Curriculum Theory and the Humanity of Knowledge
Curriculum History is not a very old field.
Which is odd, considering how important curriculum is to education. It is generally important to know what you are going to teach before you actually teach it, and even more important to ensure all the things you teach actually connect. But, if we believe Bernadette Baker’s 1966 essay on the history of the field, the notion of analyzing the history of the curricula we teach simply did not exist a three decades before her work was published. Which means in 1936 — less than a century ago — no one organized their thoughts on the history of the things we teach.
Which, I mean, seriously? No one thought the history of curriculum may be worth jotting some notes on?
I suppose it’s easy for me to criticize this now, fifty years after Baker wrote her analysis of the history of curricula and the scholars that record it. I am taking an entire course on Curriculum Theory and History. I benefit from the work of decades of scholarship before me. We rarely appreciate how hard it really is to think an original thought, to create the first of its kind, let alone to get those thoughts published in a peer-reviewed journal.
I think the youth of this field also illustrates a commonly held fallacy that we, as educators and as people, need to cope with: we are inclined to believe that knowledge is finite, universal, timeless. It is not.
Textbooks reflecting on discoveries and innovations tend to present knowledge as always travelling upwards. Society gains knowledge without losing it. But knowledge, like all other facets of human existence, is subject to the whims of our biases and assumptions. We do not gain knowledge so much as we change it. Many of our discoveries do not fill vacant spaces in our understandings of the world; they challenge previously held beliefs that governed our perspectives and decisions. Blood-letting cured illnesses (until it didn’t). Pluto was a planet (until it wasn’t).
Knowledge is human. It grows. It changes. Occasionally, it must adjust to its mistakes.
The history of curricula reflects the evolution of our knowledge and — far more significantly — the history of how we present our knowledge to children. It is the history of our biases and evolving understanding of the world. Thank goodness for Bernadette Baker and the other scholars that have pursued this history.