Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 2 Readings

Variations in curriculum theory

Kliebard, H. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum. Ch. 1–2, pp. 1–50. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Kliebard described changes in the perception and the reality of society and the school at the close of the nineteenth century. Kliebard argues that, in the public’s view, changes that had begun earlier in the century, such as the growth of railroads, cities, and immigration, “seemed to reach crisis proportions in the 1890s” (p. 2).

The burgeoning mass media helped foster popular anxieties. Muckraking journalists and other investigators were exposing schools as “joyless and dreary places” (p. 6). Educators’ belief that “the mind was in fact, or at least like, a muscle” that needed to be exercised though “a regime in school of monotonous drill, harsh discipline, and mindless verbatim recitation” (p. 5) was being undercut by psychologists such as William James and Edward L. Thorndike and—more importantly, Kliebard argues—by a society becoming increasingly interested in useful and practical knowledge. As the school “became an ever more critical mediating institution between the family and a puzzling and impersonal social order” (p. 1), debates flared over the school’s chief function.

Kliebard described four relatively stable and distinct “interest groups” that competed over seven decades for control of the schools through the curriculum.

William Torrey Harris

William Torrey Harris

Humanists, such as William Torrey Harris, the U.S. commissioner of education, embraced “the systematic development of reasoning power” (p. 9) as well as the Western cultural heritage.

Developmentalists “proceeded basically from the assumption that the natural order of development in the child was the most significant and scientifically defensible basis for determining what should be taught” (p. 11).

Social efficiency educators wanted schools to employ the “scientific management” techniques of supervision, accountability, precise measurement, and efficiency and to differentiate education according to students’ perceived needs, abilities, and probable life courses.

Social meliorists wanted to use schooling as a lever for societal progress.

Kliebard detailed the erosion (but not elimination) of traditional humanism, with its pedagogy of “mental discipline,” as the foundation of American schooling, and the subsequent competition between developmentalists, social efficiency educators, and social meliorists for dominance.

Kliebard described John Dewey as a fifth “interest group,” sharing traits with the four other groups but not aligned with any of them. In so doing, Kliebard acknowledged Dewey’s complexity but left him isolated—somehow detached from or above the struggle of the book’s title.

G. Stanley Hall
G. Stanley Hall

Kliebard depicted the clash between Harris and well-regarded philosopher, and the developmentalist G. Stanley Hall.

Harris opposed the work of Hall and others who “saw the schools as in need of drastic reform if they were to bring their program of studies in line with scientific findings about the nature of child life” (p. 30).

Harris’s “moderate reform,” which tried to disengage a humanistic curriculum from the discredited concept of mental discipline, “put Harris in the position of swimming against the strong tide of radical change that the new leadership [in education] was demanding” (pp. 35–36).

Rather than appeal to tradition or culture, Hall and other advocates of child study “could bring to bear the authority of science to the growing belief that the child’s own natural impulses could be used as a way of addressing the question of what to teach” (p. 37).


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