In calling ourselves an “Academy” for Educational Studies, we deliberately tie ourselves to the long and rich tradition of the academy—a tradition that begins, for all intents and purposes, with Plato’s Academy located not far outside Athens, about 400 B.C. Plato’s academy was actually nothing more than a small public garden, part of Plato’s patrimony, located within a grove of olive trees. The academy was a school opened for the reception of those inclined to attend Plato’s instructions. The agora was the heart of ancient Athens, an open public space that was the center of political, commercial, administrative and social activity. It was the cultural heart of Athens. And it was the place where Plato’s great teacher, Socrates, contested with the great Greek sophists—among them Protagoras, Gorgias, and Thrasymachus—for the hearts, minds, and souls of the young and powerful men of Athens. The souls of these young men were to be won only in the heat and dust of the public place—amidst the great seductions of power and passion that wanted to move young men farther away from the life of virtue, truth and goodness argued for by Socrates.
Like Socrates, all who teach today—and all those who care about education, teaching and learning—do so in the heat and dust of the public place, amidst the great seductions of power and passion and with the persuasive arguments of modern day sophists ringing in our ears. If it was ever true that teachers had an “olive grove” into which they could step for respite from and clarity about what assailed them in their public practice, that place was the “academy.” The academies were the colleges and universities that prepared pre-service teachers to teach and offered practicing teachers more advanced ideas in graduate programs. Teacher education departments were the special places within the academy where pre-service teachers were given the knowledge, skill, and understandings necessary for successful entry into the practice of teaching, and where practicing teachers returned when their teaching experience made them ready for more advanced understandings.
Academies are never blind to the public space; they are never deaf to the public outcry, the public demand. They are supposed to be useful to the public space. But they are supposed to be apart from it—and they are never to be the tool of those living, working, and controlling the public space. The public should welcome the careful thinking, the reflection, and even the critique of the public space that goes on in the academy. It is by means of such critique that public life may be improved—that the citizens themselves may be made better and happier. Of course, we know those operating in public life do not always view academies and those in them in this way. Standing apart from the accepted standards of political virtue won Socrates a death sentence at the hands of the citizens of Athens.
No teacher educator, in being a part of a teacher education department, can seriously believe he or she is a part of an “academy” in the sense described above—that he or she works in an olive grove apart from the public space. Teacher educators are as immersed in and controlled by the public demand regarding education as are pre-K – 12 teachers in their daily practice. All are caught in the heat and dust of the public space—more now, perhaps, than they ever have been.
This heat and dust lays on public school teachers, school administrators and teacher educators first of all in the form of mandated standards and competencies dictated by education accrediting bodies at different levels. For the practicing K – 12 teacher and school administrator, it hits in the form of “standards” all students are to meet, standards enforced by high-stakes testing and fears of losing school accreditation. It hits teacher educators when they are told they must prove their graduates have demonstrated particular “competencies” to a sufficient level or degree, with the penalty of losing their accreditation if they do not.
These mandates, enforced by the all powerful accrediting agencies, take over and control the manner of thinking and talking about teaching and learning. Teachers and teacher educators may wish it were not true—and officials from accrediting agencies may deny it is necessarily the case—but in public schools and teacher education departments the talk is all about standards and competencies and ways to prove students have acquired them.
The point here is that if teacher education departments were once “academies,” a source of alternative and critical views of the guiding understandings, they are so no longer—not for teacher education students, nor for teacher educators. The incursion of the public voice in the form of accreditation mandates has suffocated any internal voice that would compete with it. Indeed, this suffocation now or soon will affect everyone in higher education, not just faculty in teacher education departments.
Frankly, most teacher educators, teacher education students, and other university faculty do not feel this as a loss. Most never realize the need for an academy. This is true partly because accrediting agencies have so thoroughly co-opted talk about teaching, but also because that talk matches the background and experience of most university faculty and teacher educators. Thinking about teaching as discrete skills and abilities fits not only with the social-scientific understanding that is an integral part of the background and training of most teacher educators, but it matches their understanding of what is needed in the day-to-day demands of teaching. Teachers need practical skills—they need specific skills in specific situations in order to teach effectively. In the particular case of teacher education, these competencies must be taught to prospective teachers, and there is no embarrassment in making sure they have acquired them by asking them to demonstrate them in some way. Furthermore, while this manner of seeing teaching may seem a little reductive, it does not necessarily preclude understanding teaching as an “art” that involves some manner of judgment and discretion. In sum, many teacher educators and other university faculty are entirely comfortable with how teaching is conceived by accrediting bodies—and if they are not, well, there is no fighting it anyway. One might as well concede.
Not everyone fits so easily into the harness of this understanding of teaching and accreditation, however—and not everyone is so easily willing to concede the fight on this and other important matters in education. Some need an olive grove—a place to step away from accustomed ways of operating in the public space, whether in a pre-K – 12 school or in higher education. If teacher education departments cannot or will not be such places for teachers, teacher educators, school administrators, and others interested in education, then a space outside teacher education departments must be created for people to gather together for study and reflection.
The Academy is a gathering place of different people from different backgrounds and perspectives and with different ideas. In this it is different from professional associations where like-minded people gather together to talk. That is, the Academy gathers together all manner of people grown hot and dusty from their teaching lives in the public domain, each with a story to tell and an argument to make. In the Academy we can act as did Socrates with his interlocutors—challenging one another to be more clear and thorough-going in our thinking about education, teaching, and learning. Here we stop in the shade to reflect, to think, to study, and to share before we go back to the public places and do again what we are called to do.
The Academy for Educational Studies is committed to creating unique opportunities for such gathering together and reflection. Conferences and symposia are organized as conversations, as dialogues, centered on focused problems and questions pertaining to education, teaching and learning. Research and publications produced by the Academy are similarly focused. This Academy addresses a limited number of issues of interest to its members, and thinks through them well and thoroughly.
Eric C. Sheffield
Founding Assistant Director, Missouri State University