The failings of student-centered learning have received a good deal of attention recently. Much of the criticism is just. But this methodology is a relatively small part of the problem with our current educational programs.
The inadequate liberal arts training many prospective teachers receive and the caliber of the people who choose to become teachers are more serious problems.I retired last spring after teaching English education for 35 years. Many of my graduate students had majored in English. In theory, then, they should have had a firm grasp of language arts and literature. But this was often not the case. Over time, I saw a steady decline in the quality of these future teachers.
Many had writing skills that ranged from depressing to horrifying, especially when we remember that these same people eventually went on to teach writing to high school students. A disturbing number could not write a lucid sentence or paragraph. How is it possible that they came through undergraduate programs in English without knowing what dangling participles or misplaced modifiers are, or how and why to use tense and number agreement?
They did not take kindly to my insistence that they master these fundamentals.
"Nobody ever made such a fuss about these things before," more than one aggrieved student complained. "What difference does it make how we say it if we make our points about the content?"
Others argued that it was unfair to penalize them if their Spell-checks failed to pick up errors. One student, whose writing was full of grammatical mistakes and misspellings, marched into my office with her husband from West Point - in dress uniform, his chest covered with ribbons - because her feelings had been hurt by my insistence on correct spelling. As a tenured full professor, I could afford to be amused. An untenured instructor might have felt more intimidated.
In one of my courses, the curriculum included classics such as "The Scarlet Letter," "Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," which are taught in secondary schools. Some of my students last semester objected to the reading list. "Must we read `Moby-Dick'?" asked one. "It's too long and boring." "It's not fair to make us read `Slaughterhouse Five,"' said another. "It's too hard to understand."
One student, who belonged to a local fundamentalist group, thought that Elie Wiesel's "Night," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and George Orwell's "1984" would not be "good for" the teenagers she would someday be teaching and strongly urged me to substitute "more cheerful" works.
Another insisted that the theme of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was that "all people are basically nice." When I questioned that conclusion, she burst into tears and left the class, and I was reprimanded by the assistant dean for having standards that were "too high."
We seem to have reached the point described in Kurt Vonnegut's futuristic short story, "Harrison Bergeron," in which everyone must be dragged down to the lowest common denominator because, in a democracy, we don't want any hurt feelings.
The poor quality of teachers is a prime reason that our public schools are in such poor shape. In today's climate, however, it is not considered appropriate to dwell on this problem. But why should the self-esteem of mediocre teacher candidates be placed above the needs of the children they are being trained to teach?