Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Typical American Curriculum

Okay, got home with the curriculum for my son's prospective new school, which they were kind enough to provide me in advance. This is a generic “American curriculum” school, and we're looking at Grade 6.

There's no more history and geography. That has been replaced by “Social Studies,” which combines the two. The subject this year is Ancient Civilizations, which certainly turns my crank. It is good to note, as well, that this has been broadened beyond just ancient Greece and Rome: the year includes "Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Persia, the Gupta, the Han, East Africa and Mesoamerica." Sounds great, if a lot of territory to cover. But then, they seem inadvertently to have listed China twice—as China and Han. Makes me worry about how competent they really are to teach this stuff. I might also wonder why Mesoamerica but not the Andes (and suspect they think the latter is part of Mesoamerica). It also includes “hunter/gatherer” and “tribal.” Now I'm worried. It's surely too much in one year, and tosses apples and oranges into one basket.

At first I also feared this might be a materialistic view; but the curriculum says it will pay attention to the “beliefs, institutions, and technology” of the cultures, which does seem to cover the field. I'm a little unhappy that one focus of the course will be “to examine gender roles in various civilizations,” leaving an opening for political propagandizing and bogus science. But at least it does not seem to be a major element of the course.

I'm also a little taken aback by “The learner will be able to describe instances in which changes in values, beliefs, and attitudes have resulted from new scientific knowledge and from technological knowledge.” This sounds as though the study of beliefs may be faked, especially since there is no indication of the reverse, how values, beliefs and attitudes can produce new scientific knowledge and new technology. Beliefs and values might be dismissed as arbitrary results of material conditions. In other words, we might have a purely materialist, atheist, and even explicitly Marxist view of history.

There's no more English either. This is now “Language Arts,” even though only one language is involved. I'm disappointed that no specific books are cited to be read. This, as E.D. Hirsch has persuasively argued, matters. The curriculum includes not just books and reading, but “speaking,” “media” and “viewing.” This seems to the good; there are a lot more than texts going around these days. Moreover, I think some training in public speaking is part of a good education, and I feel my own education was lacking in that. Another big plus is that they are apparently now teaching MLA style. I was never formally taught it, and always thought it should have been part of high school training.

On the other hand a lot of the material proposed to be covered seems a bit of a waste of time. “Students will reflect on and evaluate their successes with the writing process.” “Students will evaluate their level of understanding through the reading process.” “Students will reflect on and evaluate their growth as readers.” “Students will reflect on and evaluate their success as effective listeners and speakers.” “Students will reflect on and evaluate their effectiveness as viewers.” “Students will reflect on and evaluate their effectiveness as consumers.” These are things, as a student, I might want to do on my own time at home; but I do not need a teacher and a classroom to do it. It ought not take up learning time. Nor does it seem terribly interesting.

Neither does it seem useful to send your kids to school so they can learn to “participate effectively in viewing situations.” I think they already know that.

I'm also not excited about “students will analyze the ways in which images construct meaning”; “students will construct meaning from ... visual information,” or “students will ... construct meaning from a variety of genres.” First, this is self-contradictory as expressed: either the reader is constructing the meaning, or the text (here “image”) is; you cannot have it both ways. But the idea that meaning is arbitrarily constructed is also offensive to anyone who believes in the existence of absolute values. Which is to say, anyone who believes in religion, or truth, or right and wrong.

I also seem to see a rather different attitude to visual and to print media. “Students will view and understand the strategies of non-print media to influence media consumers.” Why only non-print media? Exactly the same issues and the same rhetorical strategies appear there. I suspect this will really only amount to a diatribe against TV advertising. A terrible waste of time, because advertising is not limited to TV, and attempts to persuade are not limited to advertising. In fact, because of the tough laws against consumer fraud, advertising is probably a poorer model for rhetorical tricks than the news or opinion or entertainment pieces on either side.

I suspect here either Luddism, a hostility towards “visual technology” simply because it is relatively new; or Marxism, a hostility towards TV because it is wholly subsidized by (mostly corporate) advertising.

Science, too, comes in for a measure of tomfoolery. I lament my own lack of a proper scientific education in earlier school years. But why should they list, under “The Nature of Science,” “students will work as part of a team, share ideas and offer reasons for their findings with others.” This has nothing to do with science, and is pretty directly counter to how the great scientists actually worked. Why is it being slipped in here illegitimately as part of the nature of science? What are they trying to pull? Again, “Students will develop an attitude of respect and understanding for life and the environment.” Nothing to do with science; those who study infectious diseases are in no way required to respect infectious diseases. This is scientism, true science supplanted with a superstitious pseudo-religious worship of “nature.”

On balance, I do think I will send my son, and monitor the situation. The good news is that it is not a public school, and they are not using certified teachers. So, with luck, there will be some common sense, and the sillier parts of the curriculum may be ignored.


Anonymous said...

why not send your child to a Classical school like Mary, Mother of God??

reddog said...

I'm 62, sounds a lot like the curriculum at my very nice, white, upper middle class elementary school, half a century ago. Maybe it's not so good, I'm no judge. We did Ok though. Lot's of doctors lawyers, college profs, successful businessmen. Almost everyone is a millionaire. I am and undoubtedly one of the least ambitious ones in the bunch. I never cared much for money as something worth trading big chunks of my life and effort for.

I expect your kid will get along just fine. In the end it's what you teach about how to be human and not what the school teaches that's important. Make sure he/she can read. That's the only important thing I ever got from elementary education. After that, you can learn whatever you like at the public library or internet. The World is your oyster.

Rationalist1 said...

I'm not a big fan of aspects of the modern curriculum either (as manifest in Ontario, Canada where I live) but middle school years often have transitory and survey subjects before the "hard" courses hit in high school. Check out your son's proposed high school courses to see if they gain focus.

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Aquinas' Goose said...

While Marx is surely influencing the curriculum, I believe the ones who you actually need to keep an eye toward are Foucault and Derrida (both of whom are extremely popular in colleges these days and who manage to get terribly mangled when applied outside their field, in my opinion). My worry ought also be seeing your child being taught 'as a consumer.' Your son's curriculum sounds very much like the one I had in 6th grade public school. Upon reflection, now that I've been out of the system and now that I'm watching my friends teach high school graduates, it would seem that schools are teaching students to believe themselves to be critical thinkers without teaching them to think critically. I don't think your son will be 'harmed' by the curriculum, but I definitely support your decision to 'keep an eye' on him and would highly encourage deep conversations with him in order to supplement the instruction he will not be getting.

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