From 1820 to 1870, curricula in higher education shifted from a focus on oral to written discourse, in part as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The increased access to printed materials, rising literacy rates, and reliance on the written word to conduct political, economic, and legal business effected changes in educational curricula and pedagogy. By the end of the century, American education replaced the oratorical training necessary for students interested in ministry and civic leadership positions with a specialized disciplinary curricula designed for emerging professional careers. While school curricula and the ideologies behind them obviously influenced literary production, the relationship between instruction and authorship was especially close during this period; a stint at school teaching was part of the preparation of most of the important authors of the period, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Fanny Fern, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman.
PRIMARY SCHOOL INSTRUCTION
Throughout the period under discussion, high schools and colleges shared similar curricula and pedagogical trends. However, primary school instruction was defined by a handful of textbooks that established the basis for a "chauvinistic nationalism" and literary heritage, which went unchallenged well into the twentieth century.
One of the best known was the text that was commonly known as the Blue-Back Speller—the first part of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783) by Noah Webster (1758–1843). It was common in America until 1900 and, as described by Arthur Applebee in Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History, it "combined under one cover alphabet, primer, speller, and reader, using materials which were unabashedly adult and didactic" (p. 3). Created in part to unify education and culture, Webster's Grammatical Institute also included a grammar and a reader, neither of which ever attained the success of Webster's speller but, nevertheless, established the pattern for all subsequent grammar-school texts. Grammar was considered a primary school subject, a prerequisite for study at the college level but not a subject actually studied there. In 1819 the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) first asked incoming students to demonstrate competence in English grammar. By 1860 most colleges had adopted similar requirements, which relegated the study of grammar to the lower schools. By 1850 Murray's English Grammar (first published in England in 1795) had gone through two hundred editions and enjoyed widespread adoption in American lower schools.
Of note, Webster's An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking (the third part of Grammatical Institute and first published in 1787) secularizes school curriculum by selecting patriotic texts useful for improving spoken discourse. However, not until 1830 did secular concerns outnumber religious readings and lessons in primary school readers. During the time period under consideration, belletristic literature was rarely adopted as the primary text for reading instruction—not until the 1880s would the study of literature become an accepted pedagogical method for primary reading instruction. Instead, students were assigned selections that reflected a Protestant work ethic. Within this tradition, we find the enormously popular Eclectic Reader, better known as the McGuffey reader—a six-volume series first published in 1836 by William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873). Universally adopted in America for fifty years, the McGuffey readers included short (one- to two-page) lessons sequentially ordered according to difficulty. Volumes five and six also included short belletristic selections. The McGuffey readers stressed reading aloud and included topics associated with elocution instruction. Collectively, Webster's and McGuffey's texts established both the educational theories and subject matter that defined American primary school education and dictated text production for decades to come.
Originally a part of the classical rhetorical canon—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—training in elocution remained a distinct field of study during the nineteenth century. Introduced into the curriculum in order to prepare students training to become lawyers, ministers, and political leaders, the elocutionary movement in America derived from the strong British tradition. The first American influence upon teachers and texts of the period was Philosophy of the Human Voice (1827) by James Rush (1786–1869). It provided an introduction to the scientific components of speech, adding a discussion of vocal production to traditional discussions of delivery and gesture. The Rush system spawned many American texts, and followers of Rush represented diverse fields: rhetoric, science, medicine, education, and theater. Like Rush, the Reverend Ebenezer Porter (1772–1834), Bartlett Professor of Sacred Rhetoric in Andover Seminary, was a pioneer teacher and textbook writer interested in the physiology of elocution; his sphere of influence extended far beyond theological circles. Porter, too, was interested in the scientific aspects of speech. His 1827 treatise Analysis of the Principles of Rhetorical Delivery as Applied in Reading and Speaking was adopted at colleges such as Amherst, Brown, Dartmouth, Georgia, Gettysburg, Hampden-Sydney, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, and Wesleyan. The shortened version of that work designed for lower-school instruction, The Rhetorical Reader (1831), was adopted by schools in every state in the union.
The separation of rhetoric and elocution is obvious by 1830, when Yale appointed Erasmus D. North as instructor of elocution, and Harvard hired Jonathan Barber to teach a scientific method of elocution. By 1850 "Rhetoric and Oratory" was replaced by the term "Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," and although declamations, disputations, and training in rhetoric had traditionally been part of the American curriculum, not until the nineteenth century were endowed chairs established and speech training organized into a separate course or combined with composition instruction. In 1842 and 1843 Amherst offered a freshman course entitled Elements of Orthoepy and Elocutions, supplemented by weekly exercises in composition and declamation. At the same time, the University of Alabama offered a freshman-level course called Elocution, which required students to compose and publicly deliver weekly exercises in Latin and English. As late as 1861 Harvard offered a class entitled Elocution, which included lessons in orthoepy, expression, action, rhetorical analysis, and reading; and the same year Yale offered a sophomore-level class entitled Elocution, Declamation, and Composition. However, the majority of elocution teachers were itinerant lecturers who often gave private lessons at area educational institutions and occasionally established private schools of elocution. William Russell (1798–1873), the author of The American Elocutionist (1844), and James Murdoch founded the School of Practical Rhetoric and Oratory in 1844 in Boston, and J. W. Shoemaker (1842–1880) established the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia in 1866. The public looked to oratory and elocution as a means for social advancement. Notably, in his youth, Frederick Douglass purchased an edition of The Columbian Orator (1797) by Caleb Bingham (1757–1817), a popular elocution textbook. Douglass studied the collected famous speeches and rules of oratory in order to find his own voice.
Elocutionary training was included in the lower schools, as well. In addition to Porter's The Rhetorical Reader, the McGuffey Readers acknowledged elocutionary instruction, and Russell, the first editor of the American Journal of Education (1826–1829), was particularly interested in the improvement of "expressive faculties" in the lower grades—evidenced in his treatises written for grammar school teachers. Although elocution as a school subject was displaced by 1875, because of its tendency to become artificial and exhibitionist, the American elocutionists from 1820 to 1870 made significant contributions to what would become the field of speech education.
RHETORIC AND COMPOSITION
In Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges, James Berlin identifies three strands of nineteenth-century rhetoric within American education: classical (based on Greek and Roman oratorical practice), psychological-epistemological (deriving from Scottish common sense realism, the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy, and belletristic concerns), and romantic (which places the act of reading and writing at the center of knowledge). By 1820 the classical tradition was in demise as Americans came to value education that was scientific, practical, and personal. And by the end of the nineteenth century, the term "rhetoric" became synonymous for writing instruction.
The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed the publication of few American works on rhetoric. Colleges and universities relied heavily on British texts, particularly Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (published and brought to America in 1783 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1784), George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric (published in 1776 and reprinted in America in 1818), Richard Whately's Elements of Rhetoric (1828), and Lord Henry Home Kames's Elements of Criticism (1762). Best known as an influential source for the rhetoric of Blair, Campbell, and Whately, Kames's text went through over thirty American editions and was widely adopted in American colleges during this period. One other Scottish belletristic rhetoric, Alexander Jamieson's A Grammar of Rhetoric and Polite Literature (1818), was enormously popular from 1820 until about 1880, going through sixty editions.
Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres was enormously popular prior to the Civil War. Not a systematic treatment of classical rhetoric but rather a collection of opinions on literary composition and criticism, Lectures addressed taste, style, language, eloquence, and belletristic compositions. Often imitated, Blair's categorizations and codification of rhetorical principles were prevalent within college curricula. His dismissal of invention and attention to style led to the widespread study of belletristic literature. After 1820 Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric became a strong competitor of Blair's Lectures. Although designed for rhetorical oratory, Campbell's work applied equally to written discourse and was widely adopted as a composition text. Campbell discussed logic, grammar, and style extensively, and his treatment of usage was, for a time, universally adopted in American schools.
Addressing both oral and written discourse, Whately's Elements of Rhetoric immediately rivaled the popularity of Blair and Campbell in the American colleges but was used in conjunction with those texts rather than supplanting them. Adopted as late as 1880, Whately restored to rhetoric the Aristotelian emphasis on logic. Uninterested in belletristic rhetoric, he devoted much attention to invention and arrangement, insisting that students must be given assignments that they find interesting and that fall within their range of abilities. Until after the Civil War, no original American rhetoric text appeared—only imitators of Blair, Campbell, and Whately.
A Practical System of Rhetoric; or, The Principles and Rules of Style: Inferred from Examples of Writing (1827) by Samuel P. Newman (1797–1842) was the first commercially successful American rhetoric designed specifically as a textbook. A rhetoric of written criticism, Newman's work focused on style and criticism—and clearly followed Blair's belletristic tradition. Within this tradition, Edward T. Channing (1790–1856), holder of the Boylston Chair at Harvard, 1819–1851, is noteworthy. Although Channing's Lectures Read to the Seniors in Harvard College (1856) never enjoyed widespread adoption, the publication of his work, which focuses on the writer rather than orator, marks the end of the dominance of classical rhetoric in America. Channing is perhaps best known as the influential teacher of students such as Thoreau, Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Channing supplemented his courses in rhetoric with informal evening meetings in which his students read and discussed English poetry.
The most notable shift in curricula during this time concerns the institutionalization of composition instruction. Alexander Bain, the Scottish professor of moral philosophy, psychologist, and the first holder of the chair of English and Logic at Aberdeen University, published English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual (1866) to introduce his rustic Scottish students to paragraph unity, topic sentences, and the modes of discourse. Widely adopted, emulated, and (mis)appropriated in American schools, Bain's work is often blamed for establishing a reductive view of current-traditional rhetoric in America, which was practiced throughout the twentieth century.
George Payne Quackenbos (1826–1881) was perhaps the first American rhetorician to synthesize the British imports and to deliver pedagogical advice in a practical manner. In Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric: A Series of Practical Lessons on the Origin, History, and Peculiarities of the English Language (1854), Quackenbos included discussions of the belletristic tradition, composition advice based on Campbell's conception of faculty psychology, and an exhaustive section on grammar (a practical subject not normally included in the more theoretical rhetoric texts characterizing the time). Along with Bain and less influential American contemporary Henry Noble Day (1808–1890), author of Elements of the Art of Rhetoric (1850), Quackenbos was one of the first rhetoricians to make the modes of discourse a fundamental component of composition instruction.
EDUCATION FOR FEMALE STUDENTS
The educational move from oratory to composition instruction benefited women's education in three important ways: Belletristic rhetoric's focus on taste and literary style (as opposed to eloquence) better suited nineteenth-century perceptions of womanhood. Suggesting that rhetoric fell within the realm of womanhood, belletristic education offered examples of women's conversation as models of excellent prose. Technological advancements—cheaper ink and paper—refuted arguments claiming that the education of women was an expensive extravagance. And rising middle-class parents were often eager to educate their daughters so that they might obtain jobs in respectable teaching fields and raise the socioeconomic status of the family (Wright and Halloran, pp. 234–235). Although the education of women was becoming socially acceptable during this time, women were still educated in the "rhetoric of use" or "culture of service." Female students were not introduced to traditional modes of public speaking—although they often engaged in the practice of reading aloud their written works in class, as was the case with the students of the educator Catharine Beecher (1800–1878). Women also were trained in drama and debate, whereby they inadvertently received oratorical training. Essentially, viewed as ill-suited to oratory and social advancement and well-suited to nurturing young children, women were trained to teach formulaic, unimaginative lessons in what later became current-traditional rhetoric. The career of the prolific and commercially successful Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) provides a notable exception to prescribed female roles. Educated at Catharine Beecher's Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, Fern became the first woman newspaper columnist in America.
Advocates for women's equal right to education made early inroads during this period. Oberlin College stands out as one notable success in the early access of women to higher education. In 1833 Oberlin admitted 38 women out of 101 total students into its first college class, and, in 1835 it established the first female literary society in the American colleges—the Young Ladies' Association.
In 1839 the essayist and social reformer Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), formerly a teacher at Amos Bronson Alcott's Temple School and the Greene Street School in Providence, began a series of public "Conversations" targeting socially active and intellectual women in the Boston area. An accomplished teacher in the transcendentalist tradition, Fuller provided a venue in which women could intimately explore intellectual interests and freely discuss social reform. Spanning five years and expanding the discussion format of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's earlier lecture series, Fuller's Conversations attracted more than two hundred women and addressed a wide range of topics, such as Greek myths and the fine arts. Many leaders of the feminist movement, including Julia Ward Howe, participated in Fuller's feminist venture.
TRANSCENDENTAL EDUCATION AND THE TEMPLE SCHOOL
From about 1836 to 1860, the American transcendental movement thrived in New England. Initiated as a reform effort of the Unitarian church, a small group of intellectuals in Concord, Massachusetts, developed instead their own philosophies of individual integrity and explored connections among spiritual, social, and the intellectual consciousness. Transcendentalism adopted tenets of Neoplatonism, German idealistic philosophy, and Eastern religious teachings. Influenced by philosopher Immanuel Kant's "transcendental" ideas and expanding upon William Ellery Channing's belief in an indwelling God, the transcendentalists rejected Lockean empiricism and instead embraced intuitive thought. Recognizable figures associated with this literary and philosophical movement include Frederic Henry Hedge, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
Self-educated, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) boldly embodied the transcendentalist's ideals. In 1834 Alcott opened a school for thirty elementary-age boys and girls in the Masonic Temple in Boston. The transcendentalists' optimistic emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional authority formed the cornerstone of Alcott's Temple School. Working with Peabody and Fuller, Alcott adopted a pedagogy based on Socratic dialogue and established a curriculum that included not only the traditional triumvirate of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also instruction in art, music, exercise, and student government. Abandoning traditional exercises in rote memorization, Alcott designed a curriculum promoting the physical, mental, and spiritual development of his pupils. Although Boston newspapers proclaimed Temple School one of the best common schools in the United States, ultimately the school failed because Alcott's teaching methods fell far afield of mainstream education.
LITERARY AND DEBATING SOCIETIES
Extracurricular activities—in the form of debating and literary societies—fostered an appreciation for literature and provided students the opportunity to polish English composition skills. College courses focused on improving student's Latin and Greek. Although both high school and college students were expected to read widely on their own time, the classical curriculum of most schools did not view English literature as a subject worthy of academic instruction. In fact, the libraries of the literary societies were often the only campus source for contemporary fiction, poetry, biography, or drama. In the literary and debate societies, students addressed contemporary political and philosophical issues and often hosted controversial speakers. For example, at the invitation of student groups, Emerson—although officially banned from campus—spoke at Williams College three times. But the primary focus of the societies from 1820 until their eventual decline was disputation and debate.
The forensic disputation and extempore speech (defined as well-prepared but not yet delivered or memorized papers) were well cultivated in the debating societies. Unlike classroom exercises, which strictly followed Latin syllogistics, the disputations characterizing the societies were delivered in English, included the adoption of emotional proofs and decreased reliance on syllogism as the primary logical appeal. The debating societies held participants to such a high standard that, by 1837, Columbia College felt no need to replicate the societies' efforts and dropped all extemporaneous exercises and debate from the curriculum.
The college model of literary and debating societies was adopted by college preparatory schools. The study of literature was relegated to extracurricular societies until after 1870, following the publication of works such as Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869) by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). Arnold, a school inspector in addition to his more famous roles as poet and critic, argued that through the study of culture, public education could maintain traditional values and serve as an agent of social control. Although Arnold did not claim authority for vernacular studies, his argument was appropriated as a rationale for incorporating the realm of literary and debating societies into mainstream curricula.
THE RISE OF PHILOLOGY AND LITERATURE
"The flowering of New England," as Van Wyck Brooks terms the period from 1815 to 1865, fostered the development of a uniquely American literature and the establishment of America's educational legacy. Harvard, in particular, provided the curricular and pedagogical blueprint guiding American higher education. At Harvard, the curriculum was divided along the lines of religion and philosophy, mathematics and science, rhetoric and oratory, and classical and modern languages. Placing great emphasis on the study of languages (and accompanying literature), many well-known writers and critics of the period taught at Harvard—publishing scholars who did not confine their literary interests to the classroom. Unlike their predecessors, the Harvard-educated elite of the nineteenth century became professor-scholars, not ministers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)—the Brahmin Poets (as the patrician, Harvard-educated class was known)—held positions at Harvard and augmented traditional rote lessons to include stimulating discussions of literature. From 1836 to 1854 Longfellow served as Smith Professor of Modern Languages, and his home—Craigie House—became a meeting place for students, as well as literary and philosophical figures, including Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe, and Charles Sumner. Before coming to Harvard, Longfellow had been the first professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College, where he wrote his own text for the course—because none existed. Following Longfellow's retirement from Harvard, Charles Russell Lowell assumed the professorship of modern languages and gained respect not only as a poet but as a critic and educator, as well. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes established an impressive academic career, first serving as professor of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth College (1839–1840), then dean of the Harvard Medical School (1847–1853) and Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard (1847–1882). The study of literature, previously subsumed within courses on rhetoric and language, was coming to the foreground.
The career of the Harvard professor Francis James Child (1825–1896) most clearly represents the rise of philological studies in American education. Harvard appointed Child the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1851, following the retirement of Edward T. Channing. Although holding the preeminent American chair in rhetoric, Child, inspired by German ideals of scholarship, rejected classical rhetoric and instead lectured passionately on the understanding and appreciation of great literature. When Johns Hopkins offered Child a professorship of literature in 1876, Harvard retained Child by naming him professor of English, a position he held until his death in 1896. Child established himself as a literary scholar, specializing in philological and historical study of literature and, subsequently, transformed a struggling elective subject into a major discipline. Under Child's influence, rhetoric was relegated to first-year composition classes, and literary studies became the focus of American English departments.
James Rolfe is credited for introducing the study of literature into the high school curriculum. From 1848 to 1858 Rolfe taught literature within three different high school districts, and eventually his work drew Child's attention. After receiving an honorary A.M. degree from Harvard in 1859, Rolfe became principle of Cambridge High School in 1862, where he regulated the study of literature, united literary study and philology, and rooted the study of literature within the classical tradition. He adopted a formal method of pedagogy, stressing rote memorization of rules and facts.
During the latter half of the period under consideration, Charles Dexter Cleveland's A Compendium of English Literature (1847) enjoyed widespread adoption in the high schools. Manuals of literary history, which included short articles on English authors, answered college student demand for study in English literature. Arranged chronologically and including no actual works of literature, these essays were designed for rote memorization and recitation. Thomas B. Shaw's Outlines of English Literature (originally published in 1849) was the most widely adopted of these manuals in the American colleges. By 1870 the high school study of literature (joined with philology and studied within the classical tradition) was considered an intellectually rigorous curriculum. Child and Rolfe were instrumental in establishing literature as a legitimate course of study in American schools.
EDUCATION DURING THE CIVIL WAR AND THE MORRILL LAND GRANT ACT
Initially, higher education paid little attention to threats of civil war. Even during the war, many colleges continued to hold classes and sustain university business as long as possible. The effects of war on individual institutions varied, depending on the proximity of schools to the front lines, declining enrollments, and finances. Curriculum varied little, and course offerings at most institutions remained constant during the war, depending on faculty availability.
Following the war, the prewar trend to provide increased funding for developing agricultural and mechanical-sciences curricula continued—assisted in great part by the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which was signed into effect by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Named after its sponsor, Vermont representative Justin S. Morrill, the legislation was additionally entitled "An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts." It provided each state with thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative in Congress under the census of 1860. The states were to sell the land and apply the interest on receipts toward
the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislature of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the pursuits and professions of life. (Quoted in Cowley and Williams, p. 121)
Answering a century-long national call for blending technical and academic instruction (first introduced by Benjamin Franklin in 1749), the Morrill Land Grant Act altered the trajectory of American higher education. This legislation established institutions capable of expanding elective curricula to train students for work in new disciplines and occupations, some of which were unforeseeable in the 1860s.
Educational curricula from 1820 to 1870 are critical in understanding the origins of contemporary American disciplinary studies; yet, this period in American education is understudied. Archival resources from the period—including institutional data, school-reform reports, lecture notes, student writings, class plans, society minutes, committee reports, local school legislation, and so forth—await discovery and analysis.
Applebee, Arthur. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching ofEnglish: A History. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1974.
Berlin, James A. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-CenturyAmerican Colleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815–1865. New York: Dutton, 1936.
Cowley, W. H., and Don Williams. International andHistorical Roots of Higher Education. New York: Garland, 1991.
Golden, James L., and Edward P. J. Corbett. The Rhetoric ofBlair, Campbell, and Whately. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Guthrie, Warren. "The Development of Rhetorical Theory in America, 1635–1850: The Domination of the English Rhetorics." Speech Monographs 15 (1948): 61–71.
Johnson, Nan. Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in NorthAmerica. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Kitzhaber, Albert R. Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850–1900. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990.
Schultz, Lucille M. The Young Composers: Composition'sBeginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
Stewart, Donald C. "Two Model Teachers and the Harvardization of English Departments." In The Rhetorical Tradition and Modern Writing, edited by James J. Murphy, pp. 118–129. New York: Modern Library Association of America, 1982.
Wallace, Karl R., et al., eds. History of Speech Education inAmerica: Background Studies. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1954.
Wright, Elizabethada A., and S. Michael Halloran. "From Rhetoric to Composition: The Teaching of Writing in America to 1900." In A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America, edited by James J. Murphy, pp. 213–246. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2001.
Lynée Lewis Gaillet
Sections within this essay:Background
Authority over Educational Curricula
Curriculum and Free Speech
Making Curriculum Decisions
National Education Goals
The Alliance for Parental Involvement in Education (ALLPIE)
American Association of School Administrators (AASA)
Education Law Association (ELA)
National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment (NISACA)
National School Boards Foundation (NSBF)
U.S. Department of Education (USDE)
According to Black's Law Dictionary, "curriculum" refers to the "set of studies or courses for a particular period, designated by a school or branch of a school." But curriculum also refers to the complete range of activities designed by an educational institution to foster education. Fundamentally, curriculum outlines what students are supposed to learn and how they are to do it. Because there is much room for divergence of personal viewpoints in these issues, a school's curriculum fosters some of the most emotional and contentious debates in education law.
From a legal perspective, curriculum issues focus on two areas:
- The range of courses or instructional programs available to students
- The aggregate of activities, materials, procedures, and instructional aids used in the instructional program
Local school boards and officials typically make the decisions regarding curriculum and instructional materials for their schools, although some state authorities may limit their discretion to some extent.
The subject of curricula touches on federal, state, and local government authority, every course taught in school, and every level of school. The standards and objectives of every state differ with respect to curricula in their schools. All of this makes for a very extensive topic. A focus on the curricula in public schools from kindergarten through grade twelve (primary through secondary grades) touches on the key elements of the topic while reducing the scope of the topic to manageable proportions.
The curricula for primary and secondary schools are designed to integrate across the various grade levels. They are also intended to provide a coherent and comprehensive educational experience for each student who undertakes and completes all grade levels. Curricula are also meant to accommodate the many differences in learning styles and abilities and to account for different interests and aptitudes. Thus, a thoughtful school curriculum offers a broad range of options and tracks. Students either elect or are placed in these options or tracks based on diagnostic counseling, academic performance, and consultation with parents and students. Each state sets curricular policy that applies to schools within its jurisdiction, but local and individual variations occur according to the degrees of freedom allowed by the basic policy.
Some may be surprised to learn that the federal government does not determine what students should know and be able to do in any subject at any level of schooling. Instead, implementing standards for students' performance is left to state and local authorities and to some extent with parents. There are some 16,000 school districts in the United States. Each one is administered and financed by a local community and by one of 50 state departments of education. This extensive local control, one of the defining characteristics of American education, has caused school standards to correlate with the socioeconomic status of the communities in which they are located.
As stated above, the federal government has historically played a minor role in education. In fact, the Constitution relegates most of the responsibility for education to the states. Thus, until the 1960s, the federal government largely stayed away from education. While the trend for the federal government to become involved in education issues has continued, even today, the total spending by the federal government accounts for less than 10 percent of the total spent for K-12 education. But because of heavy federal regulation, these federal dollars wield a disproportionate amount of influence.
Federal programs and regulations increased dramatically after 1965. As of 2002, the Department of Education spends over $30 billion per year on K-12 and higher education expenses, and hundreds of education programs are scattered throughout many other federal agencies. Most are designed to help disadvantaged children, though their records of success vary.
Perhaps the most prominent role of the federal government in terms of curricula has been to enforce and enhance rights to educational opportunities and educational equality. This function has involved the enforcement of constitutional rights to education and an adequate curriculum. These federal efforts have generally focused on guaranteeing equality of access to educational content rather than the content or purpose of the instruction itself. Other than these affirmative efforts, the federal government has hesitated to establish or control a school's curriculum. Rather, the government's role has been more to encourage schools to modify and improve curriculum, and currently, these suggestions are being backed up with funding and do not merely rely on persuasion.
The states are the entities primarily responsible for the maintenance and operation of public schools. The states are also heavily involved in the establishment, selection, and regulation of curriculum, teaching methods, and instructional materials in their schools.
Each state's constitution requires it to provide a school system where children may receive an education. Many state constitutions also contain express provisions for creating educational curricula. Some state constitutions even empower state authorities to select textbooks and educational materials. Besides constitutional authority, state governments also have authority to legislate in this area, or they can authorize officials to establish, select, and regulate curriculum.
State legislatures have frequently exercised their authority to mandate specific courses to be taught in public schools. They have also set mandatory requirements for students to graduate. In cases where state rules and regulations for courses do exist, they must be followed. Local school districts may, however, offer courses and activities in the instructional program beyond those required by state statute. Other states delegate more of their authority. They usually prescribe a model curriculum framework, allowing local authorities to develop their own curricula based on the general state goals.
In many jurisdictions, state authorities adopt textbooks and instructional materials. Local boards and educators then may select from among the pre-approved materials. Generally, local authorities have the authority to declare state-adopted instructional materials unacceptable. States may mandate the use of uniform, adopted textbooks within a school's instructional program, but such exercise of power is rare. Instead, local boards are usually allowed to select materials to supplement the state-selected materials.
It is well established that local school boards or districts hold a great deal of authority over the curricula in their schools. Their authority is paramount except when there are overriding federal and state concerns. Otherwise, the local school board has complete discretion to determine what courses to offer, continue, or discontinue. Federal and state governments may impose minimum standards with which local boards must conform, but local boards of education are generally permitted to supplement or expand courses or activities and materials.
The history of litigation with respect to curricula shows that courts rarely interfere with a local board's authority to select and regulate the curriculum within its jurisdiction. By comparison, there are limits on the relative authority of teachers, students, parents, and the rest of the community. Local school boards have discretion over issues relating to the curriculum that it deems most suitable for students. This extends to the teaching methods that are to be employed and include the books and other educational tools to be used.
Parents are free to direct the education of their children, including the choice of a private school. However, states have the power to regulate private schools, with the exception of religious institutions.
Parents are particularly active in issues relating to special education which is available for children with disabilities. A child's disability must adversely affect the child's educational performance in order for the child to receive special education assistance. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.) is a federal law that contains a process for evaluating a child's special needs and for prescribing an individualized education program for children with special needs. Most states have enacted their own laws that parallel the Act.
Homeschooling—legal in all fifty states—is an increasingly popular option for some families. It is perhaps the greatest expression of parental control over the curriculum issues that affect their children. Homeschooling requires a large time commitment on the part of the family. There may be additional requirements as well. For example, in some states parents need to register their intent to homeschool with the state's department of education or the parent's local district school board. Furthermore, many states require annual evidence of home-schooled children's progress.
Schools may decide upon curricula based upon local community views and values as to educational content and methodology. Even so, school boards are limited in their ability to remove materials from the curriculum, especially when a removal is based exclusively on "ideological content." Decisions about the curriculum cannot be used to dictate views on politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.
When trying to insure the school board's discretion is being exercised in a constitutionally permissible manner, people need to examine the intent of the board members. Courts are not limited to examining the objective motivation of the board but may consider individual motives and even the mental processes of individual board members.
Activities in the classroom are supervised by faculty and are designed to teach or convey particular knowledge or skills to students. Consequently, school boards and educators must have broad control over the approval of the materials used. In view of school board responsibilities in this respect, state laws have almost uniformly required the obedience of subordinate employees, including the classroom teacher, to follow the board's curriculum choices and related mandates. Teachers certainly enjoy a degree of academic freedom and First Amendment rights; these rights do not give teachers the authority to disregard the curriculum directives of the board. In sum, the courts have declared that individual teachers may not simply teach what they please.
A school board authority almost always extends to classroom expression. Thus, public schools may limit classroom speech to promote certain educational goals. This also touches on the use of public school facilities by groups that promote a certain agenda or otherwise exercise their right to free speech. Although a school may occasionally open a classroom for other purposes, there is no doubt that during instructional periods the classrooms are reserved for other intended purposes: the teaching of a particular course for credit. In such periods, classroom speech and expression may be reasonably restricted.
As we have seen, a school's curriculum includes actual instruction as well as classroom materials. For example, textbooks, lab equipment, and other routine instructional materials are used to support a school's curriculum. These are subject to the school board's control. Additionally, displays in or around the classroom or the school may be curricular in nature. These materials are therefore subject to broad control by school authorities.
Decisions about a school's curriculum must be based upon legitimate pedagogical concerns. On occasion, these concerns have included teaching material, classroom expression, or other matter criticized on the grounds of the following issues:
- Advocacy of political or similar matters
- Bias or prejudice
- Conformity or nonconformity to shared or community values
- Distracting from an educational atmosphere
- Inability to teach prescribed curriculum because of disagreements with course content
- Lack of neutrality on religious matters
- Quality or professionalism
- Sexually harassing speech
- Suitability or unsuitability for intended students
- Vulgarity, profanity, nudity, sexuality, drug use, violence or other inappropriate themes
The definition of "legitimate pedagogical concerns" may be outlined in state statutes or regulations. State Education Board policies also may be relevant.
An important consideration is the age, maturity, and sophistication of the students to which educational material is to be provided. A school's oversight or authority over curriculum matters is greater where younger students are involved.
Schools need to identify pedagogical concerns before making decisions about a curriculum. Curricular decisions should not be made after a parent or someone else makes a complaint about ideological issues, and when there has been no pedagogical review. Such decisions are as suspect as the self-serving comments that attempt to justify those decisions made after the fact and not based on the previous record.
At an education summit held in 1989, President George H. Bush and every state governor agreed upon 6 national education goals for the United States to achieve by the year 2000. Two more goals were added in 1994, and Congress passed legislation known as the National Education Goals. The goals created a framework for improving student achievement and refocusing the objectives of education. At the same time, the goals left specific tactics to state and local governments and to schools. Basically, the goals describe a general set of standards toward which all Americans should strive.
The National Educational Goals to be achieved by the year 2000 are:
- All children in the United States will start school ready to learn.
- The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
- U.S. students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matters, including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography; every school will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation's modern economy.
- The nation's teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all students for the next century.
- U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
- Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
- Every school in the United States will be free of alcohol and other drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
- Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.
The Goals 2000: Educate America Act codified the goals and established federal support for voluntary, state-based systemic reform. These include the development and implementation of high academic standards. The Act calls for state plans to include:
- the development and implementation of content standards in core subjects
- student assessments linked through performance standards
- opportunity-to-learn standards or strategies
The Act also funds states' efforts to support systematic state reform based on state-developed plans. Also as a part of the Act, Congress established the Goals Panel as a new independent federal agency. The 18-member bipartisan panel consists of 8 governors, 4 members of Congress, 4 state legislators, the secretary of U.S. Department of Education, and the assistant to the president for Domestic Policy.
The Goals Panel functions in the following ways:
- monitors and reports progress towards the goals
- builds a national consensus for the reforms necessary to achieve education improvement
- reports on promising or effective actions being taken at the national, state, and local levels to achieve the goals
- identifies actions that federal, state, and local governments should take to enhance progress towards achieving the goals and to provide all students with fair opportunity to learn
- collaborates with the National Education Standards and Improvement Council to review the criteria for voluntary content, performance, and opportunity-to-learn standards
The dialogue about national goals among legislators, educators, and school board members throughout the United States is focused on improving education standards for all students in U.S. schools. This dialogue and the directives and funding embodied in federal legislation have led nearly every state to design and implement curricular frameworks or guidelines. Many states have even developed or are in the process of developing assessment instruments to monitor their schools' progress towards higher standards.
In terms of national trends, the consensus has been moving toward establishing a set of national standards for education. So far, there are voluntary national standards for math, science, and history. There are standards being developed for other subjects as well.
Many factors that go into decisions about the development and implementation of curriculum in U.S. schools. Some of these are:
- whether the state and/or district have curriculum guidelines
- whether state and local guidelines conflict with each other
- whether there are a large number of students requiring bilingual education
- whether the state or district requires schools to follow their guidelines or allows them to develop their own curricula
- for schools that retain local autonomy over curricular decisions, whether they may choose to adopt or ignore state or district guidelines
For the latter, the school's choice is likely to be influenced by the school's history of achievement, community standards, financial resources, and how it understands the relationship between these factors and the curriculum guidelines being provided by the state or district.
The issue of standards for learning and teaching has developed in the United States in recent years as policymakers, legislators, educators, parents, and community leaders have all shown an increasing concern with students' achievement levels. The word "standards" has been used in many ways during public discussions. Sometimes the term has been used to represent established levels of achievement; in other cases it refers to commonly shared sets of academic subject content, such as those embodied in state curriculum guidelines.
Curricular guidelines have been used to set standards in many states and have been linked to state-administered achievement tests. But standards in the United States also include more informal means by which schools maintain and promote the desired levels of achievement for their students. These achievement levels for schools and for students have usually been extrapolated from community expecta-tions, and local communities continue to greatly influence curriculum and instructional decisions made at the school level. In the end, standards are partly a result of local decisions, such as those governing the selection of textbooks and those affecting a school's policy on the promotion or retention of students. The guides to standards have developed significantly, and school districts are feeling their influence.
Education and the Law: A Dictionary Taylor, Bonnie B., ABC-Clio, 1996.
Educational Policy and the Law, Fourth Edition Yudof, Mark G., David L. Kirp, Betsy Levin, and Rachel F. Moran, Wadsworth Group, 2002.
Education Law Rapp, James A., LexisNexis, 2001.
"Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning." http://www.mcrel.org/. McREL, 2002.
"Rethinking Schools Online" Rethinking Schools, 2002. Available at http://www.rethinkingschools.org/.
"U.S. Department of Education" U.S. Department of Education, 2002. Available at http://www.ed.gov/.
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Curriculum theory, research, and reform have long been informed by a question posed by Herbert Spencer in 1861: “What knowledge is of most worth?” This question has continued to be examined and revised through significant educational and curricular reform movements. As a result, the competing interests of teachers, administrators, academicians, politicians, parents, and other stakeholders have led to a struggle for control of the American curriculum.
There are four major U.S. curricular initiatives that can be identified in the history of curriculum development and reform: (1) academic rationalism, (2) the social efficiency model, (3) progressive education, and 4) social reconstructionism. While each of these movements experienced varying degrees of support and criticism throughout the twentieth century, they more often overlapped in terms of development. For example, the academic rationalist orientation, with its roots during the Enlightenment, focused on the “Great Books” as the foundation of the Western cultural tradition. The goal of this approach, which was very popular at the turn of the century, was to develop the student’s mind to tackle life’s ultimate purpose, which was seen as a quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and liberty. Academic rationalism, however, continued to have strong support throughout the century. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1960s with the space revolution, the social efficiency model emphasized the efficient nature of the curriculum through operationally designed skills and knowledge. John Dewey’s progressive education movement was especially popular during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and advocated a child-centered approach that allowed the curriculum to accommodate children’s natural interests, and thus grow directly from the interests of the child. Lastly, the 1930s saw the advent of the social reconstructionist conception which posits that the curriculum should stress the needs of society over the needs of the individual, redress social injustice, and serve as an agent for social change (Schubert, 1986).
Although each curricular orientation has been vital in the formation of American schooling, the most recent, and most controversial, has been social reconstructionism. One of the most prominent proponents of social reconstructionism was the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire (1921-1997). In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire argued that only through “conscientization” can people liberate themselves from political and economic oppression. According to Freire, conscientization is the process by which the individual achieves a deep awareness of the social and cultural reality that shapes his or her life, and of the individual’s ability to transform that reality (Freire 1970b).
A product of Freire’s work is the concept of critical pedagogy, which emphasizes that education be viewed as a political, social, and cultural enterprise. In order to appreciate the contribution of critical pedagogy to curricular reform, it is imperative to understand the undeniable relationship between curriculum theory, the power of capital, and the state. For example, in light of the focus on the global marketplace that developed in the late twentieth century, capitalist ideology continuously encourages the consumption of commodities as a mechanism to continue the cycle of accumulation. Within educational settings, this is evident in the push toward integrating corporate management pedagogies within the classroom. As a result, academic success is almost exclusively defined in terms of “capital accumulation and the logic of the marketplace” (McLaren 2002, p. 34). Looking at this phenomenon through a Marxist lens, capitalism diminishes the individual to a commodity that can be bought and sold in the name of profit.
Western society, through the school curriculum, teaches that success can only be achieved through intelligence, hard work, and creativity. This type of pedagogical approach affects teachers, middle-class students, and working-class students. Reforms were initiated in the late twentieth century to provide “teacher-proof state-mandated curricula,” which some see as reducing the role of the teacher to nothing more than a “semi-skilled, low-paid clerk” (McLaren 2002, p. 187). From this perspective, students who possess the dominant cultural assets (e.g., particular ways of talking, acting, and socializing) are rewarded, while those possessing cultural assets of the oppressed are devalued. As a result, the curriculum perpetuates the unjust system of inequality based on cultural capital. As Freire points out, however, this practice is not perpetuated by force (McNeil 1996). Instead, the dominant culture is able to exercise power over subordinate classes through hegemony. Thus, this domination is maintained through consensual social practices, social forms, and social structures.
Critical pedagogy also advocates an analysis of the “hidden curriculum,” or the unintended outcomes of schooling that transmit messages to students through the “total physical and instructional environment” (McLaren 2002, p. 212). The curriculum is inextricably linked to the issue of power not only by culture but also by gender. For example, teachers often allow boys to dominate classroom conversations and offer them more academic praise than girls. While few teachers would admit to intentional sexist ideology, such interactions perpetuate sexist behavior. As a result, girls are often more hesitant to contribute to class discussions. Research also shows that girls are less likely to view themselves as competent in mathematics and science, and by the time they reach high school they are far less likely than boys to enroll in advanced math and science courses (McLaren 2002). Furthermore, girls are more likely to attribute failure to personal factors such as competence and ability.
As a consequence, men and women continue to be affected by the sexist nature of the hidden curriculum well into adulthood. For example, men tend to speak more often than women and frequently interrupt them in both professional and personal settings. It is also more difficult for women to be regarded as experts in their chosen occupations, and they are far less likely to obtain positions of power and authority.
Curriculum, from a critical theorist’s standpoint, encourages teachers and students to foster democratic principles in order to question how the curriculum creates inequities between dominant and oppressed groups. Thus, the curriculum could help a society come to terms with its history, helping students understand the inequitable distribution of power and resources common to many nations. Encouraging students to value and articulate their own experiences of injustice are the first steps in creating a new social order.
To date, however, curricular reform in the U.S. that addresses inequity and injustice has been controversial and, at times, considered “dangerous” territory. However, to ignore these issues is to deny students a voice as active, reflective citizens. Just as the current educational system was “made,” it can be “unmade” and “made over” (McLaren 2002). The first and most important step is to remove the fear of questioning the unquestionable and realize the role that the curriculum plays in political, social, and cultural life.
SEE ALSO Education, USA; Pedagogy; Schooling in the USA
Aronowitz, Stanley, and Giroux, Henry. 1991. Postmodern Education: Politics, Culture, and Social Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Counts, George S. 1978. Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (Orig. pub. 1932).
Freire, Paolo. 1970a. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder.
Freire, Paolo. 1970b. Cultural Action and Conscientization. Harvard Educational Review. 40 (3): 452-477.
Illich, Ivan. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.
Kliebard, Herbert. 1995. The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
McLaren, Peter. 2002. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
McNeil, John. 1996. Curriculum: A Comprehensive Introduction. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins.
Pinar, William, William Reynolds, Patrick Slattery, and Peter Taubman. 1995. Understanding Curriculum: An Introduction to the Study of Historical and Contemporary Curriculum Discourses. New York: Peter Lang.
Schubert, William. 1986. Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility. New York: Macmillan.
Spencer, Herbert. 1861. What Knowledge is of Most Worth? In Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical. New York: Appleton.
CURRICULUM in most countries emanates from the national government, but in the United States control of public school curriculum resides with the states, and in practice much of the responsibility for developing curriculum is delegated to local school districts. In an official sense, then, in the United States it is not possible to speak of a national curriculum. If diversity with respect to what is taught is an obvious fact of life in American schools, however, it is possible to discern an American curriculum.
Perhaps the greatest influence on curriculum is a sense of what is appropriate to teach, which in the United States has traditionally been drawn from the Western intellectual tradition, which means such subjects as mathematics, history, English language and literature, and science. Such traditional subjects are often supplemented by subjects that reflect national concerns. For example, the United States is unique in including driver education in the high school curriculum. Other subjects that reflect national concerns, such as sexually transmitted diseases, race relations, alcoholism, drug abuse, and unwanted pregnancies, frequently find their way into the curriculum of U.S. schools. In fact, this sheer breadth of courses has often been a source of considerable controversy, with some critics charging that schools are undertaking responsibilities they cannot successfully address or are offering courses that in some sense intrude on the responsibilities of other social institutions such as the family.
A second major influence on the American curriculum has been the programs of the U.S. Department of Education, which usually originate in congressional legislation. Federal aid to education in the mid-1990s is about 10 percent of national public school costs, but the way in which such aid is distributed—with specific stipulations regarding how school systems can spend the money and frequent requirements that states match federal dollars, thus effectively multiplying the amount of money spent on federal programs—frequently has a large effect on the curriculum of schools. Perhaps the most visible example is the prominence of vocational education. Since passage of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the federal government has supported vocational education and home economics. In 1958 the National Defense Education Act provided millions of dollars for mathematics, science, and foreign languages. Although many of the curriculum reform projects supported by that legislation achieved a certain measure of success, the effects on the American curriculum were not as long-lived as in the case of vocational education. Apart from these nationalizing tendencies, the curriculum is also subject to political influence in communities as well as state departments of education.
The 1960s saw a new wave of progressive education in the United States, and in general curricula opened in response to issues raised in the civil rights and women's movements. Then, in the 1970s, a "back to basics" movement gained momentum, with many states adopting minimum competency tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. These and other standardized tests gained increasing importance over the next three decades, spurred by the federal government's increased role in education, its attempts to gauge the success of its investment, and its goal of holding school systems accountable by requiring that they report scores publicly. In the mid-1980s, the issue of a shared national core curriculum became heated following the formation of the Core Knowledge Foundation by E. D. Hirsch, eventually leading the state governors to adopt, in 1988, the National Education Goals. Stressing math and science, Goals 2000 established shared standards in the different subject areas, provoking numerous controversies about what they should (and should not) include.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
———. The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Kliebard, Herbert M. The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893–1958. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
Marshall, J. Dan, James T. Sears, and William H. Schubert. Turning Points in Curriculum: A Contemporary American Memoir. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill, 2000.
Herbert M.Kliebard/c. w.
cur·ric·u·lum / kəˈrikyələm/ • n. (pl. -la / -lə/ or -lums ) the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college. DERIVATIVES: cur·ric·u·lar / -lər/ adj.
.) See also HIDDEN CURRICULUM.