Looking Back: A Prologue to Curriculum Studies
Curriculum theorizing and development are as old as educational institutions because any educational program must have some sort of content. Although theorists and practitioners have (perhaps without conscious awareness) dealt with curriculum questions since at least the time of Plato’s design for education in his ideal state, the notion of curriculum as a professional or scholarly field is recent. Historically, curriculum decisions were largely left to that small, usually elite, portion of the public most directly concerned with the operation of schools. In the United States, curriculum began to emerge as a field of scholarly inquiry and professional practice only toward the close of the nineteenth century, a time that roughly coincided with the rise of public schooling for the masses.
The burgeoning population of the public schools at the dawn of the twentieth century was only one of a number of tumultuous and consequential developments in American life. One result of such upheaval was the Progressive movement, a broadbased effort aimed at assuring the realization of American ideals in an increasingly urban-industrial and pluralistic nation (Cremin, 1964, pp. 8–10). Thus, the first selfconscious curriculum scholars saw their work as part of this broader reformation of American life. The responses of the progressive educational reformers were to institutionalize many of the now characteristic features of school curriculum, including such practices as tracking, standardized testing, and civic education (Tyack, 1974).
Although early curriculum specialists frequently perceived themselves as “progressives,” these educational reformers, like their fellow progressives in politics and other fields, worked with diverse, even contradictory, conceptions of what “progressive” meant (see Curti, 1959; Kliebard, 1995; Lagemann, 2000). Thus, from its earliest days, the curriculum field has been characterized by vigorous disagreements about its proper aims and practices. For example, the various meanings assigned by curriculum specialists to terms such as “learning” and “democracy” are not merely esoteric concerns without consequences for the world of practice. To the contrary, how one defines terms to a great extent determines the resulting character of education.
The first set of readings includes five of the early formulations of the curriculum field as represented in the work of Franklin Bobbitt, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and George S. Counts. Each of these formulations retains an important contemporary presence in curriculum scholarship (see Eisner, 2002). In this sense, conflicting conceptions of curriculum have never been an aberration in the field. Quite the opposite—differing views have been present since the very first generation of curriculum scholarship. Indeed, the work of the first three early scholars we will encounter, Franklin Bobbitt, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey, exemplify how different archetypes of the meaning of “curriculum” result in radically different views of educational aims and practice.
When he wrote The Curriculum (1918), Bobbitt was a professor at the University of Chicago as well as a sought-after curriculum consultant to school districts across the nation. He is an apt starting point for tracing the development of professional curriculum scholarship and practice in North America, as key essentials of his approach to curriculum have been dominant in practice ever since. Moreover, Bobbitt was a self-proclaimed pioneer of the field. He asserts in the excerpt reproduced in this volume to be writing the “first” curriculum textbook. Although it is not self-evident what constitutes the “first” curriculum textbook, Bobbitt’s claim is often conceded. In any case, there is no doubt that Bobbitt’s The Curriculum has had enduring influence, particularly in its insistence that curriculum developers begin with the identification of proper goals. “Pioneer” implies finding one’s way in unfamiliar terrain, but Bobbitt seems to have had few doubts that he was headed in the right direction. He epitomized the “can-do” attitude of the new professional elites of the Progressive era, a time when professionals in a variety of fields were increasingly considered the preferred means by which a forward-looking society addressed its problems. Bobbitt was quite sure of what ailed curriculum making: for too long it had been in the hands of amateurs, and it was high time it became a professional undertaking.
Bobbitt was convinced that professional knowledge applicable to curriculum work could be found in the logic of “scientific management,” which had been applied to raising worker productivity in industry (Callahan, 1962, pp. 79–94). In a nutshell, Bobbitt asserted that curriculum work, like work in industry, should be managed in the interests of efficiency and the elimination of waste. These same interests after all, it seemed obvious to Bobbitt and many of his contemporaries, in significant respects accounted for the world preeminence of American manufacturing industry. Use of the same methods would bring the same world-class standards to the school curriculum.
Bobbitt’s claim that curriculum work was out of date, having not kept pace with other advances in schooling, is almost poignant. The Curriculum was Bobbitt’s solution to this unfortunate state of affairs. As he makes plain in the preface, he proposed to lay out how curriculum can be constructed in a manner that honors scientific procedures. For Bobbitt, “scientific” suggested a systematic series of procedures, carried out by curriculum professionals, prior to implementation in a school district (see Eisner, 1985).
The content of any given curriculum, according to Bobbitt, could be “discovered” by a process of surveying what successful adults know and can do (Bobbitt, this volume, Chapter 1
). In turn, the results of this process of discovery would be used to formulate
educational objectives from which the curriculum scope and sequence (i.e., what is taught and in what order) would be derived to address where students fell short of successful adults. After instruction with this kind of curriculum, he believed, students would be prepared to lead successful lives in their adult years.
Efficiency, of course, suggests not only smooth operating procedures but minimization of “waste” as well. Thus, in addition to scientific curriculum making, Bobbitt wanted to minimize sources of wasted instructional time. He believed that diagnostic testing and other procedures proposed by behavioral psychologists such as Edward L. Thorndike would make possible prediction of the kind of errors students typically made. This would enable more efficient curriculum making as well as prevent unnecessary time being spent on the costly business of instruction, especially gradelevel retention of students, which Bobbitt considered enormously wasteful. As in industrial enterprises, Bobbitt wanted to maximize output (i.e., student learning) at minimum cost (i.e., paying teachers).
This outlook also held significance for the content of the curriculum. Bobbitt believed that “the shortcomings of children and men” in subjects such as spelling and grammar were “obvious,” and hence these fields needed to be included in the curriculum. It was less apparent to Bobbitt, however, what shortcomings were overcome by “social” subjects such as literature, history, and geography. He urged attention to identifying significant educational objectives to which these social subjects could contribute (Bobbitt, this volume, Chapter 1
Because Bobbitt’s approach to curriculum work was based, he argued, on a dispassionate analysis of what youngsters needed to lead productive lives as adults, he dismissed arguments about the interests of children as irrelevant to the educational process. Moreover, Bobbitt did not question whether the existing social and economic order was just; he merely took that for granted. Hence, he saw the aim of schooling as matching individuals with the existing social and economic order (Lagemann, 2000).
The second reading in Part I
is by Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori. This figure shares at least one interest with Bobbitt: the relationship between science and education. Like Bobbitt, Montessori took a progressive stance in wanting to help design more modern conditions for schools via “scientific pedagogy.” She saw education as following in the footsteps of medicine to “pass the purely speculative stage and base its conclusions on the positive results of experimentation” (this volume, Chapter 2
). In addition, systematic inquiry is at the heart of what today has become widely known as the Montessori Method. Beyond these points, however, the similarities between Bobbitt and Montessori end and their differences begin.
Unlike Bobbitt, Montessori explicitly cautions against the dangers of applying science too literally to the education of children. Montessori locates these dangers in a tension that would follow curriculum work throughout the twentieth century. This tension is found in the differences between the specialized interests of the scientist and the social interests of the educator. For Montessori, educators needed the science of the clinician, not the science of aloof professionals removed from the day-to-day practical affairs of working with children. In the most useful view of science, child study through the fields of anthropology and psychology could inform but not substitute for sound pedagogy. By way of example, Montessori cites the extreme practice of designing student desks based purely on the measurements of children’s physical characteristics. The result is children rigidly fastened in straight rows of desks with little or no room for natural movement. For Montessori, such artificial arrangements invoked the image of a display box of butterflies mounted on pins in their perfect lifelessness. She uses this image to emphasize that any use of science in education must be guided by broader purposes—purposes that she argues can be found in the concept of social liberty.
Another contrast with Bobbitt is that Montessori’s approach elevates and transforms the role of
classroom teachers. In Bobbitt’s system, teachers were given a curriculum prior to instruction, a curriculum designed by a new brand of professionals known as curriculum developers or curriculum workers. Montessori’s teachers, on the other hand, were charged with creating developmental activities and classroom arrangements based on careful observations of the children in their care. For Montessori, it
was not a matter of technical methods but rather attentive observations and the desire to learn that signaled the true spirit of scientific pedagogy.
A final point of difference between these two educational thinkers concerns the place of student interests. For Bobbitt, the needs of the individual were determined by the demands of adult life. Thus, curriculum designers looked to society while individual interests were largely irrelevant to their task. For Montessori, personal interests and talents represented important opportunities for development, and as such they should be nurtured. She makes this point specifically in relation to the use of rewards and prizes as ways to motivate or control children. Montessori (this volume, Chapter 2
Everyone has a special tendency, a special vocation, modest perhaps, but certainly useful. The system of prizes may turn an individual aside from this vocation, may make him choose a false road, for him a vain one, and forced to follow it, the natural activity of a human being may be warped, lessened, even annihilated.
Allied with Montessori’s concern for student interests, we include John Dewey’s brief yet broadly conceived “My Pedagogic Creed” (1929). Dewey’s view of curriculum again provides a contrast with Bobbitt’s industrial model. Where Bobbitt argued that adult society is the mold for the school curriculum, Dewey (this volume, Chapter 3
) said such a view “results in subordinating the freedom of the individual to a preconceived social and political status.” “True education,” Dewey insisted, “comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.” Reliance on behaviorist methods to Dewey signified external imposition whose effects “cannot truly be called educative.” Indeed, Dewey pointed out that the worth of subject matter could only be determined by its educational uses. For example, Dewey (this volume, Chapter 3
) questioned the value of history as a school subject if it was confined to the customary “inert” study of “the distant past.” But Dewey maintained that history “becomes full of meaning” when “taken as the record of man’s social life and progress … as the child is introduced … directly into social life.”
The distinctions Dewey drew, although consequential, are frequently subtle as Dewey spoke the unfamiliar language of reform, of education as a means of extending and reforming democratic, community life in the United States. The relative novelty of his language and views may help explain why Dewey’s theory of curriculum has been often and widely misunderstood, even by those purporting to be his followers. In this regard, he wrote Experience and Education (1938) toward the end of his career because he believed, for example, his insistence on curriculum planning beginning with the experience of the child was being wrongly interpreted as disdain for the “progressive organization of subject-matter.” Similarly Dewey emphasized that starting with the experience of the child, far from producing laissez-faire classroom arrangements, increased rather than replaced the teacher’s role in directing each pupil’s learning toward worthwhile goals. What would Dewey’s philosophy look like in terms of curriculum practices?
Insight into this question is provided by the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, which Dewey founded in 1896. The purpose of the school was to “test” or try out the new ideas of progressive education, and for this reason the school’s curriculum evolved over time (Tanner, 1997). Nevertheless, Dewey consistently took as the starting point for education the familiar experiences found in the child’s home, family, and local community. These experiences were to be expanded through student activities or occupations such as cooking, sewing, textile work, carpentry, and music. Often simplified to reflect earlier times, these activities served as the vehicles for broadening and deepening the child’s knowledge of how human civilizations have developed. Eventually, Dewey argued, such occupations would lead to subject-matter knowledge in arithmetic, science, and geography. The aim of this curriculum was to integrate the student’s school experience with community life.
The Lab School for Dewey was not only aligned closely with the child’s community life. It also served as an instrument for social reform. While the followers of Bobbitt saw the school as an agent of social adaptation to the status quo, Dewey (this volume, Chapter 3
) portrayed “the school as the primary and most effective interest of
social progress and reform.” Just as there should be no strict boundary between the curriculum and community experience, Dewey believed the curriculum held the potential for society to remake itself.
Jane Addams, friend and collaborator of Dewey, also saw no sharp boundary between the curriculum and democratic community life. In 1889 Addams and her longtime associate, Helen Gates Starr, established a social settlement, Hull House, in Chicago’s West Side slums. While Dewey’s
curriculum thought was mainly directed at formal schooling, the primary site of Addams’ work was Hull House and its adjacent community. As Richard Bernstein (1967) observed, while Dewey brought “the theory and methods of social philosophy to bear on the concrete facts,” Hull House “provided him with the ‘facts’” (p. 37). Moreover, as Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (1994) has noted, Addams’ location outside of the academy “enabled her to develop and sustain an approach to social analysis that was broad, synthetic, and problemas opposed to disciplineor profession-centered” (p. xiii).
Hull House reached out to immigrants, to laborers, to mothers and children, to all in an urban-industrial community who needed or wanted its educational and social programs. Celebrated almost from the beginning, Hull House aimed through its educational programs to address the range of problems and aspirations of ordinary and needy people in an era when public schools often appeared inadequate to the task. Although Addams wrote and spoke widely about education, she considered these activities no substitute for the direct cari...