Design for a New/Old Curriculum

School is essentially a conservative institution.  It’s designed to convey respect for authority and for the past or for tradition.  It’s intended to promote loyalty to one set of ideas rather than another; and promote loyalty to society’s basic, overall structure.  In many ways, it’s not really a realm for innovation or innovative thinking.  This is part of the reason why even high-concept experimental schools like Philadelphia’s School of the Future have difficulty maintaining their vision and their goals; the prevailing school culture pushes them back toward a specific curriculum derived from earlier models that look to the past rather than to the future.

So we know that any successful school reform is going to take the best of what we have now and combine it with good ideas about what’s valuable for the future.  What do we have now that’s worth holding onto, as we consider as a nation how to reform schools?

Maybe we should see our curriculum through someone else’s lenses for a moment.  If we go back a thousand years, we find the liberal and mechanical arts, and we discover a recipe for a creative, innovative school program that could easily occupy grades 1-8 and lead to well-rounded individuals.

  • The Trivium, composed of:
  1. Grammar
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Logic
  • And the Quadrivium, composed of:
  1. Geometry
  2. Arithmetic
  3. Music
  4. Astronomy /science

As a core curriculum, it’s not bad.  In modern terms, the Liberal Arts call for students who can read, write, and argue both formally and informally.  It calls for students who can think graphically and numerically, and can understand music and science clearly.  As a set of standards for school, it’s not half-bad.  It’s even pretty good.

Later educational theorists of the Middle Ages gradually developed a separate list, called the Artes Mechanicae:

  • Textile arts
  • Farming
  • Architecture/Design
  • Martial Arts / sports
  • Trade & Commerce
  • Cooking
  • Smithcraft / engineering

to which they sometimes added:

  • Medicine
  • Navigation
  • Theater Arts

Again, an excellent higher-order curriculum appears here.  Can you design and make things out of cloth, coax a garden from the ground, plan and construct a building, fight in a battle, run a business, cook a meal, build or repair a machine, bind your wounds or care for a diseased partner, read and interpret a multitude of maps, and perform a play or build a theater set or design a light display or special effects (or make a movie).

The underlying curriculum is less obvious, but equally present: can you tackle and learn difficult subjects quickly? Can you work with others? Can you work alone? Can you protect yourself, feed yourself, diagnose yourself, understand your world, manage your money, recognize good design, and contribute to society?

I’m thinking this is the basis for what I’ll be teaching in my history class this fall. We may not get to all seventeen arts listed here, but we’ll certainly try.

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