What is Curriculum?

What is Curriculum?

Paper details:
1) Pick a quote from the reading that you think is very interesting or important with respect to the overall argument or story. Introduce the quote. 2) Describe: explain the meaning of the quote in your own words. 3) Justify: Explain why you picked the quote – if you strongly agreed/disagreed with it don’t just say so, explain why you did. 4) Interpret: Explain how the quote you selected related to the overall argument or theme of the text. 5) Contextualize: Explain how the quote/overall argument relates to an issue of important to the study of self, culture and society.

Retrospective on “What is Curriculum?”

Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies
olume 1  Number 1  Spring 2003
Retrospective on
“What is Curriculum?”
Simon Fraser University
It can be a tad sobering to re-read for the first time in over twenty years
something written then in a hurry. I had been assigned to teach my first
curriculum course at Simon Fraser University and thought it might be a
good idea to find out what “curriculum” was. Many of the people I talked
to in the field seemed to have rather divergent views, and some cheerfully
admitted they had no idea. Some suggested I look at the kinds of books
used by curriculum professors in their courses and infer what the field cov-
ered from that. And, of course, I studied the big Curriculum textbooks. None
of this made things much clearer, oddly enough. I also wanted to start my
class off with something that would clarify what curriculum was supposed
to be about for the students. Not being able to find anything that seemed to
me adequate at the time, I wrote “What is Curriculum?” for my students,
and later sent it off to the editor of
Curriculum Inquiry
, who, I tend to think
looking at it now, was unduly kind in printing it.
number of issues come to mind on re-reading. First, a rather uncom-
fortable awareness of showing off with the Latin quotes. I had been then
closer to my schooldays, when Father Paul had tried to persuade us that
Latin was our mother tongue, and this English vulgate we slopped around
in was no language in which to learn precision and clarity of thought. He
wasn’t very successful, but as my Latin dribbles away with years of inac-
tion, I’m beginning to wonder whether maybe he had a point: a point made
well by A.E. Housman (1989) in his inaugural lecture as professor of Latin
Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies
at London University in 1892—one of the more interesting essays about
education written in the previous century or so. But also, as I look at those
quotes, and the argument I make about the meaning of the word moving
from the container to the contained, I am doubtful both about the move-
ment and whether those quotes actually support the claim.
In general, I was looking at “curriculum” in a kind of Wittgensteinian
way, seeking its meaning in its uses (1963). One part of my conclusion was
that almost anything to do with education seemed to be encompassed in
the notion of what it meant to “do” curriculum. This part won me a men-
tion in the second edition of the massive
Curriculum Development
text, by
Daniel and Laurel Tanner (1980, p. 32). This moment of glory, however, was
a tad tarnished by my definition of curriculum being dismissed as being
indistinguishable from the term “pedagogy.” I often wondered how writ-
ers of these enormous books managed to read all the items that are cited in
their vast bibliographies. This experience gave me a clue.
The second part of my conclusion was that “curriculum” seemed to be
the only area of genuine educational study not infected by people suppos-
edly studying education through psychology or philosophy or sociology or
whatever. That is, curriculum has the virtue, as it seemed to me then, of not
trying to ape the methodology of some other academic inquiry and then
apply it to education. This dividing up the field of education into many
sub-fields, none of which apparently has much that is useful to say to any
other, seems to me still to be the curse of the study of education. How much
longer can we stagger on, producing mountains of “knowledge” that are
supposed to improve education, while patently doing nothing of the sort—
and in the process earning the contempt of the wider academic world. It
seems to me impossible to show that the practice of education has been at
all improved by a century of expert psychological and philosophical and
sociological and whatever else study of its phenomena. Carrying on this
way, in the teeth of the evidence, can be managed only by refusing to look
at the world around us.
The piece is dated by its references to the then popular movement called
“Open Education.” I do think the point about educational scholars, faced
with the question of what we should teach, preferring to deal with proce-
dural questions remains generally true. E.D. Hirsch (1987) has, to the dis-
tress of progressivists generally, recommended a specific curriculum. Un-
fortunately, it is just a reassertion of the old form of the liberal or traditional
curriculum. One can only hope that curriculum study in the 21
will escape from the dreary and fruitless arguments between progressivist
and traditionalist forces that have dogged education through the previous
century. One can hardly see any debate about education still without recog-
nizing the lineaments of this division barely below the surface.

What is Curriculum?
Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies
olume 1  Number 1  Spring 2003
What Is Curriculum?
Simon Fraser University
Originally published in
Curriculum Inquiry
, volume 8, number 1 (1978):
66–72. Reprinted with permission from Blackwell Publishers.
In all human societies, children are initiated into particular modes
of making sense of their experience and the world about them, and
also into a set of norms, knowledge, and skills which the society re-
quires for its continuance. In most societies most of the time, this “cur-
riculum” of initiation is not questioned; frequently it is enshrined in
myths, rituals, and immemorial practices, which have absolute au-
thority. One symptom—or perhaps condition—of pluralism is the
conflict and argument about what this curriculum of initiation should
contain. Today, however, the conflicts and arguments are even more
profound and undermine rational discussion of what the curriculum
should contain. Much discussion in the professional field of curricu-
lum, at present, focuses on the basic question of what curriculum is,
and this suggests severe disorientation.
At a superficial level, confusion about what curriculum is, and thus what
people concerned with it should do, involves argument about whether cur-
riculum subsumes instruction—and thus whether a student of curriculum
Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies
should also be a student of instructional methods—or whether curriculum
involves all learning experiences, or refers simply to a blueprint for achiev-
ing restricted objectives in a school setting, or includes the statement of
objectives as well, or also the evaluation of their achievement, and so on.
The field seems to have no clear logical boundaries. Most accounts that try
to make sense of the current state of the professional field of curriculum
study describe a set of more or less distinct activities carried on in its name
and then argue for a preference, or suggest a compromise or further alter-
native. Those who try to make sense of the present confusion by reference
to the past, rarely go back beyond the emergence of the curriculum field as
a profession in North America in this century.
In this brief essay, I want to take a somewhat longer perspective to see
whether even a very general sketch of some relevant influences might not
provide a clear picture of the present situation and offer some guidance for
the future. It will be useful to begin with a brief look at the history of the
word “curriculum,” touching down almost randomly through the centu-
ries to see what changes there have been in its meaning.
It is, of course, a Latin word carried directly over into English. Its first
Latin meaning was “a running,” “a race,” “a course,” with secondary mean-
ings of a “race-course,” “a career.” By picking out just two of Cicero’s uses
of the word, we can get a sense of the direction in which it has developed.
Defending Rabirius, he tossed off the neat epigram: “
Exiguum nobis vitae
curriculum natura circumscripsit, immensum gloriae
” [Nature has confined our
lives within a short space, but that for our glory is infinite] (Pro Rabirio
10.30). “Curriculum” is used here to refer to the temporal space in which
we live; to the confines within which things may happen; to the container,
as opposed to the contents. Later in his life, Cicero described his current
work—he is on the seventh volume of his Antiquities, is collecting further
historical data, revising speeches for publication, and studying law and
Greek literature—“
Hae sunt exercitationes ingenii, haec curricula mentis
” These
are the spurs of my intellect, the course of my mind runs on] (
De Senectute
1. 38). “Curriculum” here refers, however slightly, to the things he is study-
ing, the content. This metaphorical extension, firstly from the race-course
and running to intellectual pursuits, and then from reference to the tempo-
ral constraints within which things happen to reference to the things that
happen within the constraints, prefigures the general movement of the term
through the ancient and modern world. The kind of questions one might
ask about a race-course—How long is it? What obstacles are there?—ex-
tend easily to the kind of questions one might ask about an intellectual cur-
riculum—How long is it? What kinds of things does it contain?
These remained the important curriculum questions throughout the
medieval world. The questions for the designers of curricula may be for-

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