A look back: How Kappan authors have thought about curriculum 



The Kappan archive offers a window into the debate about what the aims of schools — and their curricula — should be. 


Questions about how to rethink school curricula often come down to what we believe the goals of schooling should be. And in the April 1927 Kappan, Leslie Updegraph (“Present status of moral education”) declared this question to be a settled matter: 

It is now commonly recognized by our present-day educators, as well as by a great number of laymen, that the chief aim of education is to develop noble manhood and womanhood. Turning their backs upon the former idea of sharpening the intellect and equipping the individual for personal success, the leaders in American education have replaced this thought with the ideal of moulding personalities in such a way that they will use the instrument of the mind for the great good of humanity and live in harmony with the good of the whole. (p. 137) 

Although the purpose of Updegraph’s article was principally to discuss how to measure and report on students’ character development, he might be surprised (and dispirited) to know that the question of the chief goal of education has been a matter of much debate across Kappan’s 100 volumes. 

The terms of the debate about the purposes of education (and thus the shape of the curriculum) have varied over the years, but the heart of the matter concerns whether schools are meant to prepare students for college, careers, and/or life in general, including civic life.  

The value of liberal education 

Many Kappan authors have called upon schools to focus on developing students as humans, not just future students or workers, arguing that a liberal education equips students for whatever practical challenges lay ahead. For instance, writing during World War II, Willard Youngdal, in “Why liberal arts now?” (March 1943), declared that “only those persons who are liberally educated can be trusted with the planning of the peace. A technically trained specialist does not have the depth of background or breadth of understanding necessary for an intelligent grasp of postwar problems” (p. 136).  

Liberal education remained of central concern to Kappan authors for decades, though its fortunes gradually seemed to decline, as suggested by the title of the May 1979 special issue (“Last hurrah for liberal education?”). In the lead article, “The prospects for liberal education: A sociological perspective,” Christopher Hurn explained why the outlook appeared so gloomy: 

The importance of education is increasingly justified, not as the transmission of a common cultural heritage of values and accumulated knowledge that is valuable in itself, but as a means of training in a world where old skills are constantly becoming obsolete and new skills continually required. And in this conception, it is hardly necessary to add, liberal education becomes, if it is mentioned at all, merely ornamental. (p. 630) 

Incorporating vocational education 

However, not all Kappan authors took liberal education to be inherently superior to the study of practical skills. For example, in September 1942, Junius Meriam (“The high school curriculum”) complained that the high school curriculum, including the course of study suggested by the influential Committee of Ten in 1893, was too closely linked to higher education. And so, he wrote, “The masses of youth not going to college may profit as they can” (p. 13). Far better to focus on what the majority of students need as they make their way through life today. Preparation for the future is of secondary importance.  

In November 1962, Sherwin Shermis went further, pushing back against those who would treat vocational fields, such as journalism and education, as unworthy subjects for higher education. It wasn’t so long ago, he pointed out, that astronomy and biology were seen as dubious areas of study: 

It seems to me that a realization of the extreme recency of the intellectual emergence of the sciences ought both to clarify and mute present controversy. If the sciences have but recently emerged into their present classification of true intellectual disciplines, then why can it not be understood that the twentieth century is seeing the emergence of other disciplines, that as these emerging disciplines perfect their techniques and build up their stock of dependable generalizations, they too, will constitute bona fide intellectual disciplines. (p. 85) 

Later writers seemed to be somewhat less concerned with defending the intellectual value of vocational education than with asserting its practical utility. In the April 1965 special issue on the topic, Norman Harris (“Redoubled efforts and dimly seen goals”) considered how the drive for more academic study, particularly in the sciences, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 had left some students without useful skills: 

Suddenly, parents, legislators, and citizens in general have discovered that a Sputnik-spawned curriculum has some drawbacks when applied to schools which serve all youth through their seventeenth year. Suddenly, there are no jobs for the new high school graduate with his modern math, and “new” physics, and three years of French. Suddenly, there is serious questioning of the validity of a high school curriculum which places two-thirds of its emphasis on the needs of one-third of the students. Suddenly, parents are asking, “Why doesn’t the high school give my boy an education which will prepare him for a job?” And so we have come full circle. Vocational education, after dwelling in limbo for ten years, is “fashionable” again. (p. 360) 

Harris urged educators and policy makers to consider which jobs are likely to need more workers, and he recommended providing more opportunities for vocational education at the post-secondary level. In his view, both academic and vocational educators had focused too much on the merits of their own disciplines. The role of schools should be “not to train workers but to educate citizens,” yet, in doing so, it was essential to remember “that among the necessary attributes of citizenship is the ability to get a job and the skill to perform at it” (p. 365). 

In the same issue, Lloyd Williams lauded both academic and vocational education in his article, “The struggle for balance”:  

The liberal and the vocational disciplines need one another. Life requires them both; an adequate personality demands them both. The vocational aspect of education and of life needs enrichment; it needs to be brought under the scrutiny of critical intelligence; it needs the illumination that comes with comparison; it needs the clear delineation provided by historical perspective; it needs the invigoration that comes from close involvement with the liberal disciplines. But by the same logic, the liberal disciplines need focus; they need to be pointed in some useful direction; they need association with the practical to overcome their abstract remoteness; they need to be tempered by the world of human problems; they need the enrichment that comes from close involvement with functional studies. (p. 359) 

Williams observed that few modern societies had achieved this balance. Russia and perhaps China appeared to him to be among the few that did. They achieved this by bringing dignity to labor, integrating the arts and sciences, and developing the idea of polytechnic education, in which workers learned their craft and its cultural significance. In lauding their example, Williams wrote, “Since wise men learn from any source they can, we should be willing to learn even from our enemies” (p. 358). 

However, the struggle for balance was far from over. In May 1979, for example, Paul Woodring (“Vocational education: What kind, how much, and when?”) cautioned against putting too much emphasis on vocational education because, after all, the average American will spend only about one-fourth of their waking hours over a lifetime at work. Other obligations, such as those to family, social groups, and the government, require preparation as well. 

Back to the basics? 

Since the 1950s, moreover, many Kappan authors had been leveling fierce criticism at vocational education on the grounds that all students needed a “basic education” in traditional academic subjects. For example, in June 1963, Donald Robinson and Samuel Withers debated the question, “Must quality education be basic education?” Robinson argued that for some students, courses in nonacademic subjects, such as auto mechanics, are of more value than, for example, foreign languages. Withers countered:  

I am not against auto mechanics, but I do not feel that teaching it is one of the chief jobs of the comprehensive high school. You point out that the Wright brothers and Edison did not finish high school. Yet they learned their theories and techniques somewhere. Would they have been as likely to have learned French (or any other academic subject) outside of school? (p. 434) 

By the 1970s, however, the call for a return to basic education had begun to lose force. In March 1977, Ben Brodinsky (“Back to the basics: The movement and the meaning”) argued that the movement had become a victim of its own success: It was no longer clear what advocates wanted or even meant by “back to the basics,” given how many priorities they had collected under the same umbrella, including a focus on the “three R’s”: teacher-driven instruction, patriotism, and academic learning. 

Interdisciplinary studies 

For many Kappan authors, the question hasn’t been what sorts of content to include in the curriculum but how that curriculum should be designed and organized. For example, calls for an integrated course of study appeared in these pages as early as March 1936, when Oliver Floyd, Lucien Kinney, and Torsten Lund (“The unified curriculum”) argued that: 

The present curriculum of watertight compartments or subjects, most of which have a pronounced academic bias, is ill-suited to meet the new demands which are placed upon the high school. It is readily apparent that any social or economic problem cuts across subject-matter lines. (p. 204) 

In June 1963, Louis Ruben (“Creativity and the curriculum”) advocated an inquiry-based approach to deciding what content students ought to study. Such learning, he argued, could be both intellectually rigorous and relevant: 

The crux of the method hinges upon the selection of questions for self-directed inquiry which demand a respectable degree of preliminary information and which require the student to employ a number of diverse intellectual skills in reaching his conclusion. It does not imply that the student must acquire all of his knowledge through discovery. It does imply that periodically the student ought to employ his aggregation of facts, however accumulated, in attacking problems which give meaning to his information and which shape both his conceptual understanding and his rational insights. (p. 438) 

Similarly, in his contribution to the March 1970 special issue on “Curriculum for the 1970s,” Theodore Brameld (“A cross-cutting approach to the curriculum: The moving wheel”) called for a blend of in-school and real-world learning. Students, he argued, should spend at least half of their time outside the classroom “in the laboratory of direct participation with people and institutions” (p. 347). 

So much to learn 

Concerned over the amount and range of content that has made its way into the K-12 curriculum, some authors have made a case for simplicity. In February 1993, for example, Frank Dempster (“Exposing our students to less should help them learn more”) drew upon the learning sciences to argue that piling on too much content makes it difficult for students to take in and retain information. Yet, because it’s hard to decide what to remove from the curriculum, teachers and administrators just keep adding to it.  

In the same issue, Marion Brady (“Single-discipline schooling”) proposed a straightforward solution to the problem of curricular overload: Students should be required to complete a course of study that focuses on the knowledge and skills that are most essential to human survival. Anything beyond that, he said, would be an elective. 

This proposal may go too far for most curriculum decision makers, but it certainly would amount to a significant rethinking of the curriculum, which has not been achieved at scale in well over a century. For despite all the debate about what students should learn in school and how they should learn it, the basic design of the K-12 curriculum hasn’t changed all that much for generations. As Elliot Eisner observed (“Who decides what schools teach?”) in Kappan’s March 1990 issue: 

In broad terms, the content areas that are emphasized in schools have been extremely stable: English, social studies, math, science, foreign language, art, music, and physical education. Today computer literacy has replaced typing, but where is anthropology or law or child development or political science or feminist studies? I am well aware that each of these subjects is taught in some schools somewhere. But these subjects are not among the mainstream subjects that have been staples in American schools for more than six decades. (p. 524) 

Make that eight decades, now. The debate goes on.  


Citation: Preston, T. (2019). A look back: How Kappan authors have thought about curriculum. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (6), 5.  


TERESA PRESTON (tpreston@pdkintl.org) is managing editor of Phi Delta Kappan.

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