By Jennifer Spencer
Two weeks ago, I was listening to a group of mainstream classroom teachers discuss curriculum design. The big question was this: What qualifies something as being a part of the curriculum? Is it a collection of subjects? Basic skills? Does it only include the things that are formally studied? Or could it include the inherent beliefs and values of the personnel as characterized by things like scheduling and classroom management? Are all children entitled to the same curriculum? Do all children even need the same curriculum?
At this point, one of the teachers made a statement that made my ears perk up: “It would be nice if my electrician knew Shakespeare, but does he really need that in order to do his job?” This is a valid question when our culture tells us that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for either college or the work force. If a student knows he has no interest in going to college, then do we really need to waste his time with Macbeth? Or should we give him something he can use instead, such as résumé-writing or basic accounting? Should we teach him a trade such as carpentry or plumbing so that he can make a living when college is not in his future?
As Mason educators, we approach the question of curriculum from a different starting point based on several assumptions. The first is, of course, that the child is a person who has innate worth and who was created in God’s image for a divine purpose. Since we do not know what that purpose is, we had better help each child lay a wide and firm foundation that will support him regardless of the direction his life takes. This means a liberal education for all.
A second assumption is that, according to Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” If the earth belongs to the Lord, and our students are God’s children, then the earth is theirs as much as it is ours by rightful inheritance. The world is full of things to know. These things are not mine to either give or withhold as I see fit. The child is entitled to the whole of it. To illustrate this point, suppose there was a billionaire who inherited a million dollars. Does he need that money? Perhaps not. Is he entitled to it anyway? Most certainly. To keep it from him because I think he does not need it would be a form of thievery. The same might be said of a liberal curriculum.
A third assumption is that even though humans have a duty to society, we do not embrace a utilitarian view of the person. On page 302 of volume 6, Mason writes:
We say, “What is the good of knowledge? Give a boy professional instruction, whether he is to be a barrister or a bricklayer, and strike out from his curriculum Greek or geography, or whatever is not of utilitarian value. Teach him to play the game and handle the ropes of his calling, and you have done the best for him.” Now, here is a most mischievous fallacy, an assertion that a child is to be brought up for the uses of society only and not for his own uses. Here we get the answer to the repeated question that suggested itself in a survey of our educational condition. We launch children upon too arid and confined a life. Now personal delight, joy in living, is a chief object of education. (Mason, 1925)
Our duty, then, when choosing curriculum is to put our students in contact with as many ideas about as many subjects as there is time for. Our aim is to enrich their lives forever through art, literature, music, the sciences, languages and cultures, religion, philosophy, mathematics, physical fitness, and the careful and diligent work of their own hands. By providing a rich and wide curriculum for all children, we enable them to take joy in their lives regardless of the professions they will choose when they grow up. By respecting their personhood, we also allow them to have dignity in their work, whether that work involves curing cancer or scrubbing toilets. In short, when it comes to curriculum, the issue of whether or not our students will grow up to be electricians is, well, a non-issue.
© Jennifer Spencer 2010