Forget the University: Come Teach Middle School

The crisis facing graduates of the humanities is palpable. Countless students leave academia without significant job prospects; there simply aren’t enough university positions to absorb a school’s graduates. With the erosion of the tenured track in academia, even those lucky enough to get a teaching gig at a university may find themselves in a perpetual low-paid, temporary position.

A myriad of pieces have been penned to warn future students of entering grad school in the humanities, all of which providing a healthy dose of realism to wide-eyed undergraduates with dreams of a future garbed comfortably in tweed jackets within the walls of the ivy shielded ivory tower. Some pundits have advocated for PhD graduates to consider other fields of work if they wish to apply skills they acquired in grad school. Elizabeth Segran at the Atlantic recently wrote a piece discussing jobs outside the university realm that may play well with those with a background in humanities. Considering the realities of academia, I hope anyone considering a PhD in the humanities recognizes that they will likely have to pursue work far removed from a professorship.

Oddly enough, Segran leaves off the most obvious career choice for out-of-work graduates: teaching. This may sound ridiculous to some, but PhD students of the humanities should see a teaching gig at your local middle school as the best use of their skills.

I recognize that teaching middle school students is not as glamorous as being a tenured professor; the job will not come with the air of respectability and wisdom inherent in holding a university gig. You also have to deal with being a politician’s whipping boy each time underperforming schools are addressed in the media. That gets tiring, but you get used to it.

I also accept that middle school students are dissimilar to college-aged undergraduates. We all remember what we were like in our early teens, and we likely don’t celebrate it as our best years. This age group can be a challenge to be engaged with continuously, but their emotional and intellectual immaturity should be seen as a positive to PhDs deliberating a cerebral challenge. In my estimation, a middle school teacher’s impact on society far exceeds that of philosophy lecturer speaking exclusively to middle class twenty-somethings.

This semester, my 8th grade students are addressing the following guiding question: what is the purpose of government? California state standards have us focus our 8th grade curriculum on early US history, but rather than simply discussing the reasons the American Revolution took place, we have students ask bigger questions about the entire point of government and the fundamental state of human nature.

On the first day of class, we drop our students into a collaborative simulation to get them thinking about human interactions in the state of nature. The class is put on a deserted island and has to complete a number of tasks, all of which require some form of cooperation. Through the simulation, students formulate opinions on the human condition and the reasons we organize into groups, as well as different arrangements of union to achieve a task. Some walk away from the experience deeming people naturally selfish and self-interested; others conclude man is inherently cooperative and good-natured.

We introduce philosophical arguments regarding the state of nature and solutions to its inherent problems. Our 8th grade students read excerpts from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Then from John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Civil Government:

God having made man such a creature, [saw] it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to [push] him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy [society].”

As we analyze each excerpt, then discuss and debate each argument and the logical conclusions about government that stem from each position. We consider the place and time each philosopher devised their positions, considering the role culture and conditions have on one’s perspective (the English Civil War in Hobbes’ case and birth of liberalism and the Enlightenment in Locke’s).

Student’s examine the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, and deliberate over the meaning of rights. They are forced to address inconsistencies with their idealized vision of fairness and justice in the world. Are there universal rights enjoyed by all people regardless of nationality or state? Clearly, this is not an easy question to answer for the most seasoned university debater, but seeing young minds build arguments with key philosophical texts as their foundation is a joy to witness, and challenges the perception that such quandaries are beyond the realm of possibility with this age group.

We even address controversial views on government, forcing the class to consider visions of society often left out of discussions on the subject. Benito Mussolini and fascism is addressed:

A nation, as expressed in the State, is a living, ethical entity only in so far as it is progressive. Inactivity is death. Therefore the State is not only Authority which governs and confers legal form and spiritual value on individual wills, but it is also Power which makes its will felt and respected beyond its own frontiers, thus affording practical proof of the universal character of the decisions necessary to ensure its development.”

 Quickly followed by anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished…. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”

Similar excerpts from Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Thomas Jefferson are addressed and debated, giving students but a taste of the varied opinions on the subject of government.

The trimester culminates in students presenting their own vision for government. Using specific historical examples, students construct their own manifesto to explain the purpose (if any) for government. Their argument is then challenged and questioned by their peers, requiring that students address dissenting positions. When the second trimester rolls around, and our focus shifts to the US Constitution, students have a much deeper understanding of the reasons for its structure and vision than students who simply memorized dates of battles from the Revolutionary War.

Surely, an 8th grade student cannot delve into these text’s in their entirety; even if time permitted, it is too much to ask of a mind just beginning to consider societal dimensions to read The Leviathan in its totality. Yet, these excerpts do allow for intense, sometimes contentious conversations about the state of man and the role of government. Our debates and seminars often spill out into the school’s hallways and onto family dinner tables. This reality alone should entice PhDs to give teaching middle school a chance.

With the Common Core, the possibilities are endless for what can be addressed in the classroom. Previously, all 8th grade students had to take a 40-50 question multiple-choice test that covered the previous 3 years of history curriculum. Questions ranged from specific details related to Mesopotamia, Feudal Japan and the Articles of Confederation. While this test gave a snapshot into specific content retention, it didn’t speak to a student’s analytical process, corroboration, or argumentative skills. Ironically, our history benchmark exam did not ask students to think like historians.

Some teachers have complained that the skills required by the Common Core are too challenging to foster in the classroom, but I find them liberating. The possibilities to address interesting and applicable material is endless; I am sure any humanities professor reading this can come up with a laundry list of texts students can address to better comprehend our central question.

When you began grad school, you likely didn’t see yourself teaching 14 year olds. Maybe you even thought it beneath you. The possibility of stable long-term employment and a need for smart, knowledgeable educators across the country may lure some to the classroom but the chance to shape young minds should keep you there. The chance to bring multifaceted ideas and texts to our nation’s youth is a golden opportunity that is waiting just around the block in your local public school. Challenging individuals to think critically about our world is at the heart of the humanities, and there is no better place to do it than a middle school classroom.

(Image: cover to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan by Abraham Bosse- 1651)


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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29 thoughts on “Forget the University: Come Teach Middle School

  1. My high school had some teachers with PhDs, well two anyway, so it does happen that you have teachers with a PhD teaching bellow the college level. The big problem with this idea is that teachers bellow the college level are much more constrained with what they can teach by politics or other factors. Even when assigned to a specific course by their department head at college, they are allowed to bring their own spin on the subject and select their own course materials. This is less possible bellow the college level. I think a lot of PhDs would want more freedom to teach as they please.

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    • Yes, each site will have different guidelines/culture when it comes to teaching curriculum. I am fortunate enough to be in a school to gives us free-reign to create curriculum (we happen to have done very well on the recent Common Core exam, so that gives us a lot of room to maneuver). Our program is also popular with parents, but I sometimes wonder how it would go over elsewhere in the country.

      Having said that, most schools are having to rethink how they are teaching at the moment, and there is no better time than now for smart grad students to drop in and make changes.

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      • Twelfth grade social studies in my high school was either an introduction to Western philosophy or economics. In English class we were allowed to read Hesse and other modernist and difficult authors in addition to the classic choices. The high school theater and music program was ambitious and it included two concerts, one opera, a fall play, a student directed one-act festival, and a spring musical. We were a very atypical high school even by affluent New York suburban standards.

        To get PhDs to teach high school and middle school, your going to have to find away around the various restraints on curriculum that exists in many school districts. Even in ostensibly liberal and affluent school districts, many parents are probably not going to be thrilled with the works of radical historians being read during global history.

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        • “Even in ostensibly liberal and affluent school districts, many parents are probably not going to be thrilled with the works of radical historians being read during global history.”

          This is true, but I think it is on the teacher in question to really explain and justify to the community why said text is included. We are able to bring in radical and controversial bits because parents see a clear balance and lack of bias towards a text. Teachers that have gotten in trouble in the past for using said texts often come across as “indoctrinating” students (unfairly or not).

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  2. Great essay.

    When I was in my MFA program and saw the writing on the wall about the chances of a directorial career as being none, I went back and forth between a PhD and a JD.

    I decided on a JD for a variety of reasons. The main one being that even in 2005, I saw that the chance of tenure was slim and adjuncting seemed to becoming the norm among the academics that I knew.

    I admit that I never considered teaching middle or high school. Part of this is family history. Mom was a teacher and later a education administrator and she did not want me to become a teacher. She thought I would be good at it but she grew to see teaching as a thankless task and in the United States, she is probably right. I also didn’t want to deal with censorship. When you are a middle or high school drama teacher, your job is to make the kids look cute for their parents. When you teach theatre at the university level, you get to teach the subject like it is worthy of study and like you are training future professionals. You also generally don’t have a board of education saying that plays X and Y can’t be read because they are improper for adolescents and teenagers.

    You are right though that a lot of PhDs don’t consider teaching middle or high school because they are looking for the prestige of teaching at a college or university. My professorial daydreams were very much about teaching at a college like my own. A small liberal arts college in the Northeast (Northwest would have worked as well) that was very picturesque and filled with students who wanted to be there.*

    *You really don’t attend a SLAC unless you want to be there because classes are small. When I was in law school, a lot of my class mates attended universities where 300-500 person lectures are the norm. They were legitimately freaked out when I said in undergrad 40 was usually tops for a class and in grad school, most of my classes were with the same 8 people for three years. To my co-students, the large lectures were a feature and not a bug. I also had a roommate who only applied to his state’s flagship U because he knew he could get in and was too lazy to apply anywhere else.

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    • I heard similar things from my mother (a teacher) when I began talking about entering the profession. She argued that I had too much education for the gig and would find it restricting. Thankfully I didn’t follow her advice and have greatly enjoyed being the first adult to introduce these ideas to students.

      I am also in a privileged position: our school is one of the best public schools around with a very educated and engaged set of families. I have taught at other schools where it was harder to implement this curriculum. With that in mind, students always enjoyed the process and projects when the alternatives were presented (reading a textbook, answering stock questions, memorizing and regurgitating details). Fellow teachers I know bring similar curriculum into their classes in tough Oakland schools and they find it rewarding as well.

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      • I went to a really good public high school with engaged students and defendants as well.

        Another issue is credentialing. College and university professors are not expected to learn pedagogical techniques. Maybe they should but they do not.

        As I understand it, a lot of being a K-12 teacher is learning pedagogical techniques.

        So maybe PhDs are underemployed but they also probably don’t want to learn teaching techniques on top of that.

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        • “So maybe PhDs are underemployed but they also probably don’t want to learn teaching techniques on top of that.”

          Yes, that is correct. As noted elsewhere in the comments, just because someone knows the material well doesn’t mean they would be a good teacher. You do need to know how people at specific developmental levels learn and successful strategies in the classroom.

          I think it is a shame PhD candidates are not taught more about the art of teaching. In fact, I would love to see more graduate programs incorporate a state credential into their course load. Even if said graduate never expects to teach middle school/high school, the university could take on their current student load knowing that they at least had options at the end of their studies.

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            • True, but the current job market should have them rethink that position, especially if they really want to work with the humanities professionally (if they just want to develop research skills, there are a slew of applicable jobs far removed from the humanities).

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              • I wonder how much Masters and PhD programs would see their enrollments drop if they started talking about teaching middle and high school as great careers.

                PhD programs are in a tough bind. There are not enough positions to justify more students but Universities are universities because they train PhDs and produce research. So putting a halt on PhD programs for moral reasons (you probably won’t get a position) defeats their existence.

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                • It is a bind. Since universities are not going to take in fewer PhD candidates, they should make sure they have plenty of options when leaving their studies. Maybe a few tangible tracks embedded into the program?

                  I guess it says a lot about the teaching profession that schools/students would scoff at the idea of applying their knowledge in said environment. If that view is shared by many unemployed humanities graduates, I don’t have much sympathy for their situation.

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                  • I think there have always been PhDs who don’t end up in academy. There have been more PhDs than positions since the early 1960s from what I’ve heard. I once spoke with a woman who made her living by selling vaguely Celtic and Vikingy crafts at various conventions and fairs. She had a PhD in History with a specialty studying the Danes from the dark ages/early middle ages. Her passion was probably too narrow focused for a faculty position and also extremely unfashionable as well.

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                    • Sure, that is true as well. I would just like to see these doctorate programs respond to the fact that many of their graduates couldn’t even teach the material in a public school classroom if they wanted to (I think a few people brought that up in the comments section of the piece linked to).

                      If they could minimally hold a credential, their options increase significantly.

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                    • Back in the 70s, there was a joke that Bell Labs had been hiring 25% of all the new physics PhDs each year. The punchline was “and one or two of them even got to do physics.” Anyone who finished a theoretical physics PhD was a fine applied mathematician, and the experimental types were practical electrical engineers or real-time software coders or both.

                      Later on, this practice declined. So did the Labs.

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          • “You do need to know how people at specific developmental levels learn and successful strategies in the classroom.”

            The cynic in me would argue that we need to get those actually in education to accept this first!

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  3. “This semester, my 8th grade students are addressing the following guiding question: what is the purpose of government?”

    This would be a worthwhile exercise for US!

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  4. I would love to teach middle school actually, and possibly will do that. In Ontario, you have to get a teaching certificate, which requires two years of schooling. I taught for five years and was great at it, and honestly think being taught to teach is about like taking a class to know how to kiss, but at some point I do intend to take out the loans and go through the process.

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  5. I had a great high school social studies teacher who pushed us further than just rote memorization of events & people (which, for a rural WI school was unusual) , but not to the degree you express here.

    I would have loved to have taken your class, even back in high school.

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  6. Pingback: On Teaching and The Simpsons | in hope and darkness

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