(HOST) Recently, commentator David Moats was concerned to read an article suggesting that our educational system may be missing a fundamental component.
(MOATS) Thomas Jefferson believed that what you need for a good education is for someone to tell you what books to read and in what order. In other words, what you need is a curriculum. Roger Shattuck has discovered that Vermont schools have no curriculum.
Before he retired to the town of Lincoln, Shattuck was a scholar of French literature with wide-ranging interests. After he retired, he took an interest in the education going on in his neighborhood, so he got himself elected to the board of Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol.
Once he was on the board he began to wonder what was actually being taught at Mount Abe and the surrounding schools. So he got his hands on the curriculum documents that should have told him. Now Shattuck has written an article for the New York Review of Books saying, essentially, that the emperor has no clothes.
He read the state’s framework of standards. And he read the district’s curriculum guidelines. Nowhere did he find a curriculum. In nearly 700 pages of material he found an approach to education – that students should examine, investigate, analyze, understand and interpret – in other words, they should learn. But nothing in the mass of official material told him what they should learn.
Shattuck was not out to skewer Mount Abe. He saw that kids were getting an education in a sort of haphazard fashion with good teachers putting together lessons with content. But without a coherent curriculum, Vermont’s educational system is rudderless, prone to gaps in what kids are learning. I remember my own son telling me that his history class never got around to World War II.
Oh well. Maybe this lack of coherence has something to do with findings that young people have little understanding of the Bill of Rights.
Shattuck’s article explores the apparent conflict between child-oriented education and curriculum-oriented education. He quotes philosopher and educator John Dewey to say that there should be no conflict between these two. “The child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process,” Dewey wrote, “just as two points define a straight line.” They are two parts of one thing.
Shattuck believes the extreme emphasis on what are called standards today results from the lack of a real curriculum. Because there is no curriculum, we don’t trust the kids are learning what they need to learn. So we test the bejeezus out of them.
Shattuck ends his article by pointing to some of the off-the-shelf programs that are available to schools, and he picks his favorite. But his greater service may be that he has shown how our education system is not really much of a system. It has become paralyzed by a fear of making decisions about what ought to be taught. Teachers do the best they can, and often it is very good.
But Thomas Jefferson wanted someone to tell him what to read. And in what order. Our schools are supposed to know how to do that.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke to us from studios at Middlebury College.