Curriculum and Society
The debate between traditionalists and progressives over curriculum (and I use this term to include both content and pedagogy) is essentially a debate on how best to prepare students to live in society. Differences of opinion about curriculum stem from deeper differences about the nature of learning, the nature of society, and the purpose of schools in a democracy. Traditionalists structure schools to prepare students for filling roles in society--not for transforming it. They do not see that traditional approaches may contribute to maintaining the inequity and injustice that exist in our society. Progressives see society as needing improvement and the schools as serving the function of helping students become thinking citizens who can contribute to creating a more just society. John Dewey, the leading progressive educator of the century, wrote that "education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform."
About a year ago, while preparing a talk on the subject of this essay, I thought it would be interesting to find out what people thought were the major influences on education during this century. I consulted one of the chronologies of "key events of the century" that are being published as we near the year 2000. There were five references in the index under "Education." Four of the references were to three progressive educators. There were two to Maria Montessori--the establishment of her first school in 1907 and her death in 1952; one to John Dewey - the publication in 1916 of Democracy in Education ; and one to A. S. Neill - the founder of Summerhill School in England in 1921, a school governed by students. The other reference surprised me. It was to the publication (1920) by William McDougall of Is America Safe for Democracy? which argued, among its other concerns, for the superiority of some races of people over others.
It is clear how the work of Montessori, Dewey, and Neill pertains to the debate over content and pedagogy. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician who established a school to educate children who were labeled "mentally retarded." Her schools were so successful that her approaches spread internationally, and parents now pay substantial tuition to have their "bright" children attend Montessori schools. Montessori's writings and methods have influenced the progressive movement. One of her central principles was respect for the child's intelligence: "And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being." Dewey wanted schools to teach students to think: "Skill obtained apart from thinking is not connected with any sense of the purposes for which it is to be used. ... It leaves a man at the mercy of his routine habits and of the authoritative control of others. ... Information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind-crushing load." Neill's fundamental belief was that the child is wise and realistic. He wrote: "When my first wife and I began the school, we had one main idea: to make the school fit the child instead of making the...
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- Associate Director of Marketing & Business Development
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- Florence Public School District One, Florence, SC
- Grand Center Arts Academy, St. Louis, MO
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- New Hope Academy Charter School, Brooklyn, NY
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