The New Curricula
edited by Robert W. Heath
Harper & Row, 292 pp., $5.95
One thinks of the schools as one might think of a baffled dinosaur, up to its hips in the mud, a bundle of dying reflexes. Its efforts to extricate its foreparts only drive its hindquarters more deeply into the ooze, its grave, beyond praise or blame. Watching it die, one suspects that it had no chance to survive in the first place: one of nature’s endless errors in its search for a more persistent organism.
No shoring up or patching, hauling and pulling, no encouraging words or angry shouts will get this beast up out of its swamp onto firmer ground; nor would it be safe to have it there; nor would it survive. The time has come for higher, more agile and adaptable forms. But the process is slow and who knows how much time is left? Even so, one watches at the margins, and when one or another fresh-born mutant reaches out for shore one still feels the residual joy far beneath the accumulated layers of skepticism and despair. Will it live? And if it does will it turn out to be still another slouching monster, as miserable as the last? In such a case, since it is a question of the children, one must give the benefit of the doubt.
Since the late 1950s and increasingly in the last few years we have been hearing about reforms within the traditional curricula—especially the new programs in physics and math: new forms of life perhaps and surely worth wondering about. The fourteen contributors to the present volume attempt to explain these developments, not only in the physical sciences but in the social studies and literature too. But to anyone who has not already learned something about these matters from other sources, the essays collected here are likely to confuse the picture still more. Not that some of the contributions—Professor Beberman’s on math or Professor Glass’s on biology or the essay by Jerrold Zacharias and Stephen White on physics are not clear enough in themselves, but that such a collection as this, concentrating on curriculum alone, provides too little context to see what is really going on and what can really be done. No one here talks about the schools themselves or about the larger society which produced them and which now wants to change them, and so one gets from this collection only the most fragmentary sense of how these reforms are expected to take place or of the likely impact that they may have on the students, on their schools, and on the society itself.
The aims of the new curricula are obvious enough and perfectly commendable: to produce a generation of scientists and mathematicians who will know how to use their language with grace, force, and meaning; who will know how the past operates on the present and who will understand that science and the other arts are keys to the liberation of the spirit. For less capable students, the new curricula …