Public History: Craft or Profession?

K-12 educators and administrators have debated with each other for many years about whether teaching constitutes a craft or a profession. There is certainly an element of experiential “craft” training within all professions, and crafts can definitely constitute a profession. But the debate over craft vs. profession is important for education because a more precise definition that explains how teachers should be trained for their work could provide clearer expectations for students looking to become teachers. Many students become disenchanted with teaching before even stepping in the classroom or at an early part of their career, and a recent study by sociologist Richard Ingersoll confirms that between forty and fifty percent of all new teachers leave the field within the first five years of receiving their teacher’s certificate. Perhaps a part of this high turnover can be attributed to shortcomings in teacher education programs that do not adequately prepare their students for the classroom.

Advocates for craft-based teacher education argue that the process of teaching should be the primary focus of students’ training. Advocates for craft-based training argue that much like a carpenter, mechanic, or plumber, prospective teachers should be placed in a realistic work environment as soon as possible so that they have an opportunity to learn through trial-and-error and experience rather than stuffing their way through theoretical concepts in an education classroom. When these students do read and study theory, they should focus their curricular studies on theories of education and teaching methods rather than a specific discipline or form of content such as history, science, or mathematics. Many of these students end up getting straight education degrees without any certification or degree in a particular field of study.

Advocates for profession-based teacher education argue that disciplinary content should be the primary focus of learning for prospective teachers. Advocates for this type of training argue that much like a lawyer, dentist, or military officer, prospective teachers need to be first and foremost experts in their field of study, whether that be history, science, mathematics, or any other number of disciplines. By grasping a clear understanding of their respective fields, prospective teachers are better prepared to educate their students about a specific discipline. Gaining experience teaching in a classroom is important, but not at the sacrifice of learning content. We can see this type of thinking most clearly in higher education, where many college and university professors are experts in their field of study but often do not hold any educational credentials. Many of these profession-based students have degrees in a certain discipline but not necessarily education. Yours truly, for example, has a BA in history with a certification in education – not an education degree that the craft-based training programs typically offer.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the field of public history could benefit from its own “craft vs. profession” discussion.

When I studied public history at IUPUI, there was a heavy emphasis on our training as historians. We received “practical” experiences and training in the field through yearly internships with various university partners in the Indianapolis area, but the bulk of our classroom experiences revolved around the writing of a master’s thesis, acquiring knowledge of historical methods, and developing skills that would help us become good historical researchers. I took several classes through the university’s museum studies program that provided me with valuable training in interpretation, education theory, and ideas for communicating the stuff of history to public audiences, but those classes were electives that I voluntarily chose to take and not required for my degree. While my training included elements of both craft- and profession-based training, it was evident to me (at least) that the majority of my training was geared towards having a strong understanding of the content within my historical research interests.

Other public history programs do not require a thesis and instead require a portfolio or some sort of major project that oftentimes places a stronger interest on process and “practical” skills like grant-writing, budgeting, and the experience of working on a collaborative team. Again, these programs are similar to mine in that they include both craft- and profession-type elements of training, but it seems to me that this sort of training can at times be starkly different than what I received when I was in graduate school due to its emphasis on the craft of public history.

These are preliminary thoughts on my part and perhaps it is unnecessary to even discuss whether or not public history is a craft or a profession. I personally think these questions are useful, however, for considering the role of theory and practice in public history. I will keep thinking about these questions and perhaps they can be discussed further at the National Council on Public History’s April 2015 conference in Nashville if I am able to get out there.


4 thoughts on “Public History: Craft or Profession?

  1. A couple of things here. A profession has certain characteristics.

    One thing about teachers is that I don’t see where they’re treated like professionals. Where the kids are allowed to run roughshod and parents and administrators don’t have the teacher’s back, is it any wonder teachers burn out quickly? Give the teachers the respect due to professionals and there will be more satisfaction.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Al. The brief slide that you’ve linked to does a nice job of providing a concise definition of what constitutes a profession.

      There are many reasons why teachers burn out quickly. Lack of administrative and parental support, lack of pay, and (more recently) a lack of quality employment opportunities are all factors in explaining why so many students and new professionals leave the field. But there are also many education students who simply have no idea what the hell they’re getting themselves into with pursuing a teaching degree. By the time they start their student teaching they are at the end of their degree and have spent years of time and money to get to that point. A number of my friends finished their student teaching and chose to leave the field. I worked for one year and would certainly consider coming back at some point, but the countless insults, threats, and even physical abuse I endured after that one year definitely pushed me towards working in public history instead of k-12 education.

      Can an education student be trained for those kinds of situations? How do we negotiate the relationship between theory and practice in teaching (and public history) in the way students are trained for work in their fields of interest? These are the sorts of questions I love talking about.

  2. I discount the pay as a significant reason, Nick. It may be a reason for a relatively small number, but not for most. There are a number of reasons for that. Median teacher salary in the US is just over $52K/year, and I think it’s well known. Also, for a professional, the calling is more important. It seems to me that respect as a professional is much more important, and lack thereof is a more significant reason. That’s where the insults, threats, and abuse come from–a lack of respect for teachers as professionals. If I were the king of the world, I would fix that first and foremost. That’s where you would get the most bang for the buck. First of all, administrators who value teachers as professionals instead of just employees are needed. They need to have the teachers’ backs. Secondly, laws need to be written to give the teachers the backing they need. In some ways, teachers unions have to bear some of the responsibility. They’ve acted more like trade unions than professional organizations. I’m not laying all or even most of the responsibility on them, but just a small part of it.

    1. Hi Al,

      Thanks for continuing this discussion. There is not much to disagree with here, and I agree with you that teachers face a lack of respect because they are often not seen as professionals (by people in and out of the field of teaching). I would also be interested in seeing teachers unions take further steps to protect teachers from abuse.

      I don’t want to belabor the point too far, but I think the pay factor does play a role in this discussion because it often comes down to opportunity cost for some who leave. Even though the average pay is indeed around $52K, most young professionals are making nowhere near that kind of money to start off. They accept this pay partly because of “the calling” factor but also because they know there are possibilities to move up in the pay scale if they stick around and get more experience teaching. The fact that so many young professionals choose “not stick it out” for the future earnings and instead pursue alternative careers I find significant. “The calling” in some cases can only go so far.

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