Six Great Schoolmasters: Curriculum

It’s been a while since I posted on the uneven but interesting Six Great Schoolmasters.  I only read a few pages before bed and not all that consistently, so I am limping my way through.  But a while back I read a passage which completely poleaxed me.  I’ve been ruminating on it ever since.

Here’s what a Great Schoolmaster, Dr. Moberly, thought of an over-stuffed curriculum:

“In my judgment…you cannot bring French in as a co-ordinate subject of instruction with the two chief subjects of education, classics and divinity, or even with the third, mathematics.  We can neither find the time in the week, nor the teachers…”

Wait, did he just say they only teach three subjects?


“It is plainly out of the question that we should teach chemistry, etc. … A course of lectures on each of the chief subjects of science in turn should be delivered in the school annually by some person competent to explain the principles of it, and to exhibit by experiment the last discoveries and the present state of the science…”

[Narrator continues] He considered that boys should be encouraged to learn what French, German, history, geography, etc., they could, either in the holidays or, at all events, out of school hours, and with this object he instituted examinations at the end of each half-year in these subjects…Such a thing as any education in music or singing he scarcely considered possible.

I laughed out loud when I read this, not least because my field is “divinity” and my hobby classics.  I would have been a king in this marvelous land!  Well, actually a persecuted Catholic, but whatever.  Three subjects?  And this was a positive cornucopia in comparison with other schools!  Dr. Kennedy, another of the six schoolmasters in this book, only taught classics at his school, and a small dose of divinity for appearances.

Have we yet come to terms with how dramatically we changed education?  Isn’t this still an unresolved problem as we fret over literacy and standardized test scores and measurable improvement?  The book is interesting to me because it chronicles the shift toward what is more familiar to us now–the class struggle in education, the scientificization of school, the paradigm shift toward the practical.

I know–or I think I know–what we gained by moving away from this model.  But what did we lose?  Have we come to grips with that yet?  Granted this is not just a curriculum issue–these guys expected their students to be reading Shakespeare and Ariosto at home as their pleasure-reading–but still.  How often do we agonize over curriculum these days and worry about where to find all the time?  Now that we cram nine subjects (or whatever) into kids a week–and don’t have half-days on the weekend–are we really creating a more educated populace?

I’m reminded of the sad joke–really more disturbing than anything–about how students need translations of translations now.  That 1920s stuff is just too outre for a modern reader.  I have to provide enormous assistance to my students for them to make it through a selection from Nicene/Post-Nicene Fathers, and I teach “the best and the brightest.”  I’m not sure that’s all “evolution of language.”  And don’t we expect kids to study and understand evolution anyway?

What would education look like if we seriously considered jettisoning a third of what we try to do now?  I’m not advocating a return to 1850s English schools, but maybe we should reconsider our goals and our standards of success.  Do we seriously believe we are cranking out literate, globally-minded, historically-aware mathematician-scientist-scholar-inventors?  And if we are going to go all in on making them inventors and computer programmers, why are we still hung up on literacy standards?  What is the argument in favor of giving them a “dash of literacy” instead of, like, making them literate?

The longer I teach, and confront an increasingly illiterate student body, the more I understand alternative schools, classics-based liberal arts schools,  homeschooling, and the rest.  The idea that we could meaningfully educate children in all these fields we teach is laughable, and the idea that school–their education–is meant to give them a taste of what’s out there so they can decide on their own what to follow is terrifying.  No wonder the I-phones are winning.

Anyway, rant over.  Teachers should not talk about teaching philosophy in February.  The book, to return to my theme, is a very useful paradigm shift.  It’s important to see worlds with different priorities than our own, and to watch people solve similar problems in different ways.  And teaching at a school which models itself, originally, on the English system makes the whole thing hit home with a bit more force.  Illuminating our own choices is a valuable thing.

It is, dare I say, educational.

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