I was in car and listening to WUSF Radio when I heard the startling news that, without consulting faculty or area school systems, USF intended to abolish its College of Education. My first thought was that Jack Gordon would be thrilled; my second thought was that Betty Castor would be distressed. Both liberal Democrats, they served together in the Florida Senate in the 1970s when Democrats controlled the legislature -- but not necessarily liberal Democrats. Anti-intellectual Senate President Dempsey Barron of Lower Alabama ran everything, along with his Panhandle pork-guzzlers.
Betty and Jack were part of a new generation of reformers. Hillsborough County sent several in that era, including Pat Frank, Helen Gordon Davis, and cancer survivor Lee Moffitt (whose wife, Karen, earned a doctorate at USF's College of Education while Lee was Speaker of the House). Lots of other reformers came from South Florida, including Jack Gordon (no kin to Helen). A banker, he was a tad arrogant and patronizing towards teachers.
Hubby was president of the United Faculty of Florida then, but Jack was dismissive of him until he realized that Hubby's doctorate was from Harvard. I impressed Jack when we sat next to each other at the 1980 Democratic convention, and he saw that I do crossword puzzles in ink. This sort of unexamined snobbery was what caused his bias against colleges of education.
He thought that universities should abolish them, and future teachers should major in a subject field such as history or math. I tended to agree with him at the time, but Betty Castor and other forces of nature caused me to change my mind. Such majors may be alright if one intends to teach exclusively history or math at the secondary level, but most students who enroll in colleges of education intend to become elementary-school teachers. They deserve to specialize in their specialty.
The curriculum of education colleges has changed immensely since I got a minor in it back in the Dark Ages. Then we didn't even know of phenomena such as dyslexia or autism or Torchette's syndrome, let alone how to reach kids with those problems. Many learning disabilities now are being unraveled, and because of that, teachers are producing more productive citizens. The current epidemic also is causing millions of parents to reassess the value of teachers, and praising them as heroes is not enough. They need essential tools for their work, and colleges of education provide this.
In a recent phone call, Betty and I talked about the 1990s, when the military did a big "reduction in force," causing many men to be "riffed." Lots of people thought that giving a teaching certificate to these college-educated guys was a great idea. I rather did, too, until I interviewed one who applied to be president of HCC when I was a trustee there. Ten minutes into the conversation, I realized that giving orders to troops did not make one educator and certainly did not equate to a degree in educational leadership.
Teaching is a special skill, and like other skills, it must be learned. We also need colleges of education for research into how people learn, and innovation in that field should be considered part of the mission of a research university. One unusual example: my goddaughter has been an elementary-school educator for decades, both in Arizona and in Minnesota, and has worked in a lot of capacities, including as principal. She doesn't particularly care for administration, though, and stepped down from that to become a math interventionist – the person to whom teachers refer students who don't "get" math.
She lives up near the Canadian border, and a lot of the kids she works with are Ojibway. She taught on the reservation for a while, but then opted for a nearby public school where about 25% of the students are members of that tribe, formerly known as Chippewa. She tells me that many have an unexplained learning disability in which they cannot remember the sequence of numbers. They will say, for example, "9, 10, 11, 14," and when corrected, they agree that this is wrong. The next day they do it all over again, maybe with "6, 7, 8, 12."
She doesn't know what causes this, not does anyone else with whom she has talked. And believe me, she combs the internet daily for things that will help her kids. It's the sort of phenomenon that a college of education should be researching, but who will do it if those schools aren't there? I'm sure university math departments will have no interest whatever. And why should she have to earn a degree in math to do what she does? Senator Gordon, should you rise up from your grave, admit that you were wrong, and wave the flag for teachers.
A NEW PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM
I'm serious: those interminable phone menus you get when you call for anything these days are killing us. I recently lost all of my bundled packet from Spectrum – internet, phone, and TV – and tried to call repair using my cell phone. First there was a struggle to find the right number, which reminded me of when we had a printed phone book with the number for repair on the first page. Directory assistance finally gave me an 800 number, but it was a robotic voice that listed Spectrum sales places on Dale Mabry and other local streets. I tried the number again, and could not get any of the robots on the menu to accept my simple "repair." Instead they went through a dozen things they might sell me.
The main reason I have my cell phone account with Great Call is that I always get a live person – immediately – and they always are sympathetic. Once I was lost up in Pasco County, looking a for pancake house that the organizer who invited me to speak assured me that I "couldn't miss." I did, several ties. I called Great Call and said, "I don't know if I'm in Land o' Lakes or Wesley Chapel or maybe even Trinity," but can you find a pancake house on Highway 52?" She did.
So when I couldn't get through to a live person at Spectrum or even the right robot, Great Call's representative stayed with me while she tried an assortment of menus until, finally, a live person came on. While we were holding, it occurred to me that this sort of thing was a factor in Hubby's death. To understand, you need to know that he was a very kind and patient man. He also was on top of electronic advances from the time that he worked with the Army's baby computers during the Vietnam War. He very much looked forward to an internet world.
But towards the end of his life, he joined me in frustration with what that world – especially the telephone world – had become. No Luddite, he happily predicted calls with images – what we now call virtual meetings – back in the 1960s. He taught USF classes in Fort Myers using technology in Tampa and was a pioneer in distance learning. He did those things, though, to make communication accessible and inclusive -- whereas today's technocrats are just that: "crats," as in autocrats. Their automated systems are intended not to solve the problem, but to complicate it.
I've long thought that many of the problems in current technology are the result of millennials looking to keep themselves employed, but I never thought of this as a public health issue until now. I could feel my blood pressure rising as I tried to reach Spectrum, and I remembered mild-mannered Hubby once getting angry enough to throw the phone across the room. It may have caused one of the mini-strokes that weren't discovered until he was hospitalized with a broken neck.
I should say that when the Spectrum guy came, he was kind and smart. The problem is not the people who turn up at the door, but the robots who keep them from doing so. So please, let's not shrug off this as "the way things are these days." As a society, we have the power to stop it. The fact is that we are imposing unnecessary mental stress on ourselves, and everyone knows that stress is dangerous.
We need a more serene world in which businesses again answer the phone numbers that they advertise. It's a simple way to avoid attacks on our hearts and brains. No more robotic menus, but instead real people, providing real information -- and real jobs. Especially businesses in the so-called communication business should pick up their phones. Call the PSC -- or try to. And vote for people who will remove this stressor from our lives.