Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

What Should Happen in Our Houses of Learning?

By Diane Ravitch — April 22, 2008 4 min read

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.

Diane

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