AlterNet / By Marion Brady
The “core curriculum” used in America’s classrooms was poor when it was adopted in 1893, and grows more dysfunctional every year.
In the 1890s, very few students attended college, but those who did presented a problem. They came from secondary schools where, in total, about 40 different subjects were taught, and college admissions officers didn’t know how to compare their academic records. The situation, prominent educators felt, called for standardizing high school instructional programs, and a ten-man committee of school administrators was appointed by the National Education Association to undertake the task. They submitted their report in 1892, and the following year their recommendations began to be adopted across America, locking in the pattern in near-universal use today.
Big mistake. Change is in the nature of things, and in order to survive, societies must adapt. As the 20th Century unfolded, America changed. Work became more specialized and complex, international industrial competition increased, corporations grew larger, more impersonal, and less attached to nation states. Jobs requiring physical labor steadily declined in number, consumerism took off, an ever-rising standard of living came to be considered a right, and the Cold War generated a vague, pervasive sense of uneasiness.
America changed, but education in general, and the curriculum in particular, didn’t. It needed to explain a radically different world and help the young develop the intellectual equipment to make sense of it, and it failed to do so.
… Boredom, passive resistance, truancy, classroom disorder, dropouts, teacher turnover, an explosion of home schooling, an electorate ill-equipped to maintain a democracy, and all the other problems with public education cited in the professional literature and in mainstream media are obvious indicators of institutional failure, of old problem-solving procedures failing to adequately address new realities.
This is a very interesting switch in the discussion of education in America today. My earlier thoughts suggesting there may be some uses of the internet as the delivery system for education didn’t stop to consider whether the curriculum being promoted is itself a part of the problem.
Since I was in sixth grade there has been a shortage of science and engineering students in this country. Lately I have been concerned for a movement to downgrade and even eliminate the Humanities in our schools. I think a part of the problem can be found in the why of education and not just the how. For many years, education has been more concerned with turning out a steady supply of labor adequate to keep the mills and looms of America churning out big profits for the corporations. It’s a hard fact but essentially true. Recent conservative actions have emphasized this by forcing learning to be approached, not by the openness of ideas and the expansiveness of thinking and imagination, but rather by limiting the curriculum to marketable skills and removing many of the more aesthetic pursuits from the schools entirely. Why in Texas the school board has outlawed the teaching of critical thinking.
Since the most reactionary parts of our society are mobilized against so many parts of the standard education, it isn’t unreasonable to look for another value in education other than creating replaceable parts for the greed of American corporations. Even when I went to school sixty years back it was common to hear that an education was to develop a person’s ability to think for themselves. No wonder the right-wing politicians want to control education … how long would they be relevant if the voting public could see through the smoke and mirrors and spot a lie, even on the television.
So the two views of the purpose of education: to develop workers who will do as you expect them to and sacrifice themselves for the wealthy and powerful, or to develop the population so people at all levels of income and influence can think for themselves and not accept mendacity as truth or propaganda as information. Education should develop the students, allow for experimentation and imaginative options even if they are outside of the standard curriculum. A school that turns out clones of the ideal student year after year is a failure.
Which side are you on?