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Curriculum theory, research, and reform have long been informed by a question posed by Herbert Spencer in 1861: “What knowledge is of most worth?” This question has continued to be examined and revised through significant educational and curricular reform movements. As a result, the competing interests of teachers, administrators, academicians, politicians, parents, and other stakeholders have led to a struggle for control of the American curriculum.
There are four major U.S. curricular initiatives that can be identified in the history of curriculum development and reform: (1) academic rationalism, (2) the social efficiency model, (3) progressive education, and 4) social reconstructionism. While each of these movements experienced varying degrees of support and criticism throughout the twentieth century, they more often overlapped in terms of development. For example, the academic rationalist orientation, with its roots during the Enlightenment, focused on the “Great Books” as the foundation of the Western cultural tradition. The goal of this approach, which was very popular at the turn of the century, was to develop the student’s mind to tackle life’s ultimate purpose, which was seen as a quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and liberty. Academic rationalism, however, continued to have strong support throughout the century. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1960s with the space revolution, the social efficiency model emphasized the efficient nature of the curriculum through operationally designed skills and knowledge. John Dewey’s progressive education movement was especially popular during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and advocated a child-centered approach that allowed the curriculum to accommodate children’s natural interests, and thus grow directly from the interests of the child. Lastly, the 1930s saw the advent of the social reconstructionist conception which posits that the curriculum should stress the needs of society over the needs of the individual, redress social injustice, and serve as an agent for social change (Schubert, 1986).
Although each curricular orientation has been vital in the formation of American schooling, the most recent, and most controversial, has been social reconstructionism. One of the most prominent proponents of social reconstructionism was the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire (1921–1997). In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire argued that only through “conscientization” can people liberate themselves from political and economic oppression. According to Freire, conscientization is the process by which the individual achieves a deep awareness of the social and cultural reality that shapes his or her life, and of the individual’s ability to transform that reality (Freire 1970b).
A product of Freire’s work is the concept of critical pedagogy, which emphasizes that education be viewed as a political, social, and cultural enterprise. In order to appreciate the contribution of critical pedagogy to curricular reform, it is imperative to understand the undeniable relationship between curriculum theory, the power of capital, and the state. For example, in light of the focus on the global marketplace that developed in the late twentieth century, capitalist ideology continuously encourages the consumption of commodities as a mechanism to continue the cycle of accumulation. Within educational settings, this is evident in the push toward integrating corporate management pedagogies within the classroom. As a result, academic success is almost exclusively defined in terms of “capital accumulation and the logic of the marketplace” (McLaren 2002, p. 34). Looking at this phenomenon through a Marxist lens, capitalism diminishes the individual to a commodity that can be bought and sold in the name of profit.
Western society, through the school curriculum, teaches that success can only be achieved through intelligence, hard work, and creativity. This type of pedagogical approach affects teachers, middle-class students, and working-class students. Reforms were initiated in the late twentieth century to provide “teacher-proof state-mandated curricula,” which some see as reducing the role of the teacher to nothing more than a “semi-skilled, low-paid clerk” (McLaren 2002, p. 187). From this perspective, students who possess the dominant cultural assets (e.g., particular ways of talking, acting, and socializing) are rewarded, while those possessing cultural assets of the oppressed are devalued. As a result, the curriculum perpetuates the unjust system of inequality based on cultural capital. As Freire points out, however, this practice is not perpetuated by force (McNeil 1996). Instead, the dominant culture is able to exercise power over subordinate classes through hegemony. Thus, this domination is maintained through consensual social practices, social forms, and social structures.
Critical pedagogy also advocates an analysis of the “hidden curriculum,” or the unintended outcomes of schooling that transmit messages to students through the “total physical and instructional environment” (McLaren 2002, p. 212). The curriculum is inextricably linked to the issue of power not only by culture but also by gender. For example, teachers often allow boys to dominate classroom conversations and offer them more academic praise than girls. While few teachers would admit to intentional sexist ideology, such interactions perpetuate sexist behavior. As a result, girls are often more hesitant to contribute to class discussions. Research also shows that girls are less likely to view themselves as competent in mathematics and science, and by the time they reach high school they are far less likely than boys to enroll in advanced math and science courses (McLaren 2002). Furthermore, girls are more likely to attribute failure to personal factors such as competence and ability.
As a consequence, men and women continue to be affected by the sexist nature of the hidden curriculum well into adulthood. For example, men tend to speak more often than women and frequently interrupt them in both professional and personal settings. It is also more difficult for women to be regarded as experts in their chosen occupations, and they are far less likely to obtain positions of power and authority.
Curriculum, from a critical theorist’s standpoint, encourages teachers and students to foster democratic principles in order to question how the curriculum creates inequities between dominant and oppressed groups. Thus, the curriculum could help a society come to terms with its history, helping students understand the inequitable distribution of power and resources common to many nations. Encouraging students to value and articulate their own experiences of injustice are the first steps in creating a new social order.
To date, however, curricular reform in the U.S. that addresses inequity and injustice has been controversial and, at times, considered “dangerous” territory. However, to ignore these issues is to deny students a voice as active, reflective citizens. Just as the current educational system was “made,” it can be “unmade” and “made over” (McLaren 2002). The first and most important step is to remove the fear of questioning the unquestionable and realize the role that the curriculum plays in political, social, and cultural life.
- Aronowitz, Stanley, and Giroux, Henry. 1991. Postmodern Education: Politics, Culture, and Social Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Counts, George S. 1978. Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (Orig. pub. 1932).
- Freire, Paolo. 1970a. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder.
- Freire, Paolo. 1970b. Cultural Action and Conscientization. Harvard Educational Review. 40 (3): 452–477.
- Illich, Ivan. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.
- Kliebard, Herbert. 1995. The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893–1958. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
- McLaren, Peter. 2002. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- McNeil, John. 1996. Curriculum: A Comprehensive Introduction. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins.
- Pinar, William, William Reynolds, Patrick Slattery, and Peter Taubman. 1995. Understanding Curriculum: An Introduction to the Study of Historical and Contemporary Curriculum Discourses. New York: Peter Lang.
- Schubert, William. 1986. Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility. New York: Macmillan.
- Spencer, Herbert. 1861. What Knowledge is of Most Worth? In Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical. New York: Appleton.
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