Faculties of education often emphasize research on teaching and learning, devising “best practices” of “effective” teaching in order to “facilitate” student learning, often assessed by standardized tests. I am interested in each of these but – as a curriculum theorist – I am less interested in how teachers teach than in what they teach, what students learn (and what they don’t), the impact of standardized assessment on teaching and learning. “What knowledge is of most worth?”: that’s the key curriculum question.
These days that question is often answered in exclusively economic terms – what can students study to ensure a good job upon graduation? – but it is also a political question, evident for example in certain U.S. school districts’ efforts to block the teaching of evolution, or skew the study of slavery. As those controversies make clear, the curriculum question is also an ethical question: what should students study to encourage them to become caring cosmopolitan citizens of their communities and countries and, as climate change requires, of the planet?
The great Canadian educator George Grant underlined the spiritual character of curriculum, insisting we ask why we are alive as well as how should we live, the two questions for him intertwined. For Grant, economics is a subset of ethics. Relegating curriculum to a means – to a good job or even to improve society – devalues it. For him study is an end in itself: a spiritual as well as academic practice.
George Grant was concerned about our relationship to technology, worried we would come to worship it, mesmerized by its many benefits, understating its many dangers, among them pollution, surveillance, the mass casualties of increasingly technological warfare. He predicted technology would produce homogenous societies worldwide, what we now understand as globalization (and the various often violent reactions to it). In that regard, the future of Quebec concerned Grant, but the future of Aboriginal peoples is also affirmed in his commitment to preserve what he termed particularity. Grant was quite critical of the United States, a country (he thought) that would sacrifice anything in the way of profits, now evident in efforts by computer companies to force secondary schools to replace the study of foreign languages with courses in coding.
My book on Grant follows others, each providing specific answers to the curriculum question: what knowledge is of most worth? In a book on racial politics and violence in America I juxtaposed lynching and interracial prison rape to show that racial politics and violence were – are – often expressed through the prism of “gender.” My decades-long interest in gender (organized by what gets called queer theory) has acknowledged LBGTQ issues, and not only as a series of precious particularities (as Grant might say) but also in play in apparently non-gendered domains, like curriculum reform. In America’s first national curriculum reform – undertaken by the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s – gender animated affirmations of academic “rigour,” as the Kennedys’ embrace of sport – specifically American-style football – enacted (as John and Robert Kennedy saw it) the masculine toughness needed to fight the Cold War.
Finally, I have devoted years of study to curriculum studies itself, as a field, explicating its intellectual histories and present circumstances, especially in the U.S. but also in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. (There is a book on each.) Now I am undertaking a study of curriculum studies in Canada, interested in showing how the field here has responded to the various challenges posed to it, prominent among them today truth and reconciliation. Throughout each of these projects, the curriculum question reverberates: what knowledge is of most worth?