Monday, April 26, 2004

Fitzgerald, 2002, "A Rediscovered Tradition"

 Fitzgerald, Kathryn. "A Rediscovered Tradition: European Pedagogy and Composition in Nineteenth-Century Midwestern Normal Schools." CCC 53 (2001): 224-250.

Big Idea
Midwestern normal schools at the turn of the nineteenth century were fertile sites for promising pedagogical mixing which brought together student-centered European practices (attributed to Heinrick Pestalozzi and John Frederick Herbart) with the populace-serving, democratizing missions of normal schools.  Fitzgerald's historical account of the Oshkosh conference of 1900 elaborates these forces through descriptions and analysis of the archival gems pointing back to the important work of the normal composition teachers of the era.  Pestalozzian and Herbartian pedagogies generally favored student-centered rather than content-centered approaches.  As a result, the normal schools in Wisconsin served as a stage for these pre-Dewey practices to foment toward efficacy, while shrugging off strict adherence to textbook lessons, adopting a more compassionate, respectful view of students' linguistic competence and preferring demonstrations of understanding--often in the form of writing and students teaching to other students--over rote memorization and recitation. Fitzgerald's essay ends with a plug for the study of teaching practices in contemporary and historical contexts (quartered by regionalism and institutionality).  She also emphasizes--at the end--the role of teaching in the curriculum as vocational/professional/normal schools have been subsumed into grand research conglomerates where pedagogy is relegated to servile rank and often viewed as a necessary but unpleasant burden. 

Terms of Import
normal schools - Vocational/professional colleges premised on access, they often served wider segments of the population than the more selective, costly private academic institutions.  Many of the normal schools grew into state universities.
Pestalozzian pedagogy - grew out from "Rousseau's educational romanticism" to become best known for the "object lesson" or that which proceeded with teaching that trusted the child's curiosity and "intuitive powers based on experience and reason."
Herbartian pedagogy - adds emphasis on getting to know students, situating teaching in the swell of social forces, diversely demonstrable aptitudes, customized learning ventures, and curricular shifting as contrasted against rigid, content-fixed plans
1900 Oshkosh conference - a four-day state-wide meeting of faculty from the Wisconsin normal schools where they "discussed and debated their aims, philosophies, and methods in terms of their unique mission of providing free education to prospective teachers of students in free common schools" (234).

Monday Morning
     Fitzgerald's essay is nicely historical.  I read it with a feeling of resistance that I want to explore just a bit--in fairness.  Historicizing the legacy of practical pedagogy is useful, and I often see my own contribution to the academy as a teacher.  In a historical context, I suppose it works to set up the tensional relationship between normal schools and the Ivy elites (private, academic, economically affluent).  But in contemporary contexts, the us-themisms start to feel like a rub--the sort that makes a blister but never a callus.  Okay, and now I'm off track.  I keep having the impression that we're too quick to distinguish theory from practice, elite from popular, and complexity from accessibility, that the binaries ought to be more fully explained if they're necessary.  I read Fitzgerald's essay and took from it a worthwhile understanding of the contrast between certain sets of institutions.  The influence of a European pedagogical tradition applies smartly, forms a thick share of the trunk supports our sense of important, historical connections merging then spreading into much branchier field these days.  But there's a side of this argument that sounds just a bit anti-intellectual, just a bit quotidian for the way it hedges the critique at the expense of the Eastern private elites.  I oughta back out of this by acknowledging that this is a tension in my reading of the essay that probably says a whole lot more about me than about the essay.  I'm not trying to argue that Fitzgerald's essay falls short; heck, it's incredibly smart and carefully worked.  And it's a Braddock winner. 
     Somewhere (I can't pinpoint it precisely--it's mostly in my head, I think), there's a faintly dismissive din in historical research that uses a dominant form, such as theory, which is often labeled elitist for its complexity, for its aspiration to think hard about how we think, to assign names, to produce the cultural capital of the university, theory gets used as a push-off from which practitioners seek to be defined as an alternate.  But theory and practice aren't so easily separated.  And maybe, along those same lines, I have this uncomfortable feeling about an unexplained us-them because I want to know what's happening at the hyphen. What action is at the hyphen? Historically?  Presently?
     I've made it far enough into these notes to leave off at a place where, when I'm scratching my head over the Wisconsin normal schools and historical infusions from European pedagogical traditions, I'll be able to find my place. 

Passages Passages
"Current historical research into alternate sites of writing instruction will give compositionists multiple options for identifying with as well as against our past" (245).

"I have pointed out that the conditions of the normal schools differ significantly from those of the institutions where composition originated in two respects.  The first is the aims of the institutions--the normal schools were intended to be inclusive, democratic institutions that focused on professional rather than academic preparation.  The second is the intellectual traditions upon which composition faculty drew--normal school faculties had access to European pedagogical theories as well as composition textbooks" (244).

"By 1900 the changes in psychological thinking were no longer confined to Europeans like Pestalozzi and Herbart, for Americans like John Dewey, William James, and Stanley Hall were beginning their work on theories of learning and development that would render faculty psychology obsolete and begin to frame educational theory for the next century" (241).

"While they shared with Pestalozian pedagogy the fundamental concept of placing the child and his/her interest, rather than the subject matter, at the center of education, Herbartians had more in common with later socio-psychological views of the educational process than with Romantic concepts of individual development" (233).

"However, as noted above, the normal school, in a time of high-stakes contestation over the financial base, student populations , and objectives of various institutions of higher education, was almost certainly the most contested site of all.  The conflict over the objectives and scope of the normal schools was heightened in part because of the very different social and intellectual traditions and allegiances from which they emerged" (229).

"Herbst, Borrowman, and Salvatori together with a few others limn a complex tale of the contested scene of the nineteenth-century normal schools, which finally resulted in the political supremacy of liberal education over vocational/technical education, the intellectual dominance of research and theory over pedagogy and practice, and the marginalization of teacher education to schools of education in universities" (227).

"Although this brief summary doesn't begin to suggest the wealth of material composition historians have uncovered, it does point up the elitist, undemocratic aspects of the field's past that disturb many contemporary compositionists, who see their aim as extending the opportunities available through education to all social classes by introducing students to discourses of power" (225).

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