Saturday, October 03, 2009

What Do We Want to Know?

In this, as in other editions of Modern English Readings, the editors have been guided in their selection by three aims...(3) An introduction to those problems which, today more than ever, if left unsolved or wrongly solved, mean individual misery and a world in utter chaos.

This is from the preface of a 1946 English literature anthology I found at a bargain sale. To paraphrase the above, the editors of the anthology are asserting that part of the reason they have chosen to include the works that they did is because they believe students reading them will become empowered to discern and then solve problems confronting humanity (and the just recently uncovered horrors of Nazi death camps and the emergence of potentially world-destroying technology would no doubt constitute some major problems).

This anthology is designed for the indispensable courses that introduce students to the unparalleled excellence and variety of English literature. Its criteria...(1) that the works selected make possible a study in the depth of the achievements by the major writers in prose and verse, in the context of the chief literary types and traditions of each age.

And this is from a 1993 literary anthology, one which I was required to purchase when I was a college undergraduate. My paraphrase: The authors picked out selections for this book based on what people have agreed are the most popular writers of various historical eras.

What is apparent in a comparison of these two anthologies is that there has been an ideological shift over the course of the 50 years between their publications. No longer is there a belief among academics that reading literature will necessarily benefit humankind. Yet despite the shift in ideological foundations, the practice of requiring literature courses, and indeed I'd venture to guess the pedagogical approach in those classes (particularly at the high school and college undergraduate levels) has probably not changed all that much.

Literature hasn't always enjoyed a privileged place in academia. In medieval times, universities and preparatory schools emphasized seven subjects, dividing them into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). It makes sense that as we live in a different world than our medieval counterparts, our core curriculum is different. So why is it now that as priorities and ideologies continue to shift, our core courses stay the same? For generations now American educational institutions have emphasized the same basic four subject areas: science, mathematics, social studies, and English. Subjects such as art, music, physical education, and vocational type courses have come further down the hierarchy. And while there have been various movements in recent years to reform educational curricula in order to better feed the needs of a capitalistic economy, and others have sought to return to the Classical models, by and large the power of inertia keeps each successive generation of students studying the same things that their parents and grandparents studied.

But as the quotations above reveal, inertia's power is limited. While the facade may remain unchanged, there have been paradigmatic shifts in the last several decades. So what if instead of reforming our core curricula in anticipation of an always uncertain future or as an attempt to salvage an idealized version of the past, we simply aligned our educational emphasis with what we really want to learn right now? And I don't mean what we want our children to learn, but rather what we, as a collective civilization, would like to know.

Of course that raises the issue of precisely what we do want to know. I think there are four (or perhaps five) fundamental questions that curious people use to guide their own learning. Next week I will discuss these questions, and I will use them to devise what I think would be the best way to construct a core educational curriculum that most closely aligns to what we really (and already) want.


Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

I really am looking forward to your next post.

And just of thought on the differences between the 1940's and 1990's anthologies. In 1992-93, from a Western perspective, there really weren't any major concerns in the world. Communism had recently collapsed, the digital age was dawning, and babyboomer's 401k's were earning 11% a year. What a perfect time to sit back and take in a bit of history's culture.

1:49 AM  

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