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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 by Herbert M. Kliebard

Bias holds the score down for this book

John Dewey (1859-1952)
The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 by Kliebard is a classic in the world of college textbooks about American educational history and curriculum. However, if I might be so bold to say so, it is not a classic due to its own strength but rather to the paucity of books that cover this topic.

I have no problem with Kliebard's choice of years to write about (1893-1958) since they are the years when debate over what should be the proper curriculum in America's schools was at its most fierce, beginning with the Committee of Ten report in the 1890s, he documents several movements and ends with the federal government assuming more control over education right after the Sputnik incident caused the American government to doubt the quality of teaching science and math students were receiving.

Kliebard is a professor of education. This shows when he tells this story to his readers. Although he knows his material backwards and forwards, he clearly is an apologist for John Dewey and he has little tolerance for any other education movement. He openly mocks many of them as tools for social control by the ruling class. Other times he pulls out sexist and racist quotes that are intended to excite the reader into disliking educational movements. While it is a dependable (but cheap) tactic to score a few points in a debate, it is a very poor way to write history. It also distorts the true study of some of these movements.

Any history student can tell you that America in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a racist and sexist place. It serves no purpose to drag those facts into the discussions of the policy debates of the time. Rather, it clouds the issue behind the offending words and phrases. This book was the source of much discussion in my graduate level class I am taking and many of the students become upset with the words and phrases of certain educational movements and then utterly dismiss their main ideas. Thus, the true study of the philosophies of curriculum becomes obscured in the name of partisanship.

The only exception to these tactics is John Dewey. Kliebard admits in one of his prefaces (he has included each preface from each of his 3 editions of his book in this edition) that he is a big fan of Dewey. Unfortunately, Kliebard does not make it entirely clear why. He talks about Dewey's University School and some of the innovations in rather vague terms. Many other times in the book he points out that Dewey is incorrectly interpreted by other movements who claim Dewey as one of their own, but he does little to explain why this well-written, widely-published educational philosopher could not clearly lay out a plan that would not be misinterpreted by so many. Mr. Kliebard, if Dewey was so great why couldn't he more clearly express himself, especially when it came to curriculum for the secondary level?

So, this book gets a grade of 3 stars. He loses points for being biased in his reporting of history. He gets extra credit for being one of the few to document this facet of American history in a fairly reader-friendly format.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958.

Reviewed on July 9, 2006.

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