I have a thought experiment that I would like to perform – consider the world as it currently is, then change one variable slightly to imagine what could have been. The exercise is to think about how education and the world would have been different if teaching had remained a predominantly male profession rather than one which primarily became the domain of women. This is in no way intended to devalue the contributions that female teachers have made, or to imply that education is bad through any fault on the part of women. Rather, that due to societal prejudice against women, the entire field of education would have been more highly valued, better funded, and more respected if a majority of teachers had historically been men.
A Historically Undervalued Profession
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, teaching in America was primarily a position held by young men who moved on to more prestigious careers after their brief tenures in education (The History of Teaching in America). From the mid-19th century onward, K-12 teaching in the U.S. has been a predominantly female occupation that has generally been considered a nurturing role rather than a professional one.
"…by 1850 a majority of the nation’s teachers (particularly in the Northeast and Mid-west) were women. The ‘feminization of teaching,’ as this trend has become known, continued through the early twentieth century, by which time roughly four out of five teachers were women. Virtually all teachers in elementary schools—where the greatest expansion occurred—were women. The remaining male stronghold—the high school—was still a small rung on the educational ladder; it was not until after the turn of the century, when teaching conditions began to improve and secondary schooling became increasingly universal, that men began to return to teaching. By the 1930s an overall gender ratio of 70% female to 30% male was achieved; it has remained constant since then" (The History of Teaching in America)
In addition to the nurturing nature of teaching, the content, particularly at the elementary level, is often considered simple-minded or non-intellectual because the curriculum focuses on helping children gain basic skills and knowledge (The History of Teaching in America). While the reality is that there is a great deal of knowledge and skill involved in teaching at the elementary level, the perception is that teachers are providing basic skills that everyone already knows and anyone could teach to children. This attitude has contributed to the anti-intellectual perception of K-12 education.
Now the fun begins with a consideration of what would have happened if 19th century education had not been viewed as a low-prestige, temporary position for men. What if education and educators had maintained the more revered position that it had occupied during the time of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, and what if teachers had been compensated accordingly? This is obviously a radical shift from reality because, if the field had been viewed as prestigious, women would never have been allowed to enter it in the first place. The low prestige field of teaching was one of the very few professional options available for women in early American society. But changing that at the outset would have had profound effects on the future of American education.
For starters, men would have never relinquished their hold on education in the 1850’s and women would probably have remained indentured servants in the home. Even if social constraints had opened up as they did, women would have had a hard time breaking into the education field. It is entirely possible that, with one small change in the perception of early American education, the current system would have been supplanted by one which would be viewed as a highly professional, intellectual, male dominated field. If that were the case, some other dramatic changes to education and society may have occurred.
Education Becomes a Societal Priority
With men assuming the primary role of teachers the field would have been viewed as more professional and educators would have been more respected. The long standing bias against women in professional roles would not have aided in the de-professionalizing of the field. The bias against women as professionals has been a significant factor in relegating the teaching profession to the lower rungs of the career prestige ladder. Because women are viewed as less competent, less intellectual, and more nurturing than men, society has undervalued the degree of training and professionalism required to teach.
If teaching had remained the primary domain of men – men who were also running the country’s political, economic, and social systems- there is a strong possibility that education could have evolved into a high-value field. If that were the case, schools and learning could have assumed and maintained a more important role in society akin to that held by business and politics.
The Pace of Educational Innovation Increases
It is a logical extension to think that, if education had become one of our core societal priorities, it would have received more funding and greater investment in new teaching methodologies and technologies to support learning. With more investment in education, more research into cognitive science, and an emphasis on incorporating the newest technology to support learning, the pace of educational innovation would have been dramatically accelerated compared to the slower, incremental advances we have experienced in general.
In the real world, education has progressed steadily but slowly from the industrial revolution and the present day. It is only recently feeling pressure to adapt to the digital age. With a change in our value system, education might have become a driving force for change and innovation, rather than an afterthought that gets leftover scraps of innovations only after they become affordable. Universities, to a limited extent, demonstrate this idea. Our research institutions have as one of their primary functions to drive innovation, and thus receive significant government and private funding in support of that mission. Current K-12 schools do not have a research agenda, but that does not mean that one could not have developed for them. That potential is one of the most interesting takeaways from this exercise. We could have become a society that engaged our children in the process of creating the advances that would have powered our future. More brains engaged in innovation is always a good thing and we have potentially missed out on a great deal of out-of-the-box thinking from our young people. In addition, by not valuing teachers and education, we have squandered an opportunity to help instill in our children the values that would have made them even more productive creators in the future.
We are forced to live in the reality that we have and it is sad that an underlying bias against women has de-professionalized the field of education. Our predominantly female core of educators has done at least as good a job educating generations of children as men could have. However, that does not mean that we should disregard some of the possibilities that speculating about the alternative reality brings to light. Here are a few changes to the current education system that could still be made to help adapt it to the world we do live in:
- Value education more highly, and fund it accordingly
- Acknowledge the professionalism of all educators and support them in their work
- Support the innovative uses of technology for learning
- Make research and innovation part of the educational experience of all children
If we can bolster our education system in these ways we can leapfrog 160+ years of missed opportunities that we have brought upon ourselves through an unfounded bias against female educators. It is never too late to change for the better and giving our undervalued female teachers the respect and professional recognition that they have been missing out on for centuries would help improve education for everyone.