Curriculum, Educational Reform
Comments 4

Do Electricians Need Shakespeare? by Jennifer Spencer

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

This entry was posted in: Curriculum, Educational Reform


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. The same kind of thinking in the autism world makes me cringe. The assumption is that we should only focus on our children learning functional language and words they need to know in school or for job skills. Why would an autistic child need to read Little Women?

    If they saw the look on my 20 year-old autistic daughter’s face when we read Beth March’s article in the Pickwick Papers about squash pudding, just a week after we made squash pudding–a gentle whisper from God, they would know differently.

    If they saw her laugh at the anachronism of The Pirates of Penzance stealing a laptop computer from the Major General’s house two weeks ago at a live production in Charlotte because she has context, they would think differently.

    If they saw the wheels turning in her head as she made a connection between a painting by Monet and the time of Gilbert and Sullivan because of the way women dressed, they would think differently.

    If they saw her smile when she hears Mozart and Bach played quietly in the background during her watercolor art class, they would think differently.

    Our children have a right to sit at the great banquet with all of humanity and enjoy the morsels that they can taste.

  2. Tammy, What a wonderful comment and what pioneering work you are doing with Pamela. I can still hear her saying “Be kind, rewind,” and if I weren’t careful, I could easily assume that autistic children just mutter phrases like this to themselves. But your very special work with Pamela continues to teach us all that what we think we see and understand about a person is not always true. You have dug so much deeper into human understanding with your work. It reminds me of this quote from Mason: “We attempt to define a person, the most common-place person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our
    power of measurement.”

  3. dmariucci says

    Thank you Jennifer! I think we all need the reminder that education is a life! It is so easy to get bogged down in the “curriculum” that we forget we are making an introduction to a way of life long learning!

  4. Pingback: Shakespeare for Christians? | Harmony Fine ArtsHarmony Fine Arts

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