A Common Curriculum?

Dear Reader,

With all the talk about the Common Core these days (most of it negative from what I read) I was intrigued to find that Charlotte Mason discussed the idea of a common curriculum in her sixth book, Towards a Philosophy of Education. She comes out in favor of such a curriculum:

“What we want is a common basis of thought, such a groundwork as we get from having read the same books, grown familiar with the same pictures, the same musical compositions, the same interests; when we have such a fundamental basis, we shall be able to speak to each other whether in public speaking or common talk . . . ” (p. 207)

The main idea here seems to be that a common body of knowledge, which comes from having read and studied the same materials, provides a common ground so that men (and women) may effectively communicate with one another. It enables the public discourse a society needs.

It should be noted that this sixth and last volume of Charlotte’s was written after the First World War. That seem to have been an event which really upset the civilized world. They seem to have seen something in themselves which they did not know was there and did not want to ever have to face again (oh, how little they knew what was yet to come!). This can be seen also in the writings of Charlotte’s contemporary and fellow educator, Maria Montessori. For Montessori the whole point of education was world peace.  While they overlapped, I believe Charlotte began before Montessori and certainly her earlier works were written before the global and ethical crisis of WWI. So while her main goal for education, that the child should learn to care and  have  a broad range of relationships with materials (to have their feet set in a wide room, as she says), remains the same, she seems here also to have adopted the idea, at least to a certain extent, that education can help fix the world’s problems.  That is, that a common education will lay the groundwork for a common understanding and a dialogue by which society’s leaders may work towards  . . . well, whatever they need to work towards. My impression is that more than anything these Europeans were shocked by how much killing there was and how much evil was in their own souls and they are seeking a way to once again be “civilized” and to never  again let the baser side of human nature show through to such an extent.

My point here is that I think Charlotte’s thought and especially the fervor with which she advocates for her view of education has altered in this volume. I am not sure that we find just the same idea in her earlier books and I don’t know if she would have argued for a common curriculum then.

But we may still find here some fodder for our own discussion of a common core curriculum. On the one hand, Charlotte makes a good point that a common body of knowledge helps us talk to one another. This is not the argument I hear for the Common Core. We seem to have more the idea that all children need a common foundation so that they are all on a level playing field. It is about educational equality, not about future political dialogue. One may also ask since the U.S. today is so large and diverse if such a common core is even feasible. Perhaps we are just too big and too different from one another. Or one may argue the opposite, that our bigness and diversity are exactly why we need a common body of knowledge.

But if we opt in favor of a common ground, we must then ask what common ground? What should children be learning and who decides? I am amused that Charlotte’s answer to her contemporaries was basically that her way should be adopted by everyone (hence the fervor we find in this volume):

“My bold proposal is that the Heads of Secondary Schools from the least to the greatest should adopt a scheme of work following the lines I have indicated  . . . and that they should do this for the nation’s sake.” (p.216)

Now if all schools in America all of a sudden had to use a Charlotte Mason education I would be very pleased. But our Common Core seems to be more about facts than ideas. I haven’t looked into it extensively, but I assume it is more of the same — dry facts — and does not include things like the reading of Shakespeare and Plutarch. Because when we talk of a common body of knowledge, we need to use knowledge in Charlotte’s sense, a relationship with the material, not just a bunch of details memorized. If we want to, say, avoid future wars, it does us no good to know when the War of 1812 happened or who was president then or even that Washington was burned. What we need is to understand the whys and hows behind it all, to know how people acted and why they did so and what in human nature led to those events.

If Charlotte Mason were here now, I would love to have her whip us all into shape. But she isn’t and I don’t now who else I would trust with such a responsibility. And you and I might not trust the same people. In some ways we can’t even begin to have a common core unless we already have enough in common to allow us to agree on what the requisite body of knowledge entails. And for that, I think America is just too diverse. I also tend to think that there is just so much to be known that we do need to spread ourselves out a bit. We may all need to learn to read and multiply but when it comes to things like reading novels, who is to say that I cannot read A Tale of Two Cities while you read David Copperfield? Surely we will both still benefit and we may all gain by sharing our different experiences more than if we all share the same experience.

I get where Charlotte is coming from in this section, at least I think I do. But I am not sure she was right even for her own day, much less so for ours. I agree that all children should have a broad, liberal base of knowledge. But I am not at all convinced that they all need to same base. I tend to think everything is more wonderful when we all have our own, slightly different bases.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I would tend to agree with you here. There is just so much “good stuff” out there that it would be hard to agree on what is the absolute best to share.
    As a music teacher by training, I’d love to see everyone musically literate (can sing/play a simple melody and rhythm etc., can describe and talk about music intelligently), and I’d hope that most educated people are familiar with things like Handel’s Messiah, The Nutcracker, and a few other biggies. Beyond that, there’s just so much good stuff that it would be hard to choose! If I felt like I had to cover a big list of required things then I wouldn’t have the chance to teach things that are less well known (just taught some lessons on Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez, for example).


  2. […] **Charlotte, like many of her contemporaries, seems to have turned to education as a solution after the First World War. In her 6th volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, she speaks more of the societal benefits of education (see this post). […]


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