It's the Curriculum, Stupid!

While many educators believe the development of a just, multicultural society is central to our values, very powerful forces have been fighting against such a vision for decades.

Here's the kind of thinking that drives the education standards writers: "The costs of multiculturalism -- in terms of disunity, the clash of classes, and declining trust -- are likely to be huge in the long run. All cultures are not equal when it comes to promoting progress, and very few can match Anglo-Protestantism in this respect. We should be promoting acculturation to the national mainstream, not a mythical, utopian multiculturalism." (Emphasis added.) That is Lawrence Harrison of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University, who openly opposes diversity in our global culture. WASP is the best, he believes, and we must all bow down to it. This attack on multicultural curriculum comes also from Matthew Spalding in Insider, Heritage Foundation magazine. He argues that multiculturalism undermines "the very idea of allegiance, especially national or patriotic."

School is a site of tremendous debate and contention precisely because this is one institution where we work out what our democracy means, what our cultural and social identity and direction will be. The debates about success in education and access to education mask a deeper debate about what education is or should be -- what it means to be educated, what people should know and be able to do in order to function in our society. Sadly, many teachers who fight hard for students, who seek to end the achievement gap, who challenge the ways that our schools reproduce class and racial hierarchies, accept the "what" of schooling, the content of the curriculum as it is laid out by the powerful and the privileged. And by conceding the curriculum, we have lost the debate before we have begun.

Those in power are single-minded in their view of schooling in the United States as something to help the US attain global economic and military dominance. In addition, they see education as a project of enshrining the traditional Anglo-Saxon, Christian culture and a glorified version of the Western legacy as the apex of intellectual and cultural attainment. Those progressive teachers who fight only for access, for success, within the educational establishment as it is find themselves drilling and training students to buy into this Western cultural prejudice and this competitive framework.

The right wing ideas about schooling gained preeminence in the educational narrative through a concerted struggle which included the "culture wars" in the 1980s and early '90s. Such figures as William Bennett, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education, were consistent and fierce in battling for the white-centered curriculum, one that celebrated European history and established an imagined moral universe based in what George Lakoff called the strict father ideology -- based on a longing for authoritarian power, a desire to shore up the crumbling empire. Among Bennett's extensive writing production, for instance, is The book of virtues: A treasury of great moral stories (1993) which recounts children's stories designed to direct kids to proper behavior. From the academic side, we had such intellectuals as E.D. Hirsch, whose Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know (1987) prescribed the proper thinking for Americans through a "common core" of acceptable knowledge. Such an approach to the common core has been taken up by the standards writers and is part of the current education "reform" movement.

In contrast to this education for dominance and the acquisition of more things, millions of students, teachers, and communities continue to put the important issues at the center: living purposeful lives, building community, exploring responsible citizenship, making amends for social injustices. In pursuit of this kind of meaningful education, we recognize the vital and deep way that math and science can be approached -- not as settled fact at the service of profits but as a curriculum of questioning, wonder, and exploration. And we also continue to struggle for arts and the humanities, for curriculum connected to communities and kids, in a process of unfolding knowledge.

The struggle over curriculum is not on the back burner. It reached real heights with the outlawing of Ethnic Studies in Arizona and the attacks on such important educators as Tucson's Sean Arce and José Gonzalez. The struggle over what to teach, over curriculum, is as heated as it ever was during the Cold War when competition with the Soviets drove the Pentagon into high schools to revamp the science curriculum in order to produce more space and weapons scientists. Today President Obama has called for a new "Sputnik moment," apparently to apply the work of young people towards the competition decreed by the corporations.

What is at stake is the sharply contrasting views of what the future will or should be. Humanistic educators look to a world not of war and triumph but of cooperation and peace; we do not fear the richness of multiple cultures; we recognize the brilliance and essential rights of all students. Educators cannot just work on the achievement gap, we cannot simply hope to get some of our kids into well-paying jobs building drone bombers and carcinogenic organisms. In the end, only multicultural and democratic educational projects hold out hope. Elizabeth Ammons, who is like Harrison a Tufts University professor, has articulated this vision in her book Brave new words: How literature will save the planet (2010). And many organizations are engaged in struggle to make social justice curriculum the center of teaching projects. Among these are the National Association for Multicultural Education, Rethinking Schools, and Teachers for Social Justice.

If you are interested in education today, you must be paying attention not only to "success" for all students but to what we are teaching.