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It’s time to reimagine how undergraduates study education

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

What is the value of an undergraduate degree in education? Is it good preparation for teaching a particular subject at a particular level? Is it a sustainable program, given limited university resources? Aside from offering teaching certification, what should the undergraduate education major consist of?

One way to address these questions is to examine programs in other disciplines. Two examples to consider are the music industry major, recently established at several universities, including my own, and American studies, a well-established and popular undergraduate major.

Undergraduate music programs are rarely viable, requiring resources that most universities cannot afford, especially given the small number of majors they are likely to recruit. Even if a student majors in music at a well-respected conservatory, the likelihood of finding employment as a professional musician is small. The music major appeals to many students simply because they like music, but not to their parents who, as underwriters of their education, worry where the major will lead.

Recently Drexel University and a few others devised an answer to the music conundrum: the music industry major. Students get the opportunity to take a certain number of music classes but supplement them with other, more practical courses. They indulge their passion for the art of music but also study the the business of how it is produced and marketed. Then, if they can’t land a job in music, they’ll still be prepared to work in some related area—or perhaps in some corner of society that draws on their knowledge of intellectual property and the intersection of business and creative expression.

A different but not entirely unrelated development occurred some three decades ago, when American studies was first introduced. Cross-disciplinary programs were emerging and the study of American culture, in particular, began to encompass more than just reading books by American authors. Movies, television, music, dance, historical events and personalities, even food and drink—all were seen as “texts” worthy of study. The same perspective occurred with respect to ethnic and minority literature. Hence, we now have African-American studies, Judaic studies, Greek studies, feminist studies, and so forth. I focus on American studies here because it includes some of these areas, and because America, from its beginning, saw itself as distinct from a more narrowly defined, “high brow” European model of culture. American studies has become a vibrant, cross-disciplinary major that can lead to many kinds of graduate study or to jobs (publishing and public relations come to mind) of the sort traditionally pursued by English or history majors.

The undergraduate education major ought to take a cue from these programs. An “education industry” or “education studies” degree would be both more cross-disciplinary and more broadly practical than what is currently offered. Education studies would include a certification and student-teaching component, as well as time spent in an educational institution or education-related setting in a non-teaching capacity. Coursework would involve theories of education, but also courses in social work, public health, organizational management, psychology, sociology, and communications, among other possible subject matter. After graduation, students could pursue educational policy or do fundraising or public relations for educational institutions. If they chose, they could proceed to graduate school in a wide array of areas, from public health to urban planning to business to law. Then again, they could always teach.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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