Curriculums were Nice – A Jazz Riff

The title of this post is a riff and take-off from Shelly Blake-Plock’s post at, “Books were Nice“.

Curriculums were nice.

A curriculum, it turns out, is a riff on the name for a curricule, a kind of racing chariot used in the 1800s to prove that horses could run very fast in long circular race tracks.   The curricule itself was a playful riff on the idea of Roman chariot racing, since most educated people of the day got educated on a steady diet of dead Greek and Roman men — all for the good of the emerging American republic, you understand.  So that people would understand that George Washington was Cinncinnatus, and Benedict Arnold was our own personal Catiline, and so on.  History may not repeat herself, my dog Clio would tell you, but she does rhyme.

Anyway, eventually the idea came around that in a world of scarce teaching resources, you would simply circle the books.  You’d have your copy of Plato, and one of Livy, and maybe Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and a few other books, and you’d circle them around endlessly.  Start the new kid on the primer, then the easy book, then the middling ones, and if he did well enough, he could work on something really hard, like law or ministry or medicine — or quit school and go back to the farm.

Our school libraries got bigger.  Our schools’ mandate expanded.  Somewhere along the way, though, we shifted from the concept of the Canon — a ruler-straight list of books that you could teach in schools — to the concept of a Curriculum… a perfect circle of books that you must teach in schools.

As I’ve been happily reminding students for decades, there’s no such thing as a perfect circle (unless you’re talking about the band).  Circles and their geometry are governed by π, that irrational exuberance of the Pythagoreans trying to hang on to a static, ideal model of the universe in a Democritean-Newtonian-Fermian-Einsteinian granular cosmos.  (Today is the anniversary of Enrico Fermi’s team creating the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction.  In a raquetball court.  In downtown Chicago. In 1942.)

Somewhere around thirty years ago, though, scarcity broke down.  Most school libraries achieved critical mass at around 2,500 books and 100 periodicals.  Some went further, and became fusions of information at around 5000 or 10,000 books.  (Cushing Academy had around 20,000 books before they got rid of them to make way for a digital information center… Center. There’s that word again.  How can you have a center in a network?  You have a node.  A knot.  A conjunction. A crossroads. But a center?  Hmm.

Around ten years ago, the Internet went critical mass, and formed a self-sustaining information-reaction.  It’s rapidly in the process of drawing all human knowledge into itself, in a process that may be fundamentally complete in ten years, or fifty, or five hundred. In the process, it will link up cures for old age and cancer alike for someone with the wits to see them; and it may also solve the problem of how to survive our current emerging energy crunch; and how to get off the rock.

We teachers in schools need to give 20% of our time back to our students, the way Google allegedly does. We need passionate teachers to back off, and let students study what they want to learn.

Yes. Some of it will be sex.  Some of it will be drugs.  Some of it will be pr0n and lolcats and warez.

But we teachers keep handing around the same books in the same dumb curriculum, and we forget about π.  We forget about e. We forget about the untold and untellable extraordinary wonders that are to be found in our school library and the internet.  in the interest of protecting them from “the bad information”, we’re protecting them from ANY information.

And it serves no one.  We turn our schools’ internet services into solitary confinement cells; we turn our classrooms into information-prisons where nothing connects to nothing; and we confiscate or lock-down and punish cellphone usage in school in the hopes of somehow switching it all off and going back to the curriculum.  Our students know it’s wrong, and resent it. We know it’s wrong, but we feel accountable to taxpayers or parents or both, and we fight them tooth and nail to stick to the circular track.  No one wins this race any more, except the people who escape.  The homeschooler kids or the unschooler kids I know with genuinely open curriculums (not the parent-and-preacher fundamentalist even-smaller-than-usual curriculums), are way smarter and more pulled-together than even the best private-school students I know.

I don’t think anyone’s actually raced a curricule in a century.  (Maybe there’s some re-enactment group somewhere that tries to replicate it… but at 3.4 million hits, I’m not going to find it today. Maybe tomorrow: The anniversary of the 1997 anti-landmine treaty signed by 121 countries excepting the US, Russia and China).

A curriculum is a racetrack.  The sooner you get through the early laps, the sooner you get through the later laps, and get to be a winner.

But students (and teachers!) don’t live in a race-track sort of world any more. They live on a crazy-quilt grid of urban streets, with electrical wires and fiber-optic cable and subway stations and posters leading to illegal dance parties and outlaw sex clubs, and the Internet knows all about those things.  And how to get there. And how to behave when you get there.

Yeah, curriculums were nice.

But they served a very specific purpose: to train citizens of a new-born nation, first; and then to train the workers for a factory economy, with a modicum of designers.

But we need a generation of artists, and scientists, and musicians, and fencers, and dreamers, and explorers, and ecologists and chefs and ministers of state and dancers and medieval and civil war re-enactors and experts who know about World War II and experts who know about organic farming.

And they’re going to come from everywhere, and they’re going to be able to learn anything, anywhere, anywhen, All. The. Time.

I think we as teachers resent that.  I think that’s why we hang on to our circular curriculum so tightly, even while we forget that there’s an of decimal points of knowledge that we’re leaving out.  Like the ancient Hebrew author who explained the diameter and circumference of the Great Basin in the forecourt of Solomon’s Temple, we make it out to be 3 as the number of our counting and no more. Even getting to the first “5”, four decimal places in, is right out.

Solomon’s temple was meant to be a miniaturized, ideal world.  The Babylonians wrecked it on the 9th of Av in 586 BC, sometime in June or July.  Scho0ls with curriculums were meant to be miniaturized, ideal worlds, too.  The Internet wrecked them, in May or June of 1990, when the second website went live (the first one went live in May 1990 at CERN in Switzerland), and there was more than one place to connect to.

It’s time to close the race track, open the doors, and let the people out.  They have city streets to explore, ideas to consider, conversations to find, and dinners to make.  The horses are tired, some of them are dead from so much beating, and the curricules were always a poor substitute for rocket ships, anyway.

School has become like AOL, in fact. My friend Penner said it best, sometime around 1991:

AOL is like the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.  There’s usually cool stuff going on there, and people from around the world, and so on. But everywhere, there are these blinking signs that say EXIT, and uniformed guards saying, ‘you don’t really want to go out there.’  But beyond those doors is New York City… and I live there.

And the truth is, most of you who read this, live there now.  You’re part of a globally connected culture with a growing understanding of worlds beyond worlds.  You’ve delved deep into the substructure of information-π, looking for things to bring back to your curriculum.

But the race is over. You backed the wrong horse.  Put the ticket in the trash.  Let’s go eat.  My iPhone will help us find a good sushi place, and the history of sushi, at the same time.


    • I’ve removed what I think is the offending word… I’d rather try to persuade you with my writing than drive you away with bad language. And I’ll make an effort to avoid coarse language in the future.

      As for growing up… well, that may be a lost cause. I’m 39 now, and show no real signs of growing up. 🙂

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