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What Should Happen in Our Houses of Learning?


Dear Deborah,

Well, we do disagree about what should happen in “our houses of learning.” Maybe that is the core of our disagreement, maybe not. We’ll see.

Your rumination on “the street” reminded me of one of my favorite figures in education history, and that is Junius Meriam of the University of Missouri. Meriam’s laboratory school at the university was featured in 1915 by John Dewey as one of the “schools of to-morrow” in his famous book of the same name. Meriam wrote a book called "Child Life and the Curriculum" (published in 1920), in which he described his school and his philosophy. In his view, modern education meant eliminating “isolated subjects of an abstract nature,” which turned out to be, as he put it, “practically all the content of our curriculum.” In his school, whatever was taught had to respond to the “real, present needs of the pupils.”

I was reminded of Meriam because he wrote about how he came to his philosophy. One of his students, a boy named Bobby, seemed to lose interest in school. One day, Meriam saw Bobby meeting with his “gang,” a group of other teen-age boys who met under a bridge. And what were they doing? They were cursing! Of course, they weren’t allowed to curse at home or in school. Meriam resolved that he would change his school so that boys like Bobby would not feel alienated from it. I always wondered whether that meant that he encouraged the whole gang, along with Bobby, to feel comfortable cursing in school.

But to return to the present. A large part of our disagreement has to do with your reference to “the street” and “popular culture.” I think we are envisioning different things. When I think of “the street,” I think of those aspects of youth behavior that adults should not tolerate, like profanity, rudeness, violence (lack of impulse control), semi-nudity, purposefully slovenly dress, etc. I don’t think any of this behavior belongs in school. I recall a day that I spent at a high school in Brooklyn where the principal and other administrators asked students to change to a school T-shirt when they were wearing revealing halters or sent them home if their clothing was so provocative that it would be a distraction from learning.

When I speak of our “popular culture,” I speak about the endless fascination of the media with rock stars, rap artists, athletes, and various others whose greatest attribute seems to be the wealth they have accumulated and their outsized, outrageous behavior. I admit my limitations, but I can’t see the value of studying the “art” of Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Justin Timberlake, or other current media stars. I certainly admire the physical grace of great athletes; the most important lesson we should all learn from them, I think, is self-discipline and devotion to one’s passion.

Funny you should bring up Ebonics in this context. I thought it was amusing that you thought it would be useful to teach the "grammar and language rules" of Ebonics; I found myself wondering if your school also taught the grammar and language rules of English! I would be surprised if you did, since grammar and usage have fallen out of favor for the past generation (against my wishes!). But this was not, obviously, the source of the controversy about Ebonics. My guess is that many people objected to teaching Ebonics because they see the public school as the one institution that teaches young people the tools they need to be successful in higher education or the modern workplace. In the past, that has meant teaching children from dozens of different cultures how to speak standard English. It was not a value judgment that standard English is better than other languages such as Spanish or French or Chinese, but that standard English is the language that people in this country need to get admitted to almost every university and to participate in civic life and to get jobs higher than entry level.

I think you are right that we see a national curriculum from different perspectives. You see it as one who is on the receiving end, and I see it as a problem of how to make it work so that it would be not only good enough to help kids, but good enough to be acceptable to the teachers who must implement it. I don’t think that a national curriculum would be the product of a single administration, not the Bush administration, nor the Hillary Clinton administration, nor the Barack Obama administration, nor the John McCain administration. I see a national curriculum as the product of a professional consensus, one that involves subject-matter experts, teachers, administrators, and even end-users of the public schools like college professors and journalists. I also see such a curriculum evolving from careful research on international curriculum standards about what students at various ages are expected to know and be able to do. And I envision a curriculum that in toto amounts to not more than 50 percent of the school day, so that there would be many variations and additions depending on the state, region, and locale. I also envision a curriculum that encourages projects, intensive study, and creative teaching.

I agree with you about the need for depth and passion. We certainly don’t have that now. Most teaching is determined by adherence to superficial textbooks.

I am not troubled by the mission statement at High Tech High. It is inoffensive, non-controversial, and vapid. How could anyone object to a promise to prepare kids to succeed in the society they live in? The goal is not the problem. The implementation is.




A national curriculum certainly has the possiblity of clarifying what our children should be learning.

But our school system is not set up to implement/support an external curriculum.

Without major changes to school organization, how would a national curriculum ever affect what goes on inside the classroom and thus what our children actually learn?

Erin Johnson

So much in this post lights up my thoughts, I have to limit my response, or I could end up writing all day.

I love the idea of a professional consensus on curriculum--I would volunteer to participate in the discussions. Wouldn't it be great to discuss (heatedly at times) which books should be included? It would bring educators back to a discussion of values and subject matter--two subjects strangely lacking in many education discussions. It would also make room for wisdom in the schools.

It is heartbreaking to see the death of wisdom in our school system. I have met some wise teachers, at my school and elsewhere--but wisdom in general is not valued--so-called "novelty" has taken the helm. When fads dictate the arrangement of the rooms, the duration of lessons, the color of ink--where are the wise? Either gone or silent. The schools belong to "whatever is begotten, born, and dies." New schools start and end. Teachers come and go.

How would a curriculum change this? A curriculum requires intensive work and mastery on the part of the teachers and students. It takes years to learn how to teach grammar and literature well. In a morass of curricular vagueness and constricting mandates, I am a master teacher, because at least I teach the kids something valuable, and I see beyond "balanced literacy" and the like. In a school with an excellent curriculum, I am an apprentice. The more specific the subject matter, the longer it takes to perfect both the teaching and the learning of it.

I would rather be the apprentice with a curriculum than the master teacher without one. I would rather look forward to years and years of work on the specifics of the craft. I would rather have colleagues I looked up to as mentors--who had special ways of looking at a noun, insights into a Yeats poem, or ideas about how to teach a specific passage in The Old Man and the Sea.

I have been reading and re-reading Bagley's beautiful and difficult speech "Craftsmanship in Teaching," delivered in 1907. It is difficult because he calls for a lasting idealism--not the maudlin idealism you see in the recruiting ads on the subway, but the kind that outlives and even overcomes discouragement. This kind of idealism is possible when we know what we are teaching. He writes, "As you go on with your work, as you increase in skill, ever and ever the fascination of its technique will take a stronger and stronger hold upon you." Curriculum gives us the freedom to focus on that technique. Some believe curriculum is constricting--not so.

Of course, establishing a national curriculum is no simple matter. Erin says our schools aren't set up to implement an external curriculum. (They sure are set up to implement external fads, though.) There are many practical and ideological complications, and I have no answer for them right now. But even a discussion of curriculum at the national level (involving "subject-matter experts, teachers, administrators, and even end-users of the public schools like college professors and journalists") would bring us back to the meaning of education, enrich the general discourse, and trigger some badly needed change.

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