(submitted for doctoral study ~2008 – 2009)
Dear Professor Freire,
I admire your passion for the profession of teaching and its ability (and responsibility) to transform individual children, communities and societies, and while I understand your critical view of teaching’s sometimes default categorization as that of a “coddling parent”, I submit to you that in America, this trend may represent more a natural societal shift than a conspiracy of mediocrity. As our society evolved to embrace new roles for its members, new rules emerged defining who could participate in which activities. These shifts, be they right or wrong, occur in a society that includes an educational system, and this system, for all its idealized early beginnings, could not escape the inevitable forces of change.
America’s founders viewed public schooling as necessary for the preparation of a citizenry who were to assume the mantle of responsibility in a new nation. Early icons in American education included historical figures like Noah Webster (of Dictionary fame) and Benjamin Rush, who participated in signing the Declaration of Independence. These men shared a common vision of public education as a mold for creating the new democracy and their views on classroom decorum and discipline place them at the opposite pole from the feminized, coddling role which we struggle to throw off of the profession today. While some of America’s earliest educational aspirations set high expectations for the democratization of people from every walk of life, an increasingly complex society placed even greater pressures on the institution of education. Soon the burdens of economics, gender roles and responsibilities as well as politics impacted the idealized notion of education as a means to establish the democracy, and we live with the outcomes of these societal realities to this day. (Altenbaugh, 2003)
As the American common school movement subsumed the Colonial period in American education, the country shifted away from the stern, male school master to the gentler, nurturing female teacher, often an unmarried adolescent. This served several purposes, not the least of which was economic. Communities felt justified in paying significantly lower salaries to unmarried women than they would have paid to their male counterparts. Unmarried females often lived with their parents, and did not have families to support which made it easier, if only on the surface, to pay teachers less since poverty wages did not necessarily mean living in poverty when one was still dependent upon their parents (Altenbaugh, 2003). During this same time period, women were believed to possess a superior moral character to men, which was viewed favorably by Mann and others seeking to reinforce appropriate educational practices in the American public school system (Altenbaugh, 2003). Proponents of traits perceived as uniquely feminine (referred to as domesticity by Catharine Beecher) promoted the building of moral character as an important part of the educational process, especially for young women. In her Hartford Female Seminary, Beecher’s stated educational priorities were “the building of character, the cultivation of the intellect and the proper preparation of young ladies to enter society” (Hedrick, 1994). In fact, Beecher saw teaching as the exclusive domain of women, based on their evolving status in the early 1800s as the ‘primary parent’ (Altenbaugh, 2003) and their general characterization of being more pure than men (Demos, 1986, Altenbaugh, 2003). Even educational visionaries and socially-aware reformers like Horace Mann were caught up in the zeitgeist of the day, equating the role of teacher with that of a nurturing mother, noting that the female instructor “holds her commission from nature” (Mann, 1843, Altenbaugh, 2003). These early educational idealists were not intentionally setting the profession of education up to be devalued, or reduced to the status of a coddling parent; they were reacting to the social and historical changes that were overtaking the nation.
Women and their work contributions have historically been devalued in American culture (Sklar and Dublin, 1991). That teaching took on a feminine character in the early 1800s and assumed the burden of unequal pay, respect and recognition is a fact that easily incites the modern educator to ire. Let us peel back the pages of history however, while acknowledging the inequities that existed, and take notice of the ‘statements’ that were made by society about teaching and women: it was deemed important to have moral character to teach, and women were viewed as overwhelmingly more moral than men. Indeed, in earlier Colonial times women were often seen as defenders of the faith; Cotton Mather characterized the women of New England at the time of Indian wars and religious upheaval as “defenders of Zion” (Ulrich, 1982). These threads weave a partial historical tapestry of the American woman which speaks to two issues that we should not lose sight of in our modern struggle. Though not compensated appropriately for the tasks at hand, teachers were believed to have a great influence over their students. Why else would the morality of the teacher be at issue? This recognition of a teacher’s sphere of influence, though it admittedly cannot buy groceries, points to a deep-rooted respect for the profession, even if clouded by societal prejudices and practices. Secondly, that American society evolved away from the employment of stern male disciplinarians to loving and motherly teachers speaks to our love and concern, as a society, for our children. You yourself state that “it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented, and well-thought out capacity to love” and while males enjoy expanded freedoms in the 21st century to be outwardly sensitive and loving, these character traits were not valued in males of previous generations. The obvious choice for teaching became the females in society who could love teaching and mentoring and the ability “to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous” (Freire, 2005).
Yes, it is time to push for increased recognition of the profession of teaching for the daunting task that it tackles in an increasingly complex society, but let us not characterize from whence we came as inherently wrong. As roles for men and women, fathers and mothers, teachers and administrators continue to develop over time; we should not lose sight of the historical intentions, even while striving for improvement in the present. To do so would be to become “immobile”, which by your own definition leads to becoming “undisciplined”. Let us remain open and sensitive to all that the past can teach us so that we may move forward into a better time for teachers, learners and the communities into which we are woven.
Altenbaugh, Richard J (2003). The American People and Their Education: A Social History. Columbus, OH : Merrill Prentice Hall.
Demos, John (1986). Past, Present and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History. New York : Oxford University Press.
Freire, Paulo (2005). Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach. Boulder, CO : West View Press.
Hedrick, Joan D (1994). Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York : Oxford University Press.
Mann, Horace (1843). Sixth Annual Report: Massachusetts Board of Education. Boston : Dutton and Wentworth.
Sklar, Kathryn K. and Dublin, Thomas (1991). Women and Power in American History: A Reader – Volume I to 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice Hall.
Ulrich, Laurel T (1982). Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650 – 1750. New York: Vintage Books.