In some circles the word “curriculum” is anathema. It is far better, this thinking asserts, to take a relaxed approach to education, to teach a la carte, or to let the child decide what and when to study. We must not be “dogmatic.”
Different children must study different things—or so we begin to believe. We should not determine what is good for them to read or even to know. It runs like this: all men are different; therefore, all men require a different education; therefore, anybody who suggests that their education should be in any respect the same has ignored the fact that all men are different; therefore, nobody should suggest that everybody should read some of the same books; some people should read some books, some should read others.
This dogma has gained such a hold on the minds of American educators that you will now often hear a college president boast that his college has no curriculum. Each student has a course of study framed, or ‘tailored’ is the usual word, to meet his own individual needs and interests. We should not linger long in discussing the question of whether a student at the age of eighteen [or six or eleven] should be permitted to determine the actual content of his education for himself …. Educators ought to know better than their pupils what an education is.¹
Some of us remember our mothers or grandmothers who prepared, like clockwork, well-rounded meals with good sources of proteins, vegetables, and bone-building foods on our plates. We did not always like our food, but we ate. No debating, begging, or whining. No placing individual meal orders. We dined with both portions and nutrients predetermined, and we were nourished. Not only were we nourished by the food, but also by the conversations that accompanied the food.
Postmodern-parenting experts advise, by contrast, that if a child does not like the nutritious food he has been given, he should not be compelled to eat it. Let him choose. He knows best. How well is this working?
Many of us see young parents chasing their children around the house with “hidden” nutrients in squeezable green cartoon-character packets. Children and their parents seem exhausted and frustrated. Young children often eat large amounts of sugar, fast food, and empty calories, while learning little more than that they can control their parents at least three times daily.
Often it is the same with our school days, even among homeschooling families: Children are not compelled to complete their studies if they do not like them. Like full plates of uneaten food in the trash, stacks of uncompleted homeschool resources fill the homes of homeschoolers. Sometimes these were purchased by the same parents who once said, “I cannot afford a full curriculum.”
Perhaps rather than cost, the real driving force behind curriculum decisions is this: As parents, we don’t truly believe we should impose extrinsic standards. We scorn a prepared curriculum, even if it is one brimming with purposeful enculturation, the highest quality teaching resources, and classic literature. We trade this for largely hands-on projects, splashy entertainment, or following the child’s lead. When we do this, what is being lost is our communal, cultural birthright—the accumulated wealth of knowledge, beauty, and reason that a curriculum is intended to pass down to a student.
Different, Yet the Same
Learning differences of mind and body may necessitate more intentional teaching strategies, or a different pacing, but we can modify without compromising content. We need not let the child’s differences diminish the richness of his studies. We can reaffirm our devotion to an education founded upon our common humanity. All men are different; but they are also the same. If any common program is impossible, if there is no such thing as an education that everybody ought to have, then we must admit that any community is impossible ….²
Let every child hear Charlotte’s Web to learn the beautiful art of self-sacrifice. Let him “live inside” the Little House books to understand duty to family, hard work, and appreciation for simple joys. Let him grow into greater works that will fill his days and his mind. More than this, let him hear and learn Holy Scripture, for “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14, KJV)
A Curriculum for Community
A shared curriculum creates community. Community among those with special needs is not only possible; it is essential. Everything starts with the understanding that all children are similar. Hyper-individualization based on perceived differences or immature preferences will serve no one well, least of all the child himself.
Let us read the same books, sing the same songs, and hear the same stories to the greatest extent possible. In view of the urgent need for unity and community, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the present crisis calls first of all for an education that shall emphasize those respects in which men are the same, rather than those in which they are different. [We need] an education that draws out our common humanity rather than our individuality. Individual differences can be taken into account in the methods that are employed.³ With a return to the intent of education, the Simply Classical Curriculum seeks to bring educational nourishment to children who may need modifications, yet whose humanity begs for the common truth, goodness, and beauty needed by all.
1 Hutchins, Robert M. with Adler, Mortimer. The Great Conversation, Britannica Great Books (University of Chicago, 1952), 49.
2 Ibid, 50.
3 Ibid, 50-51.
To receive Simply Classical Journal articles in print, sign up for free here.