Curriculum blind eye

It’s not what you teach but how that matters, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

May 2, 2013

How’s this for a heresy? The curriculum does not matter. It ain’t what you teach; it’s the way that you teach it.

From the safety of my job in the US, I have goggled bemusedly at the fuss over education secretary Michael Gove’s new history curriculum for schools in England and Wales. Old friends and former colleagues of mine have written to the papers, complained in highbrow journals, protested in professional bulletins and, no doubt, bombarded the Department for Education with advice and the blogosphere with lamentations. The controversy is pointless because there is no chance that Gove’s objectives will be met.

In principle, both sides are right: the education secretary and his few supporters in the academic fraternity want schoolchildren to know a lot of history and, in particular, to know enough about their country to feel at home in Britain. Meanwhile, Gove’s adversaries convincingly deplore his curriculum as impractical, superficial, jingoistic, underfunded and unintelligently paced. There is no point in trying to cover the whole of history in a school curriculum: you might as well try to get a Shetland pony to cover a shire horse. Of course, Gove’s scheme is well intentioned and, of course, it will be a disaster, alienating students, annoying teachers and leaving British youth more mired in ignorance than ever. But those consequences are not peculiar to Gove’s proposal. All curricula are destructive of education.

I am sickened by the selfishness of businessmen who want schools to train their recruits for them in dreary, mind-numbing subjects. I am repelled by the arrogance of politicians who want to abuse classrooms for indoctrination

The idea of having a curriculum at all derives from a misconception about what education is for. Schools should not exist to cram in everything politicians or potential employers or parents want pupils to know. No curriculum could achieve such an ambition - even if the ambition were worthwhile, which it isn’t - because school days are short, lesson time is ludicrously constrained, the data are unmanageable and teachers are harassed, while all children are immature and many are hostile and inattentive. The lust to engineer useful citizens derives from a 19th- century form of wickedness: forcing children into institutions for the purposes of the state.

I am sickened by the selfishness of businessmen who want schools to train their recruits for them in dreary, mind-numbing subjects. I am repelled by the arrogance of politicians who want to abuse classrooms for indoctrination. I am inspired by teachers who want to fulfil their vocations: to share their passions, to inspire young people, to ignite minds, to empower intellects and to enhance lives. To accomplish all that, they do not need to have a curriculum imposed on them. They need freedom to teach what they best know and most love.

It would be a wonderful world if children learned enough history to situate themselves in their communities, their countries, their environments and their world. They do not have time to do so in school. But great teaching can give them the will to continue their own education in productive leisure. Overblown, overburdened, overly prescriptive curricula are more likely to put them off, and drive them into the escapist trivia that monopolise most school-leavers’ minds, emasculating intellects, numbing sensibilities and deadening lives. The best curriculum is no curriculum at all, as long as places of education have the means and will to select and nurture teachers who can and will teach well.

Universities as well as schools need to disengage from curriculum madness. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, leaped in esteem and achievement after 1969 when it introduced the “no-curriculum curriculum”, allowing students to enrol, under expert advice, for whatever they wanted to learn. This admirable model remains insufficiently imitated. One of the many sources of misery that afflicted me during my many years as a member of the modern history faculty at the University of Oxford was a sclerotic, narrow, old-fashioned curriculum, still musty with the mould of Stubbs’ Select Charters, in a place where it was easy to muster a majority against everything. Friends who are there today tell me the curriculum has broadened but still obliges dons to handle subjects of which they know little and teach them to students whose interests lie elsewhere; standard- issue bibliographies lie unrevised for years.

My own university, although it provides the best environment for teaching and learning I have ever experienced, still encumbers students with a Sisyphean weight of “distribution” requirements, as if they and their mentors could not be trusted to put together a suitable programme of study for each individual, combining focused passions and illuminating contexts. One of the issues that currently convulse Notre Dame is whether to abolish an old requirement for a physical-education component in every undergraduate’s formation - a charmingly fossilised fragment of the ethos of mens sana in corpore sano. The requirement is mere tokenism. No one takes it seriously. But we must go through a rigmarole of committees, investigations, evidence-gathering and voting to get rid of it.

When I was a schoolteacher, I ignored the A-level curriculum until six weeks before the exam, in the belief that well-educated young people would pass it with minimal but intelligent preparation. The wheeze worked. I hope and suspect that most teachers will undermine Gove’s edifice with the same constructive contempt.

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