Curriculum Opinion

Courtesy, Curriculum, and a New Topic

By Diane Ravitch — May 13, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I want to be first in line to shout “hosanna” to your call for courtesy. I place courtesy up there in a pantheon alongside the cultivation of character and civic responsibility, as virtues that are intertwined and that do indeed help to make possible a democratic society. Indeed, without courtesy, character, and civic responsibility, I don’t see how a democratic society can emerge or survive. So, yes, let us agree that these are noble goals that should be embedded in the daily life of every school, because without them, schools cannot achieve any goals other than babysitting or incarceration or daycare.

I certainly want to see better healthcare, better housing, less criminal behavior, fewer people in prison, higher voter participation, and less income disparity. I hope that in the long run, better education will contribute to these outcomes, but the link between schooling and these outcomes is indirect. If we want better healthcare and better housing and more equal income distribution—and I do—we must pursue these goals directly. We will not get them by making schools more effective.

We should pursue better education because we want everyone to have equal educational opportunity. We should pursue equal educational opportunity because we believe in fairness and because we believe that giving everyone an equal chance to get a good education is a valuable investment for our society and for individuals. Economists do not question that education is a vital component of social capital, and social capital is necessary for economic development.

I don’t want to bore you, our readers, or myself by saying this again, but I keep remembering what Robert Merton once told me: You have to say important things a thousand times before the point really gets across. So, at the risk of being repetitive, let me state that children in East Harlem and rural Vermont and Los Angeles and Dallas need the same basic knowledge about mathematics and science as children of their age in Finland, Japan, France, and Canada. The basic facts and operations do not have a cultural component, although teachers in every school will have their own ways of bringing their students to understand those facts and operations. That is why I favor a national curriculum.

I would go further and say that children in the United States, in order to strengthen and maintain our democratic society, should have a shared knowledge of our founding documents and of our history. They can debate the meaning of those documents and that history ‘til the cows come home, but let us teach them enough about those events and ideas so they can argue well and do so courteously.

I too, like you, want to see our schools produce a democratically minded citizenry. I agree that this should be first among many noble goals. I would add to those goals, as you did, courtesy, and then the cultivation of character. And I would take my stand that the production of democratically minded citizens requires a shared knowledge of our history and our government, as well as knowledge of other histories and governments. This is not by any means a “fixed intellectual tradition,” as you put it, but rather the basics of our democratic life. If our children and grandchildren are ignorant of the struggles from which our democracy emerged and are ignorant of the ways in which our democracy has failed its ideals, then we are passing on to them nothing but empty words.

Now, assuming we have exhausted this subject for the moment, let us discuss the recent essay by Charles Murray in The New Criterion, which he calls “The Age of Educational Romanticism.” The article is a slashing attack on No Child Left Behind, a law that neither of us defends. Unlike us, Murray attacks the law because it fails to recognize that some children are so intellectually limited that they can never be educated in any meaningful sense of the term. This is the key quote, his second paragraph: “Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement.”

By Murray’s definition, I am an educational romantic. But I don’t belong in either of the camps that he describes. He says that romantics on the left believe that children of color, children of the poor, and girls are held back by racism and sexism, which, once removed, will unleash their gifts. And that romantics on the right believe that choice will unveil a new age of universal proficiency.

I don’t identify with either position. I believe we can improve our schools. I believe there is “huge room for improvement.” I believe that all children should have access to excellent education. And I have no doubt that almost all children not doing well in school have the potential to do much better.


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