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'A' Is For Awful

November 04, 1990

Shearer's blast at public schools included a little throwaway line that teaching was once the province of women too squeamish for nursing. His dismissal of a generation of female teachers, as if they were the least ambitious career women of their time, seems to me to overlook the very heart of our present-day education crisis.

Public schooling in the 1930s and '40s rested on the bedrock abilities of talented, intelligent and, indeed, ambitious but underpaid women who had almost no other career choices open to them besides teaching school. By Shearer's time, the standard may have been two good teachers per school, as he says. But I was one of the fortunate children of the earlier era. In ordinary public schools, in "melting pot" neighborhoods, we learned not only reading, writing and arithmetic but history and geography and spelling and music. In fourth grade, we all learned to read music as a matter of course, as part of a good basic education, taught by our classroom teacher, not by a "specialist" brought in for "enrichment." The caliber of our teachers was so high, we were all enriched every day, by the simple process Shearer laments: teaching something one knows to someone who doesn't.

Even if we find the way and the will to deal with the appalling problems that swamp our public schools today, we will never restore the quality of teaching to that of 50 years ago, unless and until the profession of teaching offers the income, status and working conditions that bright, multitalented, competent and ambitious women, as well as men, now command in other fields.

JOAN GRAY

San Diego

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