Monday, December 3, 2012

Master of None

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

In 1968, the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, awarded me a degree, saying I was a Master of Education. In those days, it was possible to get such a degree at the age of 22 or 23, after a year of course work. Now, what does that mean: “Master of Education”?

Michelangelo finished his immortal Pietá at the age of 21, so perhaps he was a Master of Sculpture at that age, but it is said that he was around marble dust even as an infant, and he had been carving sculptures in marble for many years by the time he was 21.

My understanding is that in Medieval guilds, it took some time to be acknowledged as a Master in any of the crafts. One had to serve a number of years as an apprentice, then some years as a journeyman, then, if ready to do so, it was necessary to offer a “Master–Piece” of work, which, if accepted by the other Masters of the guild, could earn for the craftsman the rank of Master in that craft. Of course these days we throw around the term “masterpiece” without much thought of what it meant, just as we can call something a “classic” when it is brand new, or even a soft drink. J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is a classic, but then these days so are one version of Coke, and the Army/Navy game.

The degree of Master has to be earned over time even now in other fields as well. The one best thing for me that came out of my time at the Harvard Ed School was the recommendation by my advisor, a kindly professor of statistics, that I read Professor Eugen Herrigel’s book, Zen in the Art of Archery. This fine book lead me to a lifelong interest in Zen and related subjects. But I have to say that one cannot become a Zen Master of Archery, or of any of the arts, not to mention meditation itself, by the age of 23 after one year of study.

But surely there are better parallels to the Master of Education. What about earning one’s Master's license in the Merchant Marine? No, that takes a long time and a lot of hard work, too. What about becoming a Master Sergeant, for instance in the United States Marine Corps? Well, no, that takes quite a while and a lot of experience and knowledge as well.

I worked with a high school student once on the Boston’s North Shore, who needed to graduate early because she had been accepted in a Master Class with the violinist Fritz Kreisler. Turned out she had been flying very early in the morning twice a week to study violin at Julliard in New York. She had been invited to join that small Master Class, but it was a chance to study with a Master, not a quick trip to a Master’s Degree of her own in Music.

There is a famous story around now, speaking of Master musicians, of a teacher in Los Angeles, I believe, who took his class to hear a Master cellist in concert and to meet him afterwards. The story says that one of the students asked him how he came to be such a good musician. And the cellist said, after a pause, “Well, first, there are no shortcuts.” But then he was not talking about the path to a degree as a Master of Education, on which, I would argue, shortcuts are the order of the day, and have been for many decades.

Some academic Master’s programs try to redeem their right to the name by requiring a thesis (a modern imitation of the Master–Piece). Perhaps in physics or in molecular biology, such a thesis could really demonstrate mastery of the subject. But my Master’s program in Education did not require a thesis, and the general opinion is, I understand, that most theses written in the field of Education do not rise to the level of mastery required in the hard sciences by any stretch of the definition.

I would conclude with a couple of suggestions. First, when educators who are Masters of Education, including me, talk about educational mastery, it might be useful to retain some skepticism over whether they know much about mastery of any kind in any field. Second, we might consider whether to try to make a Master’s Degree in Education mean something one day.

And finally, I have to confess that, after nearly thirty-five years of work in education, I have come to the view that Mastery in education is very hard to achieve. If we pretend otherwise, by passing out meaningless degrees, we end up by avoiding most of the many serious questions about how we might actually get better at educating the children in our charge.


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