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Tools for Critique: Chapter 3
Politics and Philosophy: The Struggle over the School Curriculum


Chapter 3, “Politics and Philosophy: The Struggle Over the School Curriculum,” explores how people in Western societies think about knowledge and schooling. The chapter reviews traditional and progressive educational philosophies and the role they have played in struggles over what schools should teach, how they should teach it, and to whom. These philosophies have consequences—explored throughout the book—that show up in every aspect of public education including school policies, curriculum, teacher preparation, relationships between students and teachers, and so on.

Chapter Headings

  • Basic Philosophies of Education
    • The Roots of Western Educational Philosophy
    • Philosophy in the History of American Schooling
    • Six Philosophies of Education
  • Philosophy and Politics in the Struggle for the School Curriculum
    • Essentialist Mass Education in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
    • The Emergence of The Common School
    • The “Progressive Education” Movement
    • Child- and Community-Centered Progressivism
    • Social Reconstructionism
    • Post–World War II Progressivism
    • Back to Basics
    • Multicultural Education
    • Standards and Accountability
  • A Call to Critique and Action for Those Who Are Teaching to Change the World

Generative Questions and Activities

    Politics and Philosophy: The Struggle Over the School Curriculum

  1. Middle-school bilingual coordinator Mauro Bautista states: “As a social justice educator, I challenge the traditional practice of excluding people of color, especially women of color, from the curriculum.”  In your view, are people of color (particularly women of color) really excluded from mainstream curricula?  Discuss what might be thought of as “multiple meanings” of “exclusion” and the effects of the various forms of exclusion.  Conduct an informal search through a mainstream social studies or literature textbook.  Count the number of references to and/or contributions by people of color and compare that number to the number of references to and/or contributions by white people.  If you have access to a curriculum library, try to find some textbooks from the 1980s, ‘70s, or older. To what extent are the experiences, contributions, and languages of people of color incorporated into the curriculum?

  2. If, like Mauro Bautista, you seek to include people of color in school curricula, where might you begin your efforts?  Brainstorm a list of changes, resources, alliances, and so forth that would help in your quest.  And, of course, do this work—if possible—with people from a variety of backgrounds.

  3. The authors assert that, “teaching is always a philosophical and political act.”  How does this assertion challenge the traditional notion of a single, universal, and politically neutral curriculum?  In what ways is your own teaching or thinking about education both philosophical and political?  What philosophical trends have guided your own schooling and shaped the way you understand the role of schools?  What, of these trends, seems worth hanging on to?  And what are you inclined to re-examine as part of your own philosophical growth?

    Basic Philosophies of Education

  4. Oftentimes, working-class students of color and more affluent white students are exposed to different curricular programs that reflect different educational philosophies.  In other words, some people or schools may hold different educational philosophies because they apply the philosophies to different groups of students.  Think about schools with which you are familiar and comment on whether the schools’ or teachers’ educational philosophies seem to be aligned with particular groups of students.  Do these schools appear to embrace “traditional” or “progressive” conceptions of schooling?  Which philosophy seems to inform the curriculum that is intended for particular groups of students?  How do you make sense of this?  (This investigation can occur within a single school that serves different groups or across two or more schools.)

  5. Although some argue that students’ diverse needs require different curricula, others contend that, by addressing different learning needs, schools can help nearly all students master the same curriculum.  In your opinion, should students learn a “common” curriculum?  Or should schools try to anticipate what students can learn or will use later in life and teach different skills and capacities to different students?
    Philosophy and Politics in the Struggle for the School Curriculum

  6. The authors argue that, despite the rhetoric of equal opportunity, the tradition of separate “mass” and “elite” education has resulted in vastly different educational and career outcomes for different groups of people.  How do you see these two traditions playing out at the school where you are spending the most time?  Which of these two traditions seems to most inform the curriculum at that school?  What might this have to do with the demographics of the school?  In what ways can you connect this tradition to tangible student outcomes?

  7. According to the authors, Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller “established the tradition of infusing political and moral content into teaching basic skills.”  How has this pattern endured at the school where you spend the most time?  In which aspects or components of the curriculum can you identify the infusion of political and moral content?

  8. Recall a class or “unit” from your own elementary, secondary, or college education.  At some point you might have assumed that the class was built around “pure” facts and knowledge, but now consider how the political and cultural dimensions of knowledge and education were very likely interwoven with the knowledge and skills presented.  Begin by asking critical questions such as “Why this particular content emphasis?” “Why are these particular students enrolled?” “Are there particular students whose participation and whose prior experiences the course or teacher seems to favor?” “What legitimate information or theories are not included?” “Are there neglected opportunities to consider socially relevant applications of the knowledge?”  With a specific class in mind, what additional critical questions can you think of asking?

  9. The authors note that during the mid-1800s, “working-class people, immigrants, and those outside the dominant culture who lacked resources for their own private schools saw the common school as a path (a narrow one, to be sure) to the American dream.”  To what extent do you think immigrants and other working-class people of color still look to public schools as a path to the American dream?  (Consider your own experience, your parents’ experiences or those of people you know.)  In what ways have public schools succeeded and/or failed to help people attain the American dream?  What role do you feel curriculum has played in these successes and/or failures?

  10. In this chapter, as in several others, the authors infuse some history of education as background for the issues under discussion.  However, it is important to keep in mind that this is not primarily a text on the history of education, and a professional educator will want to explore and study much more of the history and politics of the field.  Why is it important for professionals—educators, scientists, lawyers, journalists, and so on—to have a knowledge of the historical context of their field?  Why, for example, is such knowledge necessary to teach mathematics to fifteen-year-olds or reading to six-year-olds?

  11. The authors state, “People of greater wealth and status viewed common schools as enhancing their own well-being ... Everyone would benefit, they reasoned, if schools could turn out productive workers and good citizens.”  The authors suggest that social elites often support common, public schools with their own security and prosperity in mind more than the well-being of those who are less privileged.  Do you think that the authors are realistic or overly cynical?  What evidence would you use to defend your position?  Consider contemporary examples.

  12. How are the emergence of the common school, the development of a standardized curriculum, and the feminization of the teaching force related to one another? How might you apply this analysis to current conditions that favor standardization and a teaching force that is predominantly composed of women?  How might recent economic, demographic, and policy trends continue or change the traditional makeup of the teaching workforce?

  13. Some sectors of contemporary society claim that today’s public schools lack opportunities for students to learn “traditional” religious or moral values.  People with these views often attribute the existence of many social problems to this omission.  What do you think of the religious content in McGuffey’s and Webster’s textbooks, along with their moral underpinning of middle-class prosperity?  Are there comparable inclusions (or intrusions) of religious and moral content in today’s schools that may escape notice because they do not seem as old-fashioned and heavy-handed as McGuffey’s and Webster’s?

  14. Some people claim that teaching is an identity more than a profession.  A central part of this identity is being a force of moral and social good as well as a community leader who sets an example for all members of society.  This has always been a heavy responsibility and challenge for teachers.  What special challenges and obstacles would a social-justice teacher face both in living up to existing standards and in establishing new ones?

  15. Review the authors’ comparison of Dewey to other progressive reformers. Describe one of your own student experiences with (or a recent observation of) teaching that sought to “develop in students a character that would build democratic and interdependent communities.”  What was your reaction to this experience?  If you did not experience or witness such lessons, select a lesson in which the teacher missed the opportunity to develop such “character.”  What might the teacher have done differently?   What would you have done if you had been teaching the same lesson?

  16. There has been a new round of calls for schools to assume many of the functions of Jane Addams’ settlement houses earlier in the century.  If schools were to become more like community centers serving the combined social, educational, health, employment, and cultural needs of the community, what might be some of the social and educational advantages?  What are some likely criticisms of schools assuming this broader role?  Search out and describe a school in your own or a nearby community that is making such attempts.  (Note that these efforts are not always official school policy, but may be infused within a particular school culture.  In some cases, the school may not see itself as doing anything extraordinary, but simply serving its students and their families.)  Also, take a close look at a community-based agency or center and describe the extent of its school-related services.  Interview personnel at a community agency and ask them, in particular, whether and how their agency and local schools could work more closely together.

  17. The authors discuss George Counts’ Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? and state that in this work, “Counts argued that democracy must exert greater control over capitalism, that the school curriculum must critique social institutions that did not further democracy, and that teachers must act as a militant force for change.” To what extent do you agree or disagree with Counts’ argument? Can – or should – teachers act as a militant force for change in society? How much power do teachers and the school curriculum have to effect societal change?

  18. The 1970s saw a “back-to-basics” movement in school curriculum. The authors state that “the benefits of a back-to-basics curriculum were proclaimed most loudly for students of color, students with ‘learning disabilities,’ students who were poor, or students who otherwise did not fit in with conventional schooling.” Why do you think this was the case? Do you agree or disagree with the ideas behind a “back-to-basics” curriculumm? Why? Do you see any residual notions of a “back-to-basics” curriculum in the school where you spend time? If so, what are the implications for student learning and students’ academic trajectories?

  19. The authors clearly agree with W. E. B. DuBois’s words, “We should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said.”  On the other hand, critics of this view, such as Allan Bloom (discussed later in this chapter), believe that “leaders of other groups and nations” who promote their beliefs create unhealthy tensions and divisions in the culture, and as Americans we should remain focused on our beliefs.  Defend one side or another in this dispute; discuss/explore your indecision.

  20. The authors caution teachers against providing their students with a tokenized version of multicultural education. How can you move beyond a mere emphasis on “heroes and holidays” to embrace a more critical approach to multicultural education?  What can you do to address issues that a more “typical” multicultural curriculum would miss, such as institutionalized racism and other oppressive social structures?  With a partner or group, review and analyze a single week’s lessons for a particular class.  Brainstorm how you could meet worthwhile curricular objectives while at the same time including content that contributes and is relevant to the class’s multicultural needs and composition.

  21. Given what the authors state about the relationship between language and cultural capital, consider the language practices of your own students (or a group of students with which you are familiar).  To what extent do they use Standard English in the classroom?  What other languages and/or dialects do they use?  More importantly, how do teachers respond to students’ use of “non-standard” languages and/or dialects?  In your view, how should teachers respond to and incorporate students’ engagement in “non-standard” language practices?  How might such practices be productively incorporated into a critical multicultural curriculum?

  22. In your analysis of the curriculum described in the question 21, discuss major tenets of critical pedagogy (teaching as an inherently political practice, action based on reflection, etc.).  To what extent would you say that your own pedagogy is “critical?”  What could you do to make it more critical?

  23. Scientifically based research, which NCLB defines as “research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs” is currently seen as the most legitimate science upon which to base policy decisions.  In your opinion, is this the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of curricula and instruction?  What might complicate the use of these kinds of experiments in schools? What variables would be difficult (if not impossible) to isolate when testing the effects of particular curricular innovations or instructional techniques?

  24. The authors detail the evolution of academic standards in America’s public schools, the most recent version being the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). How are mandated academic standards taken up in your state, district, or school?  Explain.  What are the implications for the students with whom you work? Consider potentially positive and negative effects of district, state, and/or national standards.

  25. What is the difference between standards and standardization? Do standards necessarily require standardization? Why or why not? Discuss both how standards influence the curriculum and instruction in your school as well as the effects (or lack thereof) of standardization on pedagogy in your school.

  26. Consider the way in which John Dewey and Jane Addams embraced cultural pluralism in the curriculum during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  How does their approach differ from current approaches to educating immigrant children and responding to cultural diversity?  How do the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes accountability policies take up issues of cultural diversity?

    A Call to Critique and Action for Those Who Are Teaching to Change the World

  27. Consider the following statement made by the authors: “Teachers today stand at the center of a curriculum battle—a battle shaped by traditional understandings of merit, efficiency, competition, and progress, as well as political interests and ideologies … Each day teachers confront and win the curriculum battle, as they engage students with rich and powerful ideas that touch their lives.”  What curriculum battles do you face (e.g., the top-down imposition and rigid implementation of scripted language arts curricula, the increasing reliance on high-stakes standardized tests, etc.)?  How have you confronted or observed someone else confront these battles, directly and/or indirectly?  In what ways have you or the person you observed been successful?

  28. The authors assert that current debates about curriculum can be traced back to age-old arguments about (a) the nature of reality, (b) humans’ ability to “know” it, and (c) what’s worth knowing.  Apply these three categories to the curriculum debates that may impact the students with whom you (would like to) work.  How do the three categories help explain why certain curricular models may be more popular than others?
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