Curriculum Wars


I’m reaching back into the past today to recount a largely forgotten battle about school curriculum that has troubling parallels to today’s controversies about the teaching of what has been inaccurately labeled “Critical Race Theory.”      

In 1972 a colleague and I suddenly found ourselves in charge of a fifth and sixth grade classroom in a four-room school in Fairlee, Vermont. We had been running a pullout and after school writing program at the school, based on work we had done with a group in New York City called Teachers and Writers Collaborative (TWC). When a teacher resigned unexpectedly, the district superintendent challenged/coaxed/cajoled us into taking full responsibility for her class, rather than seeing her students in our workshop space a couple of hours a week. Neither of us was a certified teacher, but it was a brief magical moment when local superintendents had the authority to bestow those credentials on anyone he deemed beneficial to the students of his district, so poof, I was a teacher.

I’ve written about parts of this adventure in a much earlier blog post, but I want to focus here on a particular resource that helped us make our teaching more grounded and more fun than anything we could have designed on our own.

 But first, I need to pull the camera back for a long view of what was happening in education far from our little Vermont community. Much has been written about the shock of Sputnik on the American psyche. Russia’s early space success had inflicted a blow on the American ego, a fear that we were no longer the preeminent force in the world. We had been lulled into complacency and something had to be done quickly to change course. The focus of attention fell on education which was seen as the soft underbelly of the society and the reason we were lagging. Our children were simply not being prepared for the challenge of the new scientific era.

 Prior to this, there had been little meaningful contact between academia and the public schools outside the work of the education departments preparing teachers for our schools. The Sputnik crisis changed that overnight and suddenly Nobel Prize-winning scientists were being called upon to use their storehouse of knowledge to design curriculum for elementary and secondary students that would elevate students above memorizing supposedly established facts about chemistry, physics and biology and  regurgitating them on demand.

One of the results of this effort was a curriculum called The Elementary Science Study (ESS) which my teaching partner and I fell on like hungry wolves. Free of any formal teacher training, one thing we did know in our bones was that kids needed more than textbooks. They needed to be actively engaged in learning experiences that stimulated their curiosity, that made them ask questions. ESS had no textbook. Instead it was a set of kits which with kids could design experiments that, unlike traditional lab manuals, did not have prescribed outcomes. In Batteries and Bulbs, students wired circuits to light up the interior of doll houses and design games that glowed when players hit upon the correct answer to questions. In the Mealworms unit, students raised communities of mealworms and speculated about the conditions under which they would thrive or failed to do so. Other kits enabled students to study the ways in which water moved through a variety of materials in set ups not unlike the water tables that were once ubiquitous in kindergarten classrooms.

Although the ESS kits no longer exist, they have spawned later generations of materials, like the FOSS kits that are common in many elementary classrooms today. They were a godsend to two highly educated but untrained young teachers. They stimulated our own curiosity and engaged our students who couldn’t wait till science time.

Could the same magic be used to reinvent the teaching of social studies, which in my experience usually ranked as the least popular of all the academic subjects? That was the challenge undertaken by Dr. Jerome Bruner, arguably the foremost cognitive psychologist of his time. He was a rare exception to the statement I made earlier about the absence of any interaction between academics and the schools. He had a longstanding interest in how children learn, and he piggybacked on the successful work of the hard scientists to receive a $4+ million federal grant to design a textbook-free social studies curriculum for fourth to sixth graders.

Man: A Course of Study, popularly known as MACOS, was a bold effort to introduce young students to the field of anthropology. Bruner believed that there was no content that couldn’t be taught to children of any age if it was framed appropriately.  The curriculum, parts of which can still be found online, consisted of four intertwined units, covering the social organization of increasingly more complex organisms – salmon, herring gulls, primates and humans. The latter focused on Inuit communities whose family configurations, hunting and fishing practices and social rules were presented through films, specially prepared written material and games. The films featured a character named Tuktu who was about the same age as the students studying the curriculum and thus provided a ready point of identification for them.

Teaching this material was one of the most exciting chapters of my teaching life. Somewhere among my file boxes I still have my copies of the teachers’ guides to each of the four units. I couldn’t bring myself to discard these mementoes of some of my most engaging teaching experiences. The Tuktu films were so rich and evocative that the students asked if they could make their own. So, in our snowy Vermont schoolyard, super 8 camera in hand, we replicated the great seal hunt. The hunters, spears in hand, pulled out of what was supposed to be a hole in the ice an inflated object representing the seal. We interrupted the filming to scatter red food coloring around the ice hole to capture the intensity of the battle between man and nature.

These memories would be nothing more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane without the story of what became of MACOS. The fate of this extraordinary curriculum has troubling contemporary echoes. Anyone who has taken a college anthropology class knows that at the very core of the field lies the concept of cultural relativism. Every culture is built on its own set of beliefs and values, from the gods they worship to the way they deal with sex, marriage and gender relations. In crafting this elegant curriculum, Bruner and his associates were unprepared for the backlash it would generate from Christian conservatives in particular who clung to their own absolute beliefs in all these areas, beliefs they were not eager to have their children question. In the initial excitement surrounding MACOS, thousands of schools across the country and many entire school districts adopted the materials, but once the political pressure intensified, it disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived, along with the federal funding that had sustained it. By the late 70s, MACOS was gone from most American classrooms.

In the current battle over the teaching of critical race theory, we are seeing once again the way what is taught – and not taught – in our schools is shaped by the prevailing political climate. CRT is not a clearly defined and developed curriculum in the way MACOS was, although its influence can be seen in the controversial 1619 Project. It is essentially an argument that every aspect of our society is shaped and influenced by systemic racism which privileges white people and disadvantages people of color. This idea, like the MACOS idea of cultural relativity, threatens the way large segments of our society see themselves and threatens the legacy various groups want to bequeath their children.

I’m not aware of any mass movement that arose to protect and defend MACOS, which explains its rapid demise. There were numerous local school board skirmishes, both in the US and England, around the retention or elimination of the curriculum but nothing more sustained. We must do better than that to battle the current efforts to literally whitewash the complex history of our country. Teachers’ unions are leading the way and numerous lawsuits have been filed to protect the rights of teachers to do their jobs with honesty and integrity. We can’t allow a repeat of the sad demise of MACOS, perhaps the best curriculum of the last half century. It showed me the way to being the kind of teacher I aspired to be, unfettered by invasive political constraints.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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