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Decline and fall of a good curriculum


SCHOOLHOUSE POLITICS: LESSONS FROM THE SPUTNIK ERA. By Peter Dow. Harvard University Press. 304 pages. $34.95. IMAGINE a group of America's leading scientists, child psychologists, film makers, anthropologists and some real live teachers getting together and considering the relationship between scholarship and teaching and examining the nature of the learning process and the nature of children.

Imagine the curriculum they could create for 10-year-olds. It would use dynamic teaching tools: silent films that not only present facts but teach concentration, observation and thinking skills.

It would use booklets that are easy to carry, inexpensive to replace and brief enough for only one or two reading sessions. (The material would take the place of the cumbersome textbooks usually handed out the first day of school.)

There would be discussions, games and enactments, all providing ways for students of all abilities to participate actively.

Imagine further that this curriculum was tested in real classrooms with real teachers and revised with the help of the people who were going to use it -- the teachers and children. Imagine the children using this curriculum, learning why and how these unique creatures called human beings create, develop and pass on their culture. Imagine these students learning to appreciate and understand another culture, while learning how to obtain information from many sources, evaluate it, share it in discussions and in written and oral presentations and use the knowledge to draw conclusions.

And imagine that the children loved this course and finished it knowing more about themselves, their world and the people who share it.

But enough of imagining. The course does exist. It was developed in the 1960s. It is called "Man: A Course of Study," and its developers included a host of scientists, ethnographers, film makers, anthropologists, historians, psychologists and teachers.

The course is still used in some schools, where it continues to allow teachers to guide their students to learn all of the things its originators hoped it would. Why, then, isn't it used extensively, when almost every political and ethnic group in the country is clamoring for a social studies program that teaches about different cultures?

Why would school boards buy the extraordinarily expensive "politically correct" social studies packages that textbook publishers produce, when a curriculum exists that teaches 10-year-olds how to study and appreciate a culture so that they will be able to appreciate and learn about all societies as they grow older?

Peter Dow's "Schoolhouse Politics" tells us why. In this book he reports on the dark side of educational reform, when dedicated professionals, people who took seriously the task of improving the education of young Americans, ran into the politics of education, conflicts with textbook publishers and with groups of citizens who burdened the new curriculum with their own ideology.

Mr. Dow tells the fascinating story of the struggle to design and test MACOS, from its beginnings in the 1950s when the nation, as it does in the 1990s, had too many failing schools.

Yet, the heat and pressure of conflicts with school boards, state departments of education and, ultimately, Congress, warped MACOS. Eventually, it disappeared from all but a few schools.

Peter Dow warns that again we face a time of political interference in education. All kinds of special interests -- ethnic, religious, economic -- demand that material be presented with specific slants to satisfy specific agendas. Publishers scramble to produce innocuous texts acceptable to all.

But what about the children? Mr. Dow has used the story of the creation and destruction of "Man: A Course of Study" to show what happens when narrow interests are allowed to dictate the education of American children.

Alma Cripps is a Baltimore teacher.

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