Speaking Out About the Tight Collar of Curriculum

The idea that knowledge can be divided into subjects and neatly sewn together through curricula that children must pass tests on before moving to the next bit of subject matter is deeply challenged by unschoolers, who do not use any curricula at all or, if they do, use it in scopes and sequences that are not done in schools. Of course, the curricular arrangement of life and knowledge by school was challenged well before unschoolers came on to the scene in the late seventies, but it was usually done by alternative educators in schools, not by parents in their communities.

The notion of keeping children busy with fragmented bits of subject matter fed to them by professional teachers is powerful and unlikely to change during the tenure of our current education establishment. “Look how much the kids are learning!” is easier for adults to support than “Look how much the kids are playing,” even though what is learned through play can be equal to, or more powerful, than what is learned in a classroom. There are many institutions and industries that are propped up through the power of compulsory attendance laws and their hold is tight; they don’t want to lose their grip for any number of reasons, so experimentation with different models, time frames, and ideas is carefully conscripted to fit the existing curricular model. The fact that colleges have seen this problem themselves and haven’t addressed it in a meaningful manner is long-standing, too, as Marion Brady, a school curriculum critic, notes in a recent article in the Washington Post:

I don’t want to do away with school subjects. I want to put them in context and show how they fit together to form a mutually supportive, interconnected whole. Kids do that for themselves (and more) until about third or fourth grade. That’s when the core curriculum starts to really kick in. From then on, schooling is more and more about remembering canned answers to questions which traditionally schooled specialists think they should ask.

 I’m addressing a long-recognized problem:

The Association of American Colleges: “We do not believe that the road to a coherent education can be constructed from a set of required subjects or academic disciplines.” Project On Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees, 1985)

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: “The disciplines have fragmented themselves into smaller and smaller pieces, and undergraduates find it difficult to see patterns in their courses and relate what they learn to life.” Prologue to “College: The Undergraduate Experience In America,” November 1986

Letting children learn in an interdisciplinary, unforced manner, as they did from the moment they were born, is something education leaders not only do not trust, but do not believe in. They believe you must lead a horse to water and force it to drink. But, as unschoolers and teachers like Marion Brady testify, it does not have to be this way.