Thayer on the Teacher-Bureaucrat

Writing in the 1920s, American educator V.T. Thayer makes the following observation on the teachers’ role in the era of bureaucratically organised education.

When the writer decided … to take up teaching as a life work, and informed a relative of his decision, he was told: ‘Well, you will find that much easier than studying. Now you can keep your book open before you and make the pupils recite.’

This remark illustrated not merely the traditional procedure in teaching, but one which is still dominant. The speaker merely described the outstanding characteristics of the recitation system as he had experienced it in the course of his own schooling. Going to school meant reciting from a textbook, and learning was identified with reproducing for the teacher what the book contained …

The practice of teaching has been predominantly a transient occupation, a stepping-stone to more desirable careers. Teachers have possessed neither the ambition nor the training to equip themselves adequately for teaching on a professional level. Few, in consequence, would claim to know more than the text … A genuine concern on the part of educators for the needs of the pupil has left no other alternative than to prepare a textbook which should offset the teacher’s ignorance of the subject matter and method. Administrators or supervisors … could insure some degree of continuity and regularity in the education of children only by insisting on a loyal adherence to the text …

The supervising principal of a public school in a large city once said to the speaker: ‘It is idle to ask my teachers to read professional works. They follow the prescribed course of study, and look to me for their methods. Their ambition is to do their work precisely as I direct, and they do this work without inquiring whether my methods are correct or incorrect. It is enough that I prescribe them.’

Thayer, V.T. 1928. The Passing of the Recitation. Boston: D.C. Heath. pp. 14–16, 165