In line with an educational epoch in which standards are determined more by what the increasingly apathetic student population is willing to digest rather than by any adherence to the rigors of tradition comes--at the University of Northern Colorado--a new major for those intending to be elementary school teachers. To be fair, it is certainly the case that this major's creation is largely the result of a mandate from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to assure that future teachers have received the breadth of instruction necessary to be competent in the diversity of subjects taught in the elementary classroom. But the resulting course of studies, of which the administration is so proud, has gone unchallenged by students and professors alike, expediting the decay of the awesome pillar that was liberal education and replacing it with ruin that is vocational training.
To be sure, the new major, whose title, Interdisciplinary Studies: Liberal Arts Emphasis, betokens an educational program wholly unlike its actual content, is interdisciplinary only in the sense that classes are scattered across disciplines, with little integration. But interdisciplinary studies, I think, ought to be not just a montage of courses from varying disciplines, the connections between which must be discovered by the student himself without any help from the curriculum, but an integrated web of studies whose interdependencies are explored and highlighted with some courses reserved solely for that aim and others supporting it.
This new major makes no such provisions, guaranteeing that only the most diligent student will actually come away with anything more than the blur of having taken a slew of discrete classes, with one exception, notable more for its detriment to the idea of liberal education than its strengthening of the major: the concentration. See, along with the general education, core (essentially, extended general education), and teacher education requirements, the Interdisciplinary Studies program also requires a concentration in one of the traditional Arts and Sciences fields. Now, this is certainly a good thing because it adds coherency to the major. But that's all it adds. The concentration only consists of eighteen hours of course work, which is the minimum number of credits required for any minor offered at the university; most minors exceed this number of required credits. To complete the physics minor, for instance, one must take three semesters of calculus, two semesters of calculus-based physics, and three more courses, all calculus-based,in more concentrated areas such as Mechanics and Quantum Physics. All totaled, the physics minor is a daunting but thorough thirty-three credits. The physics concentration, on the other hand, is only eighteen credits and requires no work in calculus at all. Thus, it is quite possible to complete this concentration having learned little more than what most high schools teach in the way of physics! The other concentrations are similarly diluted.
Another striking aspect of this program is its lack of upper-division requirements. Many of the concentrations require only a few of these advanced classes, and the core, designed to broaden and standardize the education of the future elementary teacher, only includes such courses in the area of pedagogy. Also, given the rigidity of this major, which allows little time for electives, the completion of an honors thesis becomes an obstacle rather than an opportunity. So, along with precluding all but a small sample of advanced work in a field, Interdisciplinary Studies: Liberal Arts Emphasis also tacitly discourages original, independent work.
Now everyone agrees (I hope) that the best teachers are those who exhibit a passion for learning and for educating themselves. My own experience repeatedly affirms this. In the fifth grade, I became a glutton for science, and Mr. Carson, my enthused teacher, was the reason. He reveled in the idea of systematically dissecting and understanding the world. He saw science in everything; on the first day of class, he challenged us to come up with something that didn't involve science. And nobody could as he met every attempted answer with an intriguing scientific explanation. Mr. Carson was there not just to teach but to share and engage in his passion for science. It is this passion in a teacher that ignites the interest of a classroom of students. So, more important than any textbook knowledge of teaching methods or shallow familiarity with a variety of subjects, is the attitude that the teacher conveys through his teaching.
But what college student with a zeal for learning would elect a major that exchanges n-depth, engaging study in a particular field (or two) for a broad, disjointed, and watered-down curriculum? Will this new major not dissuade good students who have a genuine interest in their field from being elementary educators? And, likewise, will the new major not, for less motivated individuals who might see elementary teaching more as working with children than actual education, make the attainment of a degree, and entrance into the profession, even easier and, truly, hardly an accomplishment?
As for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education's concern that elementary teachers aren't prepared for the diversity of demands in the classroom, I say--in all seriousness-- that anyone who lacks the gumption to prepare himself in the basic concepts of social studies or mathematics ought not to be teaching. Any teacher sufficiently concerned for his students will prepare himself. Come on! We're not teaching rocket science, here. We're teaching skills, like writing and reading and thinking, and, most importantly, as elementary school teachers, we're purveying an attitude toward learning that ought to impel students to seek knowledge and understanding throughout their educational careers and on through their lives.
So, when designing a major for future primary school teachers, do we entice
the best students with a rigorous, integrated curriculum that encourages free thought
and independent exploration, or do we pander to less academic students who can only
muster an interest for studies in outline form? It's a question of the sort of
person we want to be teaching our children. And I think the answer is clear.
In fact, you might say that it's elementary.