Response to The Struggle for the American Curriculum written by H. Kliebard

My profession as an instructional designer has yet to afford the opportunity to think about what or why something is being taught as much as how. I took a course this semester with Michael Apple in order to begin questioning the “what” and “why” and this assigned book embodied a good portion of the answer.

The process of determining the causal relationships and dynamic tensions within a system is the beginning of a critical understanding and I believe this book was able to do so naturally and historically. I trusted and appreciated the perspective of the author (or was blinded by my agreement) and the use of first-source quotations to portray the tone in which the philosophies were originally presented. The sheer density of information demanded a slow read and careful notes be taken all while actually being quite a pleasant read.

The profoundly absurd trend of traveling further and further away from a holistic, beautiful view of education into an assembly line of competency robots was a major theme of the text and one of the most upsetting to see unfold. I’ve had only minor reflections on the work of Dewey, but in this text, his model for a school described more like a future aspiration than a short lived experiment in the past. I was particularly struck with the attention to creating a mini-society and the ability to have the simple theme of “control over environment” become the springboard into all fields of study, somewhat biased towards some sort of artful living.

Words like efficiency have a very contemporary value in my profession, usually cited from theorists such as Richard Clark. Stated most simply, why use any form of media that is more expensive than one that achieves the same objectives? For business, military and many other institutions, the answer is still to minimize the cost of education, taking the “lowest bid” for the outcome required. A good portion of the book showed that this theme rose out of a long tradition of business analysis.

As the efficiency model requires outcomes and objectives to be defined it only follows that our view of certifications, competencies, and other ways to reduce a human into a function would follow. The thinking runs so deep within the understanding of education theory that I find myself a bit at a loss even considering an alternative.

Another trend that was discussed in the text was that to divide students at early ages, sorting them into the different kinds of “raw material” that would be processed into different goods as efficiently as possible. I’m not certain if it was outright stated, but I am defiantly left with a desire to see the point of permanent decision about one’s vocation and thereby education pushed back as far as possible. It horrifies me that during my travels to southern Africa, and many parts of central and south-east Asia I have seen the practice of children being sorted performed as a key part of the maturation process. I now see the philosophy behind the practice originating in the United States where I’m sure it also still exists.


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