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What's Worth Learning: How Outdated Curricula Are Failing America's Students

The “core curriculum” used in America’s classrooms was poor when it was adopted in 1893, and grows more dysfunctional every year.

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The process of institutionalization occurs in stages, beautifully explored and elaborated by the late Carroll Quigley in his 1961 Macmillan book, The Evolution of Civilizations.

Stage One: A society has challenges—protecting itself from enemies, caring for the sick, obtaining food, maintaining public order. To address the challenges, organizations are formed—armies, hospitals, police forces, schools, and so on—and effective problem-solving policies and procedures are adopted.

Stage Two: Social change gradually alters the nature of the problems the organizations were created to solve—a different kind of enemy threatens, a plague of unknown cause strikes, once-productive soil wears out. As the problems change, the policies and procedures that worked well in Stage One gradually become less appropriate and efficient.

Stage Three: Eventually, the inadequacy of the original problem-solving approaches becomes too obvious to ignore. Fingers of blame are then pointed at those in the problem-solving organization. More rigorous standards are imposed. Supervisory staffs are enlarged. Policy and procedures manuals grow fatter. Penalties for poor performance grow harsher.

Stage Four: Because the basic problem—failure to monitor change and adapt to it—remains unaddressed, the situation becomes more dire. Reacting, authorities tighten procedural screws, then tighten them again. A kind of Catch-22 dynamic takes over, a variation of, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Stage Five: The organization disintegrates or becomes irrelevant. The once-effective problem-solving policies and procedures either disappear or become meaningless rituals.

Education in America illustrates the first four stages of the five-stage pattern. In the colonial era, the basic educational challenge and the curriculum aligned beautifully. The task was to maintain the way of life of a society made up mostly of farmers and craftspeople, a challenge met primarily by modeling. The young grew up immersed in the real world, watching and working with family and neighbors, learning when to plant and harvest, what to do for a sick horse, how to milk a cow, make clothes, build structures. Apprenticeships passed along more specialized knowledge and skills.

After the Civil War, the factory system, urbanization, concentrated wealth, and floods of immigrants changed the task of educating. Building and maintaining railroads, banks, factories, and other giant enterprises called for a few thinkers and many doers. To meet the new challenge, a system of mass education was put in place. It didn’t serve the small leadership class very well, but the “sit down, shut up, listen to the teacher, remember the answers, stand up and line up when the bell rings” regimen was appropriate for the millions headed for repetitive manual labor. Again, the educational problem and the solution aligned well enough to keep the process of institutionalization in check.

In the 1890s, very few students attended college, but those who did presented a problem. They came from secondary schools where, in total, about 40 different subjects were taught, and college admissions officers didn't know how to compare their academic records. The situation, prominent educators felt, called for standardizing high school instructional programs, and a ten-man committee of school administrators was appointed by the National Education Association to undertake the task. They submitted their report in 1892, and the following year their recommendations began to be adopted across America, locking in the pattern in near-universal use today.

Big mistake. Change is in the nature of things, and in order to survive, societies must adapt. As the 20th Century unfolded, America changed. Work became more specialized and complex, international industrial competition increased, corporations grew larger, more impersonal, and less attached to nation states. Jobs requiring physical labor steadily declined in number, consumerism took off, an ever-rising standard of living came to be considered a right, and the Cold War generated a vague, pervasive sense of uneasiness.