Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Interest and the Core Curriculum

In discussions of curriculum over the past one hundred or so years, debate has ranged from letting children choose entirely what they want to study, guided only by their interests, to forced memorization of the encyclopedia, usually called the core curriculum. “Memorizing the encyclopedia” might be a harsh characterization, but some die-hard core-curriculum advocates would not object to it.

The question is, when you take the church and state out of education and replace it with a free market, what would the curriculum be? The answer is whatever the market decides, that is, whatever the parents and students decide they want to pay money for. Just like what we find in the automobile market. The parallel question is, what would cars be like if we let the free market decide? Well, we have a (relatively) free market in automobiles today, so we have big cars, small cars, fast ones, expensive ones, cheap ones, etc. We have an enormous variety of cars but most of us do have cars and we manage to get around town and country without much hassle. Actually, with considerable satisfaction. (Those of us who don’t have cars choose other means of transportation, including walking.)

The core curriculum is a one-size-fits-all strategy and assumes that someone—an education czar or panel of education experts—knows what is best for our children. In automobiles, this strategy would give us one design, one engine, one type of tire, interior, color, etc. Maybe a modest variety of styles—two or three at most—but none that the market actually wants, only what the “experts” think they should want. In education, thoughts of letting parents and children choose what they want unleashes panic screams from the core curriculum crowd about how parents will seek out all sorts of weird ideas, or perhaps not educate their children at all, and the children will go for easy A’s and no homework. The assumption guiding the notion of a core curriculum remains that only one institution, the government, can require such a curriculum and that at the point of a gun.

A little history shows that force does not need to be brought into the curriculum debate. Hellenistic Greece is the origin of our current three-part structure broken into primary, secondary, and higher education. Governments in the ancient world rarely interfered with the educational process. Fathers paid teachers to educate their sons. The curriculum? Greeks called it enkyklios paideia or general education. Romans translated it at as artes liberalis or liberal arts. Today, we might also call this an education in western civilization. Higher education in the ancient world split into two factions that we still have to this day: professional education (rhetoric, medicine, law) versus knowledge for its own sake (philosophy). Weird ideas and easy A’s? There were mystery cults but they did not dominate the education system. And there was no grading, examination, or credential system at all. That is a product of the medieval guilds and the rise of modern bureaucracy.

Another assumption of the core curriculum advocates, especially those who would require specific textbooks and lectures on western civilization, is that the students who are coerced to be in those classroom seats would actually read the book and listen to the lectures. It is obvious to anyone who teaches in the present system that many, and sometimes most, do not do this even in elective courses. The coercive, bureaucratic environment of modern education kills interest in all but the strongest, most purpose-driven students.

Let the parents decide. Let the students decide. Summerhill and Sudbury Valley Schools have amply demonstrated how wide-ranging freedom and learning guided by interest can lead to a satisfying education for one’s chosen purpose in life (1, 2, 3, 4). The students’ education in these schools may not match the pristine dictates of the core curriculum advocates, but it does match the students’ needs and wants. That’s what capitalism is all about.

And that brings us to the “weird ideas” that core curriculum advocates fear. The problem is that “weird” depends on who you are talking to. Some fear that atheism might be taught to the young. Others fear that it might be religion. Others fear capitalism and the greedy, selfish profit motive being taught. Still others fear communism will become the core curriculum.

And therein lies the heart of the issue. Core curriculum advocates want to control the minds of the young with their particular ideas. They want their ideas to rule. When enforced by the government, however, there is only one name that can be given to the core curriculum: censorship. It forces out or removes to the margin all other ideas. Students’ and the students’ parents do not get to choose.

Let the market decide.


CaptiousNut said...

Nice post. Thanks.

justeamiething said...

MAGALING! MAGALING! in my native language Filipino. It means Excellent!
Thank you sir for a good post, I learned a lot from your blog, keep posting more.

Tunya Audain said...

Good column, good points.

If you have the inclination and time, Jerry, perhaps you can give thought to doing a piece on any real improvements you have seem in your time, maybe since 1980's? Antony Flew wrote in '87 the book, Power to the Parents, Reversing Educational Decline. Perhaps you could give your opinion as to whether the decline has slowed or reversed since.

I know he wrote in the UK, but his analyses apply widely.

The Center for Education Reform CER today is glowing in its newsletter -- seeing considerable progress. See their section, Parent Power which gives a rather good description of home education as a viable option for parents.

When I was active in promoting home education in the 80's I wrote an article which foresaw this option as a sane and safe escape from an oppressive system and the predatory state. I quoted John Holt, who I knew in those days, thus: "Today freedom has different enemies. It must be fought for in different ways. It will take very different qualities of mind and heart to save it."

Powerful. Just who are these enemies that obstacle needed reform? And what are their methods? What are their mind-sets?
What different mind and heart sets do we need to save freedom?

I am a grandmother of 5 and very busy with them all. I've seen a lot and produced a lot of effort and product in the past, but like Sisyphus, always defeated by these "enemies".

I can share with you all I've been involved with and maybe we can build on some of these freedom-loving efforts of the past.