Bohemian lives in Paris. We often giggled through the high notes, but "La Boheme" became my favorite Italian opera and remains so today. I determined then to visit Paris one day and see the student quarter and Montmartre for myself. A good teacher's influence lives long past her own years.

In his memoir, "My Love Affair with America," Norman Podhoretz tells of a teacher who was horrified that as an immigrant kindergarten boy he spoke English with a strong Yiddish accent. She placed him in a remedial speech class. In those days a dedicated teacher believed that every child should read, write and compute, and it was a teacher's task to burn out the "foreign impurities" of speech and dress in the "melting pot." Norman Podhoretz credits that remedial class with igniting his love of the English language, and thanks that teacher (who would no doubt today be censured and maybe fired for her multicultural bigotry).

The public schools recruit from the education majors, and private schools are more likely to draw on teachers with a greater depth of knowledge, one reason that for growing numbers of voting parents school choice is the school reform of choice. Many of our senators and representatives who vote against vouchers wouldn't dream of putting their own children in public schools. They're followers in the great tradition of Marie Antoinette: Let the poor children be taught by those who never learned to crack a great book.

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