WILLIAM A. REID
William A. Reid, Senkley Cottage, St. Chloe Green, Amberley, Stroud, Glos GL5 5AP, U.K., was the general editor of the Journal of Curriculum Studies. He is author the forthcoming Curriculum as an Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).
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Curriculum &endash; that nationally institutionalized form of education &endash; is an ephemeral phenomenon, and we must suspect that at the end of the 20th century it is pretty well played out. It is following the trajectory of that other great British institution, the Royal Mail. Once, gentlemen (of both sexes) and scholars took up their quill pens, lovingly covered pages of parchment with elegant writing, sealed them with wax and handed them to personal servants and messengers for delivery to expectant friends and colleagues. Erasmus, we are told, kept contact in this way with almost a hundred correspondents scattered all over Europe. Then nation states came on the scene and decided that the exchange of messages should be democratized, homogenized and institutionalized. From the mid-19th century we could all buy stamps, lick them, stick them on envelopes, and drop our letters into mail boxes which proclaimed their national allegiance through their shape and colour. And, of course, we then eagerly awaited the arrival of replies, ceremoniously delivered to our doors by uniformed officials. But now the arrival of the post person, who may or may not be decked out in one or two miscellaneous items of uniform, is more likely to be a source of apprehension than expectancy. All that will drop through the mail slot is bills and final demands. The postal service, like the curriculum, is in cultural disarray. Our friends and colleagues communicate with us through email, courtesy of Mr. Gates of Microsoft.
This parable came to mind as my eye fell on a headline in today's newspaper: 'Government seeks firms to take over poor schools'. Beneath it came clarification of the intended meaning of 'poor' in this context in a paragraph which reads:
Multi-national companies are being invited by the Government to run schools in areas where standards are low, with or without the cooperation of local education authorities.
None of this will, of course, be newsworthy to citizens of Cincinnati, where Proctor and Gamble have already taken over a school district. And, even in England, we are becoming used to the idea that firms such as British Aerospace will soon be establishing universities. However, local government leaders were said to be 'furious' at the announcement, describing it as a 'Tory-style privatization' which would risk the future of education.
To those reared in the context of a public education service, it can indeed seem shocking that schools should be handed over to multinational corporations. But if this possibility is put in historical context, maybe it won't seem so outlandish. Where did those beacons of British educational renown and achievement, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and our leading 'public' schools, come from? In the main, their founding was due to the greatest multinational corporation of all time &endash; the Catholic Church, whose revenues, in the middle ages, outshone even those of Mr. Gates. Of course, we shouldn't really call it a 'multinational', because nation states were centuries in the future. Any maybe, if Mr. Gates gets his way, even nation states, robbed of institutions like post offices and curricula which defined them, may soon fade away, restoring us to a world not unlike that which Erasmus knew. The outbreak of variegated spots, shapes and colours on the tail fins of BA jets may bear a message of as yet unplumbed prophetic depth. Looked at this way, the situation seems not so bleak. Erasmus and others got a good education, in spite of the absence of nation states to organize schools for them and enroll them in curricula. And clearly he would have loved email.
The problem with the great institutions so prolifically spawned by the 19th century was that they were much too successful. This has had fatal consequences for them. They have expanded to a point where, in spite of vast and ever-increasing consumption of resources, they lack a coherent purpose and yet are incapable of forging a new identity. National education systems, like the national mail services, started out in a small way and grew steadily but comfortably until the middle of the 20th century. Until then, they were buoyed up by a strong sense of mission. There were all those children out there waiting to be enrolled, all those recluses waiting to be lured into the exciting world of letter writing and mail order. Teachers, like employees of the postal services, dressed and acted like the stalwarts of the community everyone recognized them to be. Schools, like post offices, exuded a national institutional presence and identity. But once all the children had been enrolled and all the potential mail users recruited, important questions began to be raised about what was being achieved by so much public investment in monolithic institutions. The institutions, for their part, burdened by history and the dead weight of success, were unable even to begin answering them. The response of governments to this crisis has been contradictory. On the one hand, they have reiterated the message that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that the problems can be solved by a bit of 'quality control' or 'achievement targeting'. In the UK, we have been presented with a national curriculum which is a rerun of the grant regulations of 1904, and, in the US, high profile reports such as A Nation at Risk have urged that we get on with implementing the recommendations of the Committee of Ten. On the other hand, these same governments have courted radical innovation by rushing into schemes of privatization and fragmentation, in total contradiction of their attempts to nail the old curricula in place (interestingly, multinationals which contract to take over schools from English local authorities will not have to implement the national curriculum). When response to crisis is as schizophrenic as this, it is clear sign that the institution is doomed.
Meantime, out there, we have Proctor and Gamble, Microsoft, and British Aerospace, organizations shaping and shaped by the complex cultures of the late 20th century, ready and able to introduce us to a global community where the materials and means to construct personal projects of education and communication will be available, not just to an élite group like Erasmus and his friends, but to all of us. Why are we hesitating?