School & District Management Commentary

Curriculum and Society

By Julian Weissglass — April 21, 1999 10 min read

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 child fit the school.”

The relation of McDougall’s work to the debate between progressives and traditionalists may be less obvious. McDougall was a professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of a group of psychologists and geneticists from leading American universities involved early in this century in the eugenics movement. The eugenicists’ attempt in the 1920s and 1930s to prove the superiority of certain racial, national, and social-class groups had important consequences for education. One eugenicist, for example, was the psychologist Carl Brigham, the secretary of the College Board, who developed the SAT, a test that influences curriculum to this day. Other eugenicists were even more prominent than Brigham. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology geneticist Frederick Adams Woods said that there was not a “grain of proof” that “environment can alter the salient mental and moral traits in any reasonable degree from what they were determined to be through innate influences.” Edward East, a Harvard geneticist, wrote, “Gene packets of African origin are not valuable supplements to the gene packets of European origin; it is the white germ plasm that counts.” The eugenics movement in this country disappeared after the Nazis took the belief of racial superiority to its logical and horrific conclusions in the early 1940s. But the ideas still persist. The Bell Curve (1994), for example, states: “Putting it all together, success and failure in the American economy and all that goes with it, are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit.”

The connection of the eugenics movement to schools is this. The pronouncements of prominent scientists tend to influence educational policy and practice. For example, if educators believe that genes determine intelligence and/or character, and that some groups of people are superior, they are likely to accept schools functioning as sorting mechanisms. They will value certain kinds of assessment instruments as valid tools to sort and classify students. Such educators will treat the child who doesn’t fit the school as if it is the child’s fault and require that he or she either do better in the existing system or accept a less rewarding future.

Examining the current controversy in California about mathematics curriculum will illuminate the connection between the debate over curriculum (content and pedagogy) and people’s beliefs about learning. This controversy has its roots in the 1973 California Mathematics Framework, which stated in part: “Mathematics becomes a vibrant, vital subject when points of view are argued and, for this reason, interaction among pupils should be encouraged. A significant feature of a mathematics learning environment is the spirit of free and open investigation. ... Mathematics instructional material should be relevant to the pupil’s interests and needs and should provide for pupil experimentation.” Although this framework described a sharp departure from traditional practice, it did not cause any controversy. It took 20 years for opponents of the reform to emerge, organize, and eventually change state policy to endorse traditional instruction. As part of the debate over the nature of mathematics standards, the California board of education invited E.D. Hirsch Jr. to speak to it. Hirsch (speaking in April 1997) advocated a traditionalist position, based on the research of leading scientists who agree " ... that varied and repeated practice leading to rapid recall and automaticity in mathematics is a necessary prerequisite to higher-order problem-solving skills in both mathematics and the sciences.”

One effect of emphasizing rapid recall and automaticity is that students come to believe that mathematics is a set of rules to memorize rather than an exciting, beautiful, and useful discipline. Young people deserve to experience the excitement of mathematics and to have its power at their disposal, both for their enjoyment and for its use as a problem-solving tool. The emphasis on rapid recall and automaticity also causes many students to detest mathematics--and often school. Every 4-year-old I’ve ever met was excited about going to school and eager to learn. I know many 14-year-olds, however, who look upon school, and mathematics in particular, as a burden. That need not be the case. Learning can take place in an atmosphere where students’ thinking is respected, their natural curiosity nurtured, their intensity engaged, and where they enjoy learning. That is not to say that learning will always be easy. But people can and do enjoy all sorts of challenges.

Young people deserve to experience the excitement of mathematics and to have its power at their disposal.

The most troublesome effect of emphasizing rapid recall and automaticity is that many students memorize rules to pass a test but do not understand what they are doing or why they are doing it. Many years ago, Stanley Erlwanger published a series of interviews with students. One that stuck in my mind was with a student who was asked to compute three-fourths plus one-fourth. He solved the problem in two different ways. First he wrote 3/4 + 1/4 = 4/8 = 1/2. Then he drew a circle and divided it into four quarters. Pointing to the sections of the circle, he concluded, “It’s a whole” and wrote 3/4 + 1/4 = 1. When asked, “What method did you use when you got four-eighths?” the student responded: “That’s the way that they taught me.” At one point, when asked, “How do you know which answer is right?” the student said, “It depends on which method you’re told to use, and you use that method and you come out with the answer, and that’s what answer is in the key.” When pushed to choose which is correct, he replied, “The one where you add the denominators and the numerators because that’s what method they taught me to do in my booklet, and they didn’t teach me to do it with diagrams.” The tragedy here is not that the student forgot the rule, but rather that he did not trust his own thinking. His confidence in his ability to think had been undermined by the methods of instruction. Oversimplifying the learning process is fraught with danger.

Let us be clear about what the curriculum controversy is not about. No reformer that I have ever heard of claims that children should not know basic skills. The disagreement is over whether basic skills will be learned by rote memorization or in the context of activities that are engaging and meaningful to the student. The argument is about the relative value of understanding vs. automaticity. Traditionalists tend to see learning as either memorization or operant conditioning (the stimulus/response cycle that the behaviorist school of psychology defines as learning). Progressives see it as a complex process of making sense of new information through reflection and interaction. But of course, as the history outlined above shows, the controversy is as much about the purposes of schools in a democratic society as it is about how people learn.

People on both sides of the debate regularly appeal to research in their arguments, but dismiss research that doesn’t support their beliefs. Hirsch, for example, dismisses educational research as being inconsequential, and stresses the importance of the research of selected psychologists. Scientists, however, are not immune from bias. The highly regarded psychologist H.H. Goddard, for example, exemplified elitist values. In a series of lectures at Princeton University (1919), he spoke of the “perfect government--Aristocracy in Democracy.” A major conclusion of his lectures was that the research on intelligence showed that “the social efficiency of a group of human beings depends upon recognizing the mental limitation of each one and so organizing society that each person has work to do that is within his mental capacity.” Are we to believe that current researchers are less influenced by their values than those of the past? Is it only a coincidence that the opposition to mathematics reform increased after the nation made a commitment to achieving the democratic goal that all students would learn mathematics?

The debate over curriculum is emotional for progressive educators because they believe that the way students are treated will determine the future of the society. If schools respect young people’s intelligence and support their ability to think for themselves, then perhaps the social and economic injustices, violence, genocide, and environmental degradation that have been so prevalent in the past century can be reduced--even eliminated. It will be helpful in reaching this goal if educators can rid themselves and their students of the mistaken notion that some individuals or groups are better than others.

It is not too much to hope that schools can be the leading force in making progress toward a better world. In this regard, I recall the words of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and liberation leader: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. ... If there is no struggle there is no progress. ... Power never concedes anything without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Douglass knew that learning is power. As a slave, he was forbidden to learn to read. It would be no surprise to Douglass that there is intense opposition to educational reforms that are aimed at teaching people to think for themselves. John and Evelyn Dewey wrote in 1915, “If we train our children to take orders, to do things simply because they are told to, and fail to give them confidence to act and think for themselves, we are putting an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of overcoming the present defects of our [social] system and of establishing the truth of democratic ideas.” This is still a powerful argument for progressive education.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Curriculum and Society


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