McCullough: No teacher should major in ed

Americans are “historically illiterate,” by and large, complains historian and author David McCullough in a 60 Minutes interview. When he speaks at universities, he meets bright, attractive, stunningly ignorant college students.

One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. . . . when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

What about the teachers? asks Morley Safer.

“We need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers,” McCullough replies.

I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

One of the historian’s children, David McCullough Jr., is an English teacher known for his “you’re not special” commencement speech at Wellesley High in Massachusetts.

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  1. This reminds me of an article about journalism education that I read in the Columbia Journalism Review, probably in the 80’s. The top journalists they interviewed had the same opinion as David McCullough, that a bachelor’s degree in journalism was a bad idea. Better to study a subject, like history, sociology, or economics.

    A graduate degree in journalism could make sense, but maybe more sense after you had some experience.

    • I agree with you but am hesitant to apply that to teaching. I enjoyed getting my M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction, but now, 12 years later, I wish I had gotten an M.A. in my content area instead.

  2. Except I’ve seen (up close) half a dozen such use cases. The content experts with no teacher training are eaten alive in schools. None lasted more than two years. One quit after a few weeks.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      But does it take four years to learn the mechanics of things like classroom management? I’d expect that a non-ed major and a minor in education would work.

    • So how do the graduates of ed schools do better?

      If ed school graduates do better, I bet it’s primarily due to the fact that they’ve invested a great deal in getting that degree and that it’s useless outside of education.

  3. If nurses and med techs can learn new sciences, new clinical material and new clinical skills in four years, why is it so impossible for future teachers to learn classroom skills, when they should already know the vast majority of the academic background (almost all, for ES-MS levels)? After all, every future teacher has spent 13 years in k-12 classrooms, so they already have experienced what teachers do.

  4. Non-issue. Over half of ed majors don’t become teachers. Most secondary school academic subject teachers majored in something other than education. And if they did major in ed, they passed a competency test–and the secondary school competency tests are difficult.

    McCullough is clearly talking about secondary school teachers, unless he wishes to argue that elementary school teachers should have 4 majors. So he’s just pig ignorant, like most of the other people on this subject.

    There is no issue with the competency of secondary school academic teachers. Joanne wrote about this before, as well.

  5. Mr. McCullough is totally correct. Everyone that has a high school diploma, and *especially* a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD degree in the U.S., should have a basic understanding of U.S. & World History, U.S. & World Geography, U.S. Government, and Introductory Economics. A lack of understanding of these basic things will have horrendous reprecussions for us in the long run (for example, what kind of politicians most Americans will vote for, whether or not they believe in promises made or policies enacted, etc.)

  6. lightly seasoned says:

    God, nothing annoys me more than people assuming that being a student means you can be a teacher. It’s just flat-out illogical and reveals an utter and complete lack of any understanding whatsoever of what teaching is. I’ve been going to the dentist all my life, so I can set up a dental office? I spend huge chunks of my life in the grocery store, so I should be well qualified to manage one by now.

    Almost as annoying as some random author who visits college campuses now and then declaring he knows what’s wrong with K-12 education.

    • If you’re responding to my comment, you are misinterpreting what I said. I said that people who have graduated from HS have seen (many) teachers in action and therefore have a better idea of what teachers do than do students entering med tech or nursing programs. Absent volunteer experience in the fields, few entering students have seen nurses “in action” more than fleetingly and even fewer have seen med techs work. Unless they are completely clueless, future teachers already know some things about teaching.

  7. McCullough is absolutely correct in saying that teachers should eschew an ed degree. Ed degrees are for educrats who don’t teach because they don’t like to teach. Rather they like to manage those who teach and foist upon them what they learned in ed school. Which is nothing. Ed schools in this country should be dismantled. The only classes that helped me were methods classes, and the ideologue who was chairman of the ed department at the time was doing his best to get rid of them. Ed schools serve only one purpose these days: to indoctrinate future teachers to be good anti-American leftists.

  8. Fifteen years ago, I encountered the same idea in a book called The Conspiracy of Ignorance by Martin Gross. That actually ignited my interest in education policy and reform. Having a BS in education, followed by an MA in English, I can assert that it was not until my MA that I became an effective teacher – it was the content, not the pedagogy classes that made the difference. I firmly support McCullough on this – though I can envision variations on the idea.

    • Mark it on the calendar, boys and girls–Michael Mazenko and I agree!

      I have a bachelor’s degree in Applied Math. I’m working on a master’s degree now, in Math Education, through the University of Idaho’s Engineering Outreach Program. 8 math courses, 2 education courses. Sure beats a generic “Master’s in Education with an Emphasis on Curriculum and Instruction” from Diploma Mill University, at least to me.

  9. A relative also majored in an academic subject, in the College of Arts and Sciences, then did a 1-year master’s in education. She said it was actually practical, but the best part was that every student was partnered with an experienced teacher (same subject and level) for the entire year, and the student responsibilities increased over the year. Classes were in the evening, so days were simply the internship. The program may have been limited to secondary ed; I don’t know.

  10. North of 49th says:

    I think one important reason Ontario is doing so well in international rankings and in other metrics of improvement in both elementary and secondary achievement is the vastly increased quality of the teacher workforce over the last 15-20 years.

    Not too long ago — but before my time — even middle school teachers could be certified with only a Grade 12 education, and a year of non-degree teacher training. Now, the competition is stiff and the successful candidates for the post-university B.Ed (we don’t have “education majors”: teachers need to take a degree in a recognized academic subject) come from the top tier of university graduates, who are themselves the top tier of secondary school graduates. A lower percent of students go to university in Canada than in the U.S. .

    We have had a huge turnover in the teacher population and most of those teaching now have been hired under the new standard, and it really shows. Smart and knowledgeable people make better teachers at every grade level. .

    I understand the the required B.Ed (a post-BA or B.Sc degree) is going to become a 2-year program with a year of apprentice/intern training to complement the coursework. We already have an extensive mentoring program for new teachers which has been very productive also.

    Our salary and benefits are good but not as good as those in some of the eastern U.S. states, so money is only part of the picture. I haven’t heard ANYBODY express regret for not being able to major in “education.”