Rethinking the Benefits of the College-Bound Curriculum

Article excerpt

We should rethink two sets of beliefs that support the current top-down model of education, Ms. Noddings suggests - one, a set of faulty notions about equal opportunity, sameness, and the inherent worth of the college-bound curriculum; the other, an equally faulty set of beliefs about the dangers of specialization and the benefits of breadth.

Deborah Meier and Susan Ohanian invite us to think about how secondary schools and colleges might approach education if they were modeled on the early elementary grades and the needs of students instead of on the images and demands of the elite colleges and universities. They claim that such education might be characterized by greater freedom, sustained activity, playfulness, sense of purpose, and a healthy skepticism born of genuine curiosity. The elite colleges and universities do in fact exercise more control than they should over a vast number of students who will never enter their doors. Can anything be done to change this?

I will argue that we should rethink two sets of beliefs that support the current topdown model: one, a set of faulty notions about equal opportunity, sameness, and the inherent worth of the college-bound curriculum; the other, an equally faulty set of beliefs about the dangers of specialization and the benefits of breadth. Rethinking these matters may weaken the rationale for our current mode of operation.

Faulty Notions About Equality and Sameness

Advocates of the standard precollege curriculum usually offer one or both of two arguments for requiting students to take college-preparatory mathematics, science, English, history, and foreign language. One argument seeks to persuade us that all children should have the opportunity to qualify for an elite education. The second maintains that a curriculum designed as preparation for Harvard or Stanford is, inherently, the best education for everyone. It seems to me that both of these arguments are wrong and, in some forms, actually harmful.

Let's consider the first argument - that all children should be given an opportunity to qualify for the best colleges. The first thing to notice is that opportunities might be provided without coercion. Too often those who insist on equal opportunity want to force students into the curriculum that will "give" them the desired opportunity. They argue that high school students are simply not mature enough to make important curriculum choices; for their own good, then, the school must make these choices for them.

Mortimer Adler, for example, has insisted that, left to their own choices, some students will "downgrade" their own education; therefore, adults should control these crucial choices so that such downgrading does not occur.(1) But there are two powerful responses to Adler's concerns. First, it should not be possible for students to downgrade their education no matter what choices they make. Why should responsible educators allow schools to offer a set of "good" courses and a set of "bad" courses? As John Dewey pointed out years ago, a course in cooking, well planned and well executed, can induce critical thinking, increase cultural literacy, and provide valuable skills - it can be a "good" course. In contrast, a course in algebra may discourage critical thinking, add nothing to cultural literacy, and lead students to despair of acquiring useful skills - it can be a "bad" course. Thus, before we abandon the variety of courses typical of the "shopping mall" high school, we should ask genuine and penetrating questions about the value of these courses. I've already offered three criteria for judging courses good or bad. I'd also ask, Are they interesting? Are they challenging? Do the teachers treat the students with respect? Are the students likely to grow as whole persons - in other words, is it reasonable to predict that the students will grow socially, morally, and intellectually? When I say that these questions should be asked genuinely, I mean that we should not decide a priori that the conventional academic subjects are superior to others. …

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