Professing Education


A Conversation with Douglas J. Simpson

Jan Armstrong

University of New Mexico

Douglas J. Simpson

Texas Tech University

This is the first of series of interviews with past presidents of the Society of Professors of Education. I talked with Professor Simpson (DJS) by phone on June 1, 2005. The text of the interview was captured from notes taken during the course of our conversation. In the interest of clarity and accuracy, DJS reviewed and made minor editorial changes to the transcript. For an autobiographical account of Simpson's education and miseducation in Carteret, North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, see "The Miseducation of Bubba"1

JKA: Doug Simpson is the Helen DeVitt Jones Chair in Teacher Education and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University. Prior to his present appointment, he was the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development (1999- 2002) at the University of Louisville; Dean of the School of Education at Texas Christian University (1988-1999); and Dean of the College of Education at Tennessee State University (1984-1988). In addition to serving as President of the Society of Professors of Education (1997-1999), he has served as President of the American Educational Studies Association (1998-1999), the Council of Learned Societies in Education (1994-1997), and the Texas Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (1993-1994). He serves on the Board of Examiners for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). He began his college education at the Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, Tennessee, subsequently earning an M. Ed. at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro and a Ph. D. at the University of Oklahoma. His research interests focus on John Dewey, curriculum theory, Paulo Freire, teacher preparation, and education and ethics. Doug is the editor of the Journal of Thought, author of numerous articles, and author or co-author of John Dewey: Primer (2006), John Dewey and the Art of Teaching: Toward Reflective and Imaginative Practice (with Michael J.B. Jackson and Judy C. Aycock, 2005); Recreating Schools: Places Where Everyone Learns and Likes It (with Charles B. Myers, 1998); Educational Reform: A Deweyan Approach (with M. Jackson, 1997); The Pedagodfathers: The Lords of Education (1994); and The Teacher as Philosopher (with M. Jackson,1984).

Douglas J. Simpson

JKA: How did you first become involved with the Society of Professors of Education?

DJS: I've been an SPE member for about 15 or 20 years. I'm not sure how I first became involved. I was probably invited to attend an SPE meeting by Joe DeVitis or Harvey Neufeldt.

JKA: What do you remember about your work with the Society?

DJS: Sadly, very little But meeting, talking, and working with people was the most enjoyable part. I valued the opportunity to work with the Executive Board, committees, and contacting people to give addresses for the Raywid Awards and DeGarmo Lectures. I was particularly involved with offering invitations and awards to Gloria Ladson-Billings (Mary Ann Raywid Award in 1997), Michael Apple (DeGarmo lecture, 1997), Larry Cuban (Mary Ann Raywid Award, 1998), Nel Noddings (DeGarmo lecture, 1998), William Hare (Mary Ann Raywid Award, 1999), and Yvonna Lincoln (DeGarmo lecture, 1999). Of course, committee members played crucial roles in each of these affairs.

SPE is still the SIG I'm most likely to be involved with when I attend AERA, although I am involved with several other groups, including the John Dewey Society.

JKA: What else can you tell me about working with the Executive Board and other SPE committees?

DJS: I remember we were very concerned with raising the Society's profile at AERA, recruiting new members, and finding our niche among the many professional groups that exist. In part, we tried to do this with the DeGarmo Lecture and the Mary Ann Raywid Awards sessions. Plus there was an interest in acknowledging innovative and reflective teacher education programs. This led to creation of the Richard Wisniewski Award in 1999. We also discussed sponsoring a new journal, Professing Education. I think Bob Morris initiated the project, and we started working on it. It was delayed for a year or two but eventually emerged to serve SPE well. We also did some brainstorming and developed a call for submissions for the first issue, which was to be edited by John Novak and Jonathan Neufeld of Brock University. The theme of the first issue was to be "Education and the New Millennium." I don't want to take credit for the publication. Bob and others deserve the credit. I just happened to be president at the time.

We also had to deal with some difficult financial issues. AERA changed its way of working with special interest groups. The Association began collecting dues for SIGs as well as for Divisions. At a business meeting, Bob Morris delineated a number of options on how we could deal with the financial challenges. We selected the existing arrangement and the Society moved forward successfully.

JKA: What should others know about the context in which you were working during your term as President of SPE?

DJS: I think the context was similar to what recent Presidents have faced. There has been a continual marginalization of people with interests in social and cultural foundations and curriculum studies. It's not that there is no interest in these areas, but more interest is now placed on the cultures of students, multicultural education, and diversity. All of these studies are needed, but the interests are somewhat to significantly different from being engaged in sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, ethics, and theory of education. The two groups have rather different goals although they are complementary. The former appears more immediately and practically oriented. The latter can be very practical, but it is does so by seeing practice through the lenses of the disciplines, multiple disciplines, and theory. Reflective practice emerges by understanding both—and other—strands of thought and research. I've unfortunately oversimplified matters. Fortunately, SPE members are intelligent enough to know such!

Whatever the relationship of these two general fields to educator preparation, marginalization has continued in most places.

JKA: Why do you think this marginalization has occurred?

DJS: There are more influences than I have time to discuss. So, I'll mention just a couple of related ideas. The university and teacher preparation curricula are packed full of different and competing kinds of coursework—and there is a limit on how much coursework can be required for degrees and education majors. But if educational foundations were highly valued by most education professors and policymakers, the programs we offer would be different. This lack of valuing seems clear when we realize that few if any people would eliminate particular courses (e.g., literacy, child development, so forth) from the teacher education curriculum. On the other hand, very few professors and policymakers seem to think very long—if the courses are required in a program of study—about eliminating a course in educational theory, philosophy of education, or curriculum theory.

JKA: What do you think accounts for this?

DJS: There are multiple reasons. Some reasons are meritorious; others aren't. Recently, many faculty may unconsciously feel that whatever there is of value in the foundations can be taught by them in other courses, e.g., multicultural education courses replace social foundations ones; critical or feminist theory courses may replace philosophy of education offerings.

But there is something very important to learn from these overlapping realms of inquiry. They are perceived as important, relevant, and practical. We, as a field, haven't created the same image of ourselves and haven't made ourselves valuable in many teacher education programs. Often, our teacher education colleagues don't think of us as relevant to contemporary questions. Maybe some of us aren't - or, at least, our courses aren't. We may have been seen as twiddling our theoretical, abstract, and evidentiary thumbs while educational Rome burns. Whether we appreciate such or not, teacher education and school cultures are frequently focused on ideas and skills that are immediately and instrumentally useful. Ignoring this is, as we have seen, suicidal.

I also hypothesize that the expansion of adolescence may make it more difficult to teach foundations in intellectually stimulating, rigorous, and satisfying ways. If so, the developmental level of present-day students may affect their appreciation of our courses. We too often view age as a static concept. If you are 18, then you are 18. Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps an 18 year old today is in many respects like a 14 year old fifty years ago. This may mean that in universities we are teaching students who would have been viewed as mature high school students twenty or thirty years ago. This is a change — if the hypothesis is warranted or is even partially accurate—that has not been studied, as far as I know, for its implications for preparing future teachers in foundations and elsewhere. On the other hand, this idea may represent just another Simpsonian idiocy.

JKA: If you could talk with any past SPE president, who would you most like to talk with, and about what?

DJS: John Dewey. I think it would be interesting to hear him comment on what I will label the disagreements and controversies between modernists and postmodernists. I'd like to hear what he would say about people who see him as a post-modernist and those who argue that he is more of a modernist. Would he still criticize dichotomous thinking?

What implicit dogmas of thought would he scrutinize today? How would he reconstruct himself in the 21st century and approach issues? How would he critique capitalism, privilege, and democracy today?

JKA: I have been thinking lately about the relative merits of brief academic writing projects—for example, research reports, book reviews, columns and articles in professional newsletters and essays. What are your thoughts about "writing small" in academe?

DJS: You are familiar with the old saying that academics—and, perhaps, education professors in particular—never say in a sentence what we can say in a paragraph and never say in a paragraph what can be stated in a chapter and so on ad infinitum. It is true that some professors count pages when they review files for promotion and tenure. On the other hand, short articles are often written for a different kind of audience. The last three places I've worked have had tenure and promotion guidelines that have stated that we ought to recognize manuscripts published for practitioners and not just those who write for the scholars in their fields. I like the idea but wouldn't want to universalize or prescribe such for all institutions.

I also think many of us just don't have time to read extensive works. So, if a person can't say what she or he needs to say in 200 or so pages, they may not be heard. I am a very slow reader, slower than probably most slow readers. When I read a lengthy work, it is because someone has highly recommended it. Oddly, perhaps, I decided to focus much of my work on Dewey. On the other hand, he is a good illustration of someone who wrote short books that have been widely read and influential —The School and Society, The Child and Curriculum, Experience and Education, and How We Think are examples. But there are also Democracy and Education and Art as Experience. Thus, there appears to be market for longer and shorter works in spite of my limited literacy skills.



1.Simpson (2001). The Miseducation of Bubba: An anecdotal and historical interpretation of selected aspects of Carteret county education in the 1940s and 1950s. Educational Studies, 32 (1), 4-37.