If the Curriculum Has No Content, What’s Left to Teach?

Published October 1, 2002

Although U.S. K-12 education has proven remarkably impervious to efforts aimed at structural reform, efforts aimed at curriculum reform have been much more successful. Significant changes have been incorporated into both textbooks and tests over the past three decades.

What has emerged from these efforts is a curriculum not with a particular content, but one that is free of content, according to prominent education historian Diane Ravitch, who was an Assistant Education Secretary in the first Bush administration.

Writing in “Education After the Culture Wars,” which appears in the Summer 2002 issue of Daedalus, Ravitch reports the new “contentless” curriculum is built on the following assumptions:

  • America has no common culture worth speaking of.
  • There are no literary works that all students should read.
  • Memorizing historical facts is nothing more than “rote learning.”

“Once the very idea of mastering a specific set of facts and texts was discredited, there was nothing left to teach but various methods, such as ‘basic skills,’ ‘discovery learning,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and ‘problem solving,'” explains Ravitch.

With “self-righteous pedagogical censors” also making sure schoolchildren encounter only texts that meet a daunting list of guidelines for including multiculturalism and excluding all kinds of perceived bias, Ravitch questions how it is possible to “transmit our culture to the younger generation.”

It isn’t, according to the experience of college instructor Mark Goldblatt, who has taught freshman classes at CUNY and SUNY colleges in New York City for the past two decades. Goldblatt concludes the students he now encounters “have been robbed” of “their entrée into serious cultural debate.” These are “bright kids, talented kids, curious kids,” but they are “utterly ignorant of their own ignorance,” he reports.

“Want to scare yourself?” asks Goldblatt in his article in National Review Online. “Sit down with a half-dozen recent public high-school graduates and ask them what they believe.”

“Most are utterly convinced, for example, that President Kennedy was murdered by a vast government conspiracy,” he writes. “It doesn’t matter to them that they cannot name the presidents before or after Kennedy. Or the three branches of government. … Or report the number of judges on the Supreme Court. … Most will happily hold forth on the hypocrisy of organized religion—even though they cannot name the first book of the Bible. Or distinguish between the Old and New Testaments. Or state the approximate year of Jesus’s birth (a trick question). Most will bemoan global warming—even though they cannot name three greenhouse gases …”

For more information

Diane Ravitch’s article in Daedalus, “Education After the Culture Wars” is available at http://daedalus.amacad.org/issues/summer2002/ravitch.pdf.

Mark Goldblatt’s article in National Review Online, “Other Opiates: What Kids Know,” is available at http://nationalreview.com/comment/comment-goldblatt090302.asp.

Diane Ravitch, Susan Wise Bauer, and John Taylor Gatto all have addressed the curriculum issue in interviews with School Reform News. These interviews are available at http://www.heartland.org/IssueSuiteTopic.cfm?issId=3&istId=148.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently conducted a review of new social studies textbooks and found them only “lightly seasoned with history.” More details of the study are available at the Foundation’s Web site at http://www.tppf.org.