We should rethink a set of faulty notions about equal opportunity, sameness and the inherent worth of the college-bound curriculum. Rethinking these matters may weaken the rationale for our current mode of operation.
Advocates of the standard pre-college curriculum usually offer one or both of two arguments for requiring 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.
Author 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. 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 student 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? …