Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who should determine the curriculum?

I mentioned that I was enjoying De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime -- so elegantly scientific in the manner of Marx and Weber, and so freshly written and modern-seeming. Lately (last few years) I'm reading more history, which I’d always told myself I was interested in but had rarely chosen to read. I like the argument in it, like De Tocqueville asking why, toward the end of the Middle Ages, was the native Germanic law of the northern peoples decisively if gradually supplanted by Roman law. He argues that since the states were very different and yet all changed in this way, there must have been a common cause, and he identifies it.

Reading De T gave me to the following line of thought. He enumerates the functions of the state: administrative, financial, judicial, military etc. Nothing here that isn’t fairly obvious but I would have had to think for a while to come up with them. I.e. I’d never been taught them, though probably most American kids would be as the Americans are hot on their constitution. I think I should have been, perhaps in my school history course. De T’s understanding of the functions is essential to his explanation of the significance of the Revolution (namely, quite different from what was usually supposed), and the UK equivalent would seem equally important to British citizens today.

I'm regularly aware, though, that my history course has nevertheless paid off for me in all sorts of ways that wouldn’t have been specifiable in advance, except in very general terms. I often find myself understanding or being interested in things and realising that it’s because of my school history, of which only the last two years (10 and 11) were well taught, that they have meaning for me. My bit of history is a widow’s cruse, continually delivering significance to my experience. (The pay-offs from my endless and all-consuming classical education, in contrast, were thin indeed.)

It’s a problem, no doubt of it, deciding what should be in a curriculum. Someone has to decide what it is a person needs in order to understand the world and find it meaningful. Who’s in the best position to know that? I would say, those people -- experts, let’s call them -- who are both knowledgeable about the world and culture and reflective about the nature of that knowledge. That sounds like people who combine philosophy and some broad area of knowledge, students both of knowledge itself and of some discipline; there aren’t many such around and we need more. It doesn’t sound like teachers -- with some exceptions -- but when it comes to pedagogy (how can the curriculum actually be taught, if it can -- Michael Gove and Dryden [Gove: UK Sec of State for Education]-- they have to be the deciders. The last person it should be is a politician.

Also, it goes without saying: education isn’t just a curriculum of knowledge as organised in the disciplines. It’s also experience and activity and has an important moral aspect. A crucial contribution of good comprehensive schools, for instance, has been to take diverse groups of children and young people and teach them to sit and talk to each other in a purposeful and respectful way.

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