Vartan Gregorian: Educating “The Teaching Species”

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A few nights ago, I was privileged to participate in the celebration of the 125th anniversary of Teachers College, Columbia University. It was a wonderful event that brought together philanthropy, the academy, students and educators to honor the legacy of Teachers College and its promise of advancing innovation and learning for the future. The evening also paid tribute to many of the other illustrious New York City sister institutions founded during a golden era of civic and cultural expansion, such as the American Museum of Natural History, Barnard College, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, The New York Botanical Garden, and others. A number of the founding families of Teachers College were also recognized at the event including the Vanderbilts, the Macys, the Milbanks, and the Rockefellers.

Carnegie Corporation of New York and its founder, Andrew Carnegie, were also early supporters of Teachers College, going back to personal donations from both Mr. Carnegie and his wife, Louise, in 1919 and 1920. The Corporation made its first major grant to Teachers College in 1921. Reflecting on these connections put me in mind of an essay I wrote not long ago about the centennial of Carnegie Corporation of New York. In that article, I noted that even after one hundred years, the foundation created by Andrew Carnegie was proud to be continuing his mission of advancing teaching and learning. One unexpected but rewarding result of the essay was that I received a letter from Fred Harcleroad, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of Arizona. Professor Harcleroad, a former high school teacher who was also the founding president of California State University, East Bay, wanted to share with me the impact that Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy had on his own life both as a student and a teacher.

“As a child in the 1920s,” Mr. Harcleroad wrote, “I almost lived in one of the 2,500 Carnegie Libraries he built, in the little town of Cheyenne, Wyoming [which at the time had one 12,000 people]. ..I read many books there, wrote papers for my high school classes in history of our country, read all of the stories of the great operas, and listened to recordings of their great music...Many years later I served as a member of a joint committee established by Carnegie and Ford which was instrumental in Congress passing an International Education Act…During my professional life in higher education I earned a retirement fund from the fund he established so college faculty would not be derelict after they retired, the famous Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association.”

It’s important to highlight Mr. Harcleroad’s letter because it seems to me that his experiences personify how Andrew Carnegie’s great regard for teachers has contributed to bringing about the “real and permanent good in this world” that he hoped his philanthropy would help to provide. In particular, the quality of teacher education was of paramount concern to Andrew Carnegie. After all, he was a great patriot and, as he said, one of the jobs of a patriot is “...the dispelling of ignorance and the fostering of education.” How better to reach that goal than by helping to elevate the quality of teacher education and hence, the ability of excellent teachers to uplift and inspire their students? In the United States, however, there is a serious deficiency in the quality of the education and training that teachers themselves receive before they are sent into our classrooms to help prepare the next generation of Americans to meet the challenges of the 21st century, an era characterized by a knowledge-based economy and such rapid developments in technology that every field of endeavor—from business to art to health care to systems of governance and administration—is being transformed.

One of the main problems our society faces is that there is a shortage of excellent schools of education. Unlike Teachers College and its visionary president, Susan Fuhrman, many leaders of colleges and universities have often failed to put their schools of education at the center of their institutions’ mission. Moreover, many universities have marginalized these schools, treated them as “cash cows” or, at best, subjected them to benign neglect. Lacking endowments and adequate university support, these schools of education are often forced to trade their intellectual viability and excellence for their survival and financial stability. Survival has often meant increasing enrollments and class sizes along with decreasing educational quality. Further, schools of education have also not made the necessary effort to reinvent themselves in light of the fact that new research about teaching and learning is continually becoming available from fields such as linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience and cognitive behavior, not to mention the advent of technology, as noted above. In addition, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to integrating new knowledge should be explored in regard to strategies for revamping schools of education and for giving them new vitality. The time has come for universities to make teacher education their central preoccupation or else close down substandard schools of education.

The public bears some of the responsibility for these problems, as well, since there is a shortage of public support for professional teachers. The findings of recent research and public opinion surveys overwhelmingly agree with the 19th century French philosopher, Victor Cousin, who concluded, “As is the teacher, so is the school.” Indeed, nearly all of us bear testimony to the pivotal role teachers have played in our lives. It is ironic, then, that the dedicated teachers to whom we entrust our children’s education are often not given the rewards and recognition commensurate with their singular responsibility. The public rightly demands accountability and quality teaching, but in doing so must also recognize that excellence comes with a price. We all agree that our children deserve the best teachers, that teachers are important to the future of our nation and the strength of our democracy. But what we often don’t mention the corollary that teachers need and deserve our full support for their lofty mission.

Andrew Carnegie’s personal commitment to our nation’s teachers stemmed from his belief that they are among the greatest resources American democracy can rely on to keep it strong, vibrant and self-renewing because good teachers are good ancestors. It is through their dedication to passing on knowledge to the next generation that we, as a nation, are blessed to be guided into the future by informed citizens and educated leaders. Carnegie Corporation is honored to carry that commitment forward through our work to advance teaching and learning. We continue on that course because, like Andrew Carnegie, those of us who love teachers and teaching know there are few greater joys in this world than being able to rouse students’ curiosity about the world around them; to draw out of them the dreams and abilities that are born within them; and to help set them on a path that will lead them toward the kind of life and work that will offer both personal and professional fulfillment.

One of the most important honors I have ever received was to have an elementary school in Providence, Rhode Island that serves pre-kindergarten through the sixth grade named the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School. Through my own experiences, both as a university professor and a visitor to that wonderful school where teachers are helping students to find within themselves the potential for excellence and the ability to excel, I know first-hand that it is in our nation’s classrooms that the future is created on a daily basis. Hence, it is essential that the work in those classrooms be carried out with the guidance of teachers who are deeply knowledgeable about subject areas, committed to the idea that no student can be written off as mediocre or inconsequential, and highly trained to ensure that every student succeeds.

Let me conclude with Erik Erikson wonderful reminder that human beings are the teaching species. I couldn’t agree more. Within the heart of all of us is the desire to tell our stories, pass on our skills, and tell what we have learned about the world. But those who take it upon themselves to spend their lives helping students unlock their own potential to become their best and brightest selves are perhaps the noblest people among us. Our teachers bear an awesome moral, social and historical responsibility because they are the ones instructing new generations and, hence, creating the future. The challenge of cultivating the joy of learning and self-discovery is great, but it is also essential. As Henry Adams eloquently put it: “Teachers affect eternity. They never know where their influence ends.”