The Deliberative Approach to the Study of the Curriculum

and its Relation to Critical Pluralism*

William A. Reid


*This paper is a revision of one originally published, under the same title, in Lawn, M. and Barton, L. (eds), Rethinking Curriculum Studies (London, Croom Helm, 1981).

In this chapter I set out to do three things: first, to describe a number of approaches to the study of the curriculum; second, to consider in some detail the approach I label ‘deliberative’, and, third, to examine its potential for enabling curriculum studies to avoid the extremes of dogmatic monism on the one hand, or of unrestricted relativism on the other.

Perspectives on the Curriculum

The core of this paper is a consideration of the deliberative approach to the study of the curriculum but, before I enter on that, I will note some assumptions that underlie my discussion, and sketch out a view of the general range of perspectives within which the deliberative approach takes its place.

My first assumption is that anyone who reflects on broad questions about the curriculum of the school, does research on it, or teaches about it, acts as a kind of social philosopher. Social philosophers are concerned to understand the nature of human society and how it intersects with the lives of its members, and also to visualize ways in which that understanding could be used to improve the quality of society and of the lives of the individuals who compose it.

My second assumption is that ‘social philosophizing’ is a role attribute, just as ‘practicing curriculum’ is a role attribute. Though we should expect social philosophy to relate to curriculum practice, we should not expect social philosophers to behave like practitioners, or vice versa -- though they may sometimes exchange their roles.

In any attempt to analyze the character of various contributions to the study of the curriculum, we have to steer a doubtful course between two contrasting and equally untenable positions. On the one hand, it is plain that the approaches of individual writers and theorists are not just idiosyncratic; on the other, it would be just as nonsensical to claim that there is a limited number of schools to which everyone must belong. Yet both propositions contain an element of truth. Here, for my own rhetorical purposes, I shall act as though there were more truth in the second one. The reader must remember, where necessary, to enter the qualification: ‘But all these people can also be seen as unique.’

One characteristic which distinguishes types of curriculum theorist is the degree to which they identify their interests with those of the school system (using that term in its broadest sense to include schools, institutions that adminster and influence schools,

and people who work in the schools and associated institutions). First, there are those who lean toward the system and see their work as being directed to improvement through helping people within it solve their problems. Second, there is an opposing camp, consisting of those for whom the school system is either an instrument of bourgeois exploitation which should not be supported, or an institution which has no central relevance for the kind of attack they want to make on curriculum questions.

The second discriminating characteristic I want to identify is the extent to which theorists subscribe to overriding principle or procedure. This might be described as ‘a priorism’. First, there are those whose concerns lie at the macro-level, whether because they work to support broad curriculum structures, or because they want to revolutionize them. These tend to be united by a relatively closed view of what the interesting problems are, and what practical or intellectual tools should be brought to bear upon them. Second, there are theorists who exhibit a lower degree of ‘a priorism’ and are not so dogmatic. They cannot give administrations their unqualified support, but neither do they believe that they know exactly how they should be transformed. Such people tend to be more exploratory in their behavior, more provisional in their judgments, less attached to generalizations, to abstractions, and to overriding principles. Their concern is more with individuals than with systems, though they may disagree over the extent to which such concern should relate to people in their public roles, as teachers and learners, or to the more private aspects of their intellectual and emotional development.

The groups I want to distinguish on the basis of these two characteristics are : (1) the systemic, consisting of those who accept current structures and write about ways of conceiving curricular ends and means in terms of a priori notions of control, planning, and innovation; (2) the radical, comprising theorists who, on the basis of overarching principles, trace connections between curricular forms and structural inequalities in society; (3) the existential, embracing writers who, starting from the standpoint of the individual who is the subject of the curriculum, discuss its relationship to their personal growth, and (4) the deliberative, covering those who characterize curriculum decisions as transactions between morally engaged individuals in the context of existing social institutions. These represent, respectively: system-oriented a priorists, system-opposing a priorists, system-indifferent explorers, and system-tolerant explorers. The simplification is, I think, crude, but useful.1 In spite of the crudeness, the groups I have formed do represent important and enduring positions on questions of social philosophy. It is because I see them as enduring that I have avoided the use of current labels such as ‘dominant’ or ‘reconceptualist’. These represent what is transient: the relative social or academic standing or aspiration of a given school of thought at a given time.

In the following sections, I shall elaborate the four major perspectives and make comparisons between them, using as themes: the purposes they attribute to curriculum studies, the notions they have about appropriate subject-matter, their preferred methods, and their underlying principles and assumptions.2


The Systemic Perspective

People who work and write within the systemic perspective are typically quite articulate about purposes. For them, one of the main objects of curriculum studies is to find the most efficient and effective way of planning, implementing, and evaluating curricula. For more specific definitions of these purposes, they tend to be dependent on initiatives taken by politicians and administrators. Frequently, they are hired by government agencies to work on policy issues. Of necessity, the frame of reference within which they operate reflects established administrative structures and the procedural rhetorics which inform them. Often, systemic theorists concern themselves with very large-scale rationalizations of the nature of the school curriculum, which are then used as the basis for more specific procedural theories at the level of planning.

The subject-matter to which systemic theorists address themselves is twofold: on the one hand it consists of certain kinds of data about schools and school systems. These data are ‘objective’ in character: measures of abilities and attainments, logistics of school and classroom organization, statistical representations of trends and relationships; on the other hand the subject-matter also comprises the content-free paradigms and models which are used for conceptualizing the system, for analyzing data, and for solving systemic problems. Much writing within this perspective is concerned with the elaborations of such universal paradigms and models which may then find their way into curriculum textbooks as matter to be learned. Broadly speaking, this tradition can be identified with that which Jackson (1992) has labelled ‘the dominant perspective’. For a long time it was indeed dominant within the field of general curriculum in the persons of theorists such as Bobbitt and Tyler. Now, in the face of the advance of reconceptualism, we have to look elsewhere for its dominance -- in national evaluation projects, in professional education, and in subject-based curriculum development.

Systemic method is closely related to subject-matter. The paradigms which are the object of study are vehicles for the scientific diagnosis and solution of problems. It is assumed that diagnosis can have a factual reference, and that solution of problems is achievable through rational procedures which are universally applicable. Method is construed as the application of abstract, analytical constructs to concrete, objective data.

On the matter of underlying principles and assumptions, systemic theorists do not often make explicit statements, probably because they see themselves as working within a tradition with well-established credentials (‘doing normal science’, to use Kuhn’s phrase). Arguments for such an approach in terms of deep-level commitments are more likely to be found in nineteenth-century than in modern writers. Discussion of the underlying value assumptions of this perspective have, in more recent times, been initiated by outside critics such as Schwab,3 Macdonald, and Apple (Pinar et. al. 1995). These assumptions are stated to be: that educational purposes are not deeply controversial, that human and institutional qualities can be abstracted and measured, that education is concerned with measurable effects, that there is no problem about the location of power in schooling systems, that social structures can be controlled by administrative action, and that the curriculum theorist is a kind of scientist.

The Radical Perspective

While systemic thinking is rooted in existing social forms, radical thinking is related not only to what exists, but to what might exist in the aftermath of fundamental social change. Hence, there is a duality in radical statements about purposes, subject-matter, and methods. Since method and purpose are claimed to inhere in concrete situations, and the post-revolutionary context is thought of as having little in common with the current one, radical programs often exhibit qualities of relativism. Within a capitalist society, the radical curriculum theorist has typically pursued two main purposes: first, to show how curricula serve to reproduce the structural inequalities of that society, and, second, to bring about curriculum change by working for its necessary precondition -- a transformation of society itself.

In most radical writing on curriculum theory, the stress has been on the former purpose. For example, Kallós and Lundgren (1976) state: ‘Curriculum studies cannot primarily be focussed on how a curriculum should be constructed, but must primarily explain the determinants of the curriculum.’ Classic instances of such radical critiques include La Réproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970) and Ideology and Curriculum (Apple 1979). These also serve, apparently, the subsidiary purpose of raising ‘revolutionary consciousness’ as a first step toward the transformation of society. Only beyond that point will it be possible for radical theorists of strongly Marxist persuasion to concern themselves with procedural matters of curriculum design. To do so now, would be to work for the preservation of the present ‘concrete reality’ since, for the radical thinker, planning theory can only be a function of the reality that the planner confronts.

The stress on demonstrating the reproduction of social inequalities through the curriculum points to the appropriate subject-matter and methods. The subject-matter is any situation, past or present, which can be analyzed to show the existence of these relationships which are considered, a priori, to hold good. Many radical theorists have worked from historical records. Alternatively, recent and contemporary settings are analyzed through the statistical or observational methods of the sociologist or anthropologist. What is distinctive about such radical analyses is not so much the method, as the linking of method to purpose.

The assumptions underlying such work, in so far as they emerge from the writing, are: that no worthwhile curriculum improvement is possible without a radical transformation of social and political institutions; that abstract concepts like ‘class’, ‘capitalism’, or ‘hegemony’ are, in some way, ‘real’ and provide the key to what is wrong with society; that the needed remedies are already known, at least in principle, and that the function of research and theorizing is to increase the power of already available facts.

The Existential Perspective

While radical and systemic theorists tend to approach curriculum questions through the macro-structures of society, those of an existential persuasion concentrate their attention on the mind of the individual who experiences a curriculum. For them, the reality of life consists not in classes, capitalism, or hegemony, on the one hand, nor in administrative processes and established institutions, on the other, but in the relationship of the individual consciousness to the external world. When radicals speak of consciousness, they tend to conceive of a shared consciousness from which general qualities can be abstracted. For the existential thinker, however, consciousness is always unique, always to be explored in its own terms, not in the terms of some wider collectivity. The purposes of existential analysis might be summed up, crudely, but with some justice, by adapting Sartre’s dictum that ‘the proper function of psychology is to improve the biography of the individual’. Here it is the function of curriculum that is at issue, but the shift in focus is not major. Existential curriculum theory is indeed psychological in character. It is allied to the humanist, introspective tradition of psychology which is the polar opposite of the objectivist, psychometric psychology favored by systemic theorists.

The subject-matter of this perpective is, therefore, the individual consciousness as revealed to the actor and to others. The method is the ordering of experience through frames provided by biography, psycho-analysis, existential philosophy, aesthetics and mysticism. This ordering is undertaken in a tentative and exploratory way. The truth is never to be demonstrated, always to be discovered. Paths of discovery lead in unknown directions. Examples of research undertaken within this perspective are to be found in the work of writers such as Greene, Grumet, and Pinar.

Since the work of existential curriculum writers has this strong exploratory character, it is hard to pin down the positive assumptions that shape it, though these would obviously include a belief in the primacy of the individual and in the centrality of the life of the mind. It is easier to see what must be rejected in principle. Excluded is belief in social engineering of the left or the right, in rational planning, or in projects of justifying curriculum decisions through empirical generalizations.

The Deliberative Perspective

Theorists who adopt the deliberative perspective (which is more closely considered in the next section of this paper) share the exploratory outlook of the existentialists. Where they disagree with them is in the emphasis they would place on the need to conceive of curriculum studies as having a relationship to schools and to practice. While Pinar (1975) has stated that although ‘curriculum must be planned, described in brochures, . . . it can hardly be a matter of serious scholarly and theoretical attention’, the deliberative theorist would argue that the central concern of curriculum studies should be precisely to improve people’s capacity, both individually and collectively, to make good decisions about teaching and learning, and that it is possible for this to be done in a scholarly and theoretical way.

In making his statement, Pinar probably had in mind the kinds of prescriptions for planning that are put forward by systemic theorists. When deliberative theorists claim that there should be a focus on practical questions, such as how to plan a curriculum, their project is to apply to planning a humanistic frame of reference, and they would reject the idea that curriculum studies was, or ever could be, either a science or a body of universally applicable techniques. This is the position espoused by deliberative writers such as Schwab (1969a). A humanistic framework of this kind could accommodate at least some of the interests of existential writers, though the fact that it was being used to address central questions of policy and decision-making would direct it more to empirically based truth strategies, and to traditional styles of humanistic reasoning.

The assumptions of the deliberative position are diametrically opposed to those of the radical perspective, being broadly allied to those of classical liberalism. They comprise an emphasis on the individual as a morally responsible person, a belief in the possibility of improvement through working with present institutions, and advocacy of consensual approaches to the identification and solution of problems.

My discussion so far has concentrated on establishing unique identities for the four perspectives I have identified. It would be an equally possible and equally rich enterprise to write about the links that exist between them, and about what they hold in common. I might also have talked about people who do not fit well into any of the categories. This is a theme to which I shall return briefly at the end of the chapter.


The Deliberative Approach: a Detailed Account


My more detailed account of the deliberative approach is also more personal, more speculative and diffuse than any of the tidy protraits I have offered so far. The label ‘deliberative’ is not self-evidently descriptive, nor does it draw attention to some aspect or focus of the position that could be the rallying point of a cause. To be deliberate is to show a concern that is broad and careful. Deliberative theory is evolutionary in its social philosophy and pragmatic in its conception of how knowledge should relate to policy and action. But it has clearly articulated value commitments and a distinctive method.

I begin with a personal account of what I see as valuable in the deliberative perspective, then consider how theorists within the tradition respond to a particular issue in curriculum, and, finally, review some objections which have been, or could be raised to its style and method.

When people are asked why they support particular positions and reject others, they often point to some kind of logical justification. Sometimes, however, this fails to produce an advance in understanding. Logical systems tend toward closure. If you are in them, everything hangs together quite nicely. If you are outside them, the logic is opaque. It is rather like having someone show you how a game of chess was won when you don’t know the moves. An awkward paradox comes into play: only experts can really have a feel for the system within which they operate, but this very familiarity puts a barrier between them and the outsider looking for enlightenment. A deeper question is why people buy into particular systems in the first place, and that is literally a deeper question, in that the reasons (if indeed it makes sense to talk of ‘reasons’) are hidden even to the individuals concerned. Partly they inhere in character, partly in the accidents of experience -- and even that kind of distinction may not hold up very well.

If I were asked why I favor the deliberative position, I could, for example, point to some personal preferences: I am independently minded and not attracted by theoretical positions that handle human problems through gross generalizations, or abstract principles; I am peaceable and don’t like social philosophies that stress power and conflict, and I am inclined to logical ways of solving problems (using logic in a broad sense). As far as the accidents of experience are concerned, I have studied European literature from classical to modern times in original texts, including such byways as the dark ages and the early medieval period. Such a background induces a degree of scepticism when faced with the the kind of ahistorical thinking that characterized curriculum studies in the 1960s, with its talk of modernity, development, and innovation. Finally, I spent ten years teaching in high schools, and this leaves a strong sense of the reality of learning and teaching in the classroom.

When, in 1969, I moved from schools to work on funded research projects (I would now refer to what I was doing as ‘curriculum research’, though I don’t think I used the expression at that time), I started to explore the literature of curriculum studies. Most of what I found ranged from fairly straighforward commonsense at one extreme (not too much of that) to pure fantasy at the other (simplistic talk about objectives, systems, feedback, etc.).4 The first paper I came across that said it was about curriculum and actually seemed to be talking about real things, but in a way that transcended commonsense, was Schwab’s ‘The practical: A language for curriculum’ which, coincidentally, was published in School Review in 1969. I’m not sure I understood much of it at the time, and I certainly knew nothing of the background from which it came. But it seemed to be saying things about curriculum that responded to my own concerns.

First, I liked the idea that it was possible to talk, theoretically, about practice without that sacrifice of its messy uniqueness which resulted from the use of procedures divorced from subject-matter, or of analytical abstractions at odds with the complexity of the real world. The problem about practicality was not solved for me by Schwab’s paper, but a way was shown by which it could be conceived of and productively worked upon. His resolution of the problem depends on an assertion that ‘the practical’ and ‘the theoretic’ stand in contrast to one another, yet the practical can be an object of inquiry, just as the theoretic can be an object of inquiry: ‘the expression of practical philosophies depends, despite their quest for concrete foundations, on the formulation of a theory which takes its place among other theories’ (McKeon 1952, 79). What one cannot do is takeover the kind of theorizing that belongs to the realm of the theoretic and apply it to the practical, and this is precisely where most attempts on the part of curriculum theorists to demonstrate their concern for the practical breaks down.

The second thing I liked about the paper was its plea for eclecticism and for tolerance of ambiguity. Schwab’s rejection of subscription to overriding principles and procedures struck a sympathetic chord. Much of what I saw being put forward as ‘curriculum theory’ seemed to be directed toward the establishment of closed axiomatic systems -- an extension of positivism to areas where even philosophers such as Russell would not believe its writ could run. And why should anyone want to do that? My sense of the history of ideas and my experience of schools suggested that, if we were seriously interested in the improvement of the curriculum, we should be looking for styles of theorizing that confront the ambiguities inherent in curriculum decision-making, not styles that that eliminate them by axiomatic pronouncements, or bypass them by abstracting only those qualities from situations which can be measured with an apparent lack of ambiguity. The problem was not, I thought, to find theories which claimed to provide answers to questions, but theories which could help us toward a productive search for answers. This was the promise of Schwab’s paper. The theorizing was not tight. It did not preclude search by setting up axioms, or by imposing stipulative definitions. It encouraged enquiry, and it left unresolved questions for the researcher to work on.

A third attractive feature of Schwab’s writing was that it was not dominated by momentary concerns. Much of the output on curriculum in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both in England and the United States, was bound up with a limited and temporary reality that belonged to curriculum developers, to administrators to some extent, but to schools and teachers hardly at all. Research and development money freed advocates of modernism in the curriculum from the restraints associated with the real decision points in schools and classrooms, and projected them into a ‘never-never land’ where all kinds of innovation-oriented activities could flourish. But when the results were fed back into the schools, these new forms of life died, or went through painful adaptations in order to survive. Yet it was the developer’s activities that had become the commonplaces of curriculum writing. Analyses of a hothouse culture were seriously put forward as a contribution to the improvement of life in the barnyard. Schwab, though active in curriculum projects, seemed untouched by all of this. What he had to say about the curriculum seemed to have a genuinely universal relevance.It was true as much of the nursery school as of the university, of the conventional classroom as of the curriculum project. Even when he addressed himself to current controversy (Schwab 1969b) his analyses and his remedies had a timeless quality.

This should not be taken as a summary of all that is to be found in the ‘practical’ papers, still less of all that is to be found in Schwab. But it distills the points that were immediately striking, and provides the grounds on which I can address some of the deeper notions underlying the central theme of ‘the practical’. First of all, some apparent contradications have to be dealt with. How is it possible to see qualities of universalism in something that, seemingly, is intended to respond to contingent reality? One could turn that problem round. How is it possible to believe in universal principles that do not apply in any particular case? The problem is a problem as long as the theoretical search is guided by an aspiration to axiomatic or empirically demonstrable truth. It ceases to be a problem when we accept the notion of ‘the practical’ which follows the rules of its own domain. Second, I have been a critic of theories which claim to offer procedures for carrying out curricular tasks (planning by objectives and so on); how, then, can I praise Schwab for building curriculum theory around a core of ‘method’? The answer lies in the distinction I would make between ‘procedure’ and ‘method’.

Procedure is to be understood within a context of axiomatic thinking. Within that context, procedure is an end point of enquiry. Working from first principles, one arrives at a formulation which can be universally applied when a particular kind of problem has to be solved. The logic of the process is to be understood, not in terms of the mind of the user, or of the material situation that has to be confronted, but in terms of the goodness of fit between the finished procedure and the principles that gave rise to it. Method, on the other hand, has to be understood within the context of deliberative thinking. This starts, not from principles, but from problems. The essence of methodic enquiry is to initiate and sustain a process through which the nature of a specific problem is exposed and a solution (or, rather, a ‘resolution’) is converged upon. Each step is contingent on preceding steps: at each moment, method and subject-matter interact. Method is not an end point of enquiry. It guides enquiry in an open-ended way. Its existence is guaranteed, not by abstract formulae which can be set down as algorithms, but by personal skills that have to be learned. At every point, its use is subject to the judgment of individuals, and only retrospectively can its course be charted. Its logic is continuously reconstructed as it interacts with its subject-matter. The answer to anyone who says; ‘But that is very esoteric!’ is: ‘Nevertheless, that is what we do all the time. That is how we routinely deal with the demands of everyday life’. We have become trapped in the very problem we want to solve. The practical concerns of everyday life are at once too trivial and too esoteric to be encompassed by the kinds of theories that it is academically respectable to talk about. On a philosophical level, the issue is well summed up by Brown (1979, 148): ‘The attempt by logical empiricists to identify rationality with algorithmic computability is somewhat strange, since it deems rational only those acts which could, in principle, be carried out without the presence of a human being’.

Conceptually, then, notions like ‘the practical’, like ‘enquiry’, like ‘deliberation’ are difficult. Our capacity for understanding them has been undermined by the vast success and academic prestige, in recent years, of scientific theorizing and research. The ideas we meet in Schwab’s writings are, in large part, ideas that were once commonplaces of scholarship, but were submerged in the onrush of positivist science. Only now are they beginning to be revived as ideas with force and application, rather than treated as the preserve of esoteric philosophers and critics. In order to appreciate them, it is necessary to engage them closely, and to enlist the help of a variety of writers who use them. Some exploration of how they relate to the general course of development in Western thought is also useful.

If we begin at the present day and look for writers who have, in recent years, brought a deliberative perspective to the study of the curriculum, we do not find very many, though they include one of unique stature in John Dewey.5 Other educational writers I would identify with the perspective are Ilene Harris, Maurice Holt, William Knitter, Peter Pereira, Thomas Roby, Joseph Schwab, and Ian Westbury. Critics and philosophers who have held positions compatible with deliberative curriculum theory include Wayne Booth, R.S.Crane, Richard McKeon and Geoffrey Vickers.6 Of the names I have mentioned, most are of people who have been connected with the University of Chicago. The exact connections of Chicago with what has been described as the ‘neo-Aristotelean tradition’ remain to be traced, though some beginnings have been made.7

These references to Aristotle provide an essential key to the understanding of the ‘method of the practical’. The connection to be made is not simply with Aristotle himself, but with the Aristotelean scholastic curriculum which dominated European scholarship through the post-classical and medieval periods, and broke down as late as the eighteenth century. Within that tradition, no strong distinction was made in social philosophy between matters of fact and matters of value. The human disciplines were conceived as arts and methods which should guide our practice ‘for the attaining of our true good and happiness’.8 And, since whatever had consequence for good and happiness was intrinsically moral in character, the conduct of those arts and methods was something to be undertaken by moral agents, guided by the realities of concrete situations, and not by sets of abstract principles. Opposed to the arts of the practical were the sciences, which were theoretic, and directed to the discovery of knowledge of the truth considered speculatively. The subject-matter of the sciences was restricted to the phenomena of the natural universe. In the late Renaissance, however, spectacular success in theorizing within the realm of the natural sciences severely undermined the the whole structure of scholastic thought and method. It suggested that Aristotle’s scientific ideas were mistaken,9 and it provided the impetus for the extension of scientific theorizing into the realm of the practical. ‘In Bacon and Descartes, for the first time . . . the tradition of linguistic and literary studies which had constituted the basis of the humanities in the Renaissance comes into sharp conflict with the claims of natural philosophy to the possession of both a superior method of enquiry and of superior possibilities of utility to man’ (Crane 1967, 67).

The power of the scientific method seemed to reside in its search for facts and in its ability to use facts to demonstrate law-like relationships between events. This method was taken up as a means of treating the subject-matter of political economy and ethics, which it could do only by separating what had previously been inseparable: questions of fact and questions of value. Writers like Bentham popularized the idea that a scientific calculus could be applied to human affairs. Theorists distanced themselves intellectually from the practical and began to behave as moral judges or critics, able to rely on a priori principles, rather than as moral agents who have to be engaged with the particularities of cases. But what had been a strength in the pursuit of the theoretic became a weakness in the pursuit of the practical. ‘Bentham’s relation to the principle of utility is what Newton’s would have been to the law of gravity, had Newton established that law by persuading the planets to obey the inverse square relationship in their own interest’ (Gillispie 1960, 154). McKeon points to the essential difference when he says of Aristotle’s Politics: ‘Its purpose was practical, to lead men to perform good actions, not theoretic, to discover and demonstrate the final good’ (1977, 208).

Faith in the scientific method grew stronger through the nineteenth century. Political theorizing was dramatically influenced by it. Marx was, in the view of Engels, ‘the first to discover the great law which governs the march of history . . . more or less clear expression of struggles between social classes . . . This law bears the same relationship to history as the law of conservation of energy towards the physical sciences’. Human studies such as anthropology were launched under the aegis of scientific method. Tylor, in his preface to Primitive Culture (1871) states: ‘To many educated minds there seems something presumptuous and repulsive in the view that the history of mankind is part and parcel of the history of nature . . . But let us take this admitted existence of natural cause and effect as our standing ground, and travel . . . as far as it will bear us. It is on the same basis that physical science pursues, with ever increasing success, its quest of laws of nature’. In the 20th. century, the development of disciplines related to curriculum, such as sociology and psychology, has been subject to similar influences.10

By the late 20th. century, however, general disillusionment with the results of ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ planning in fields such as housing or welfare, as well as curriculum, has stimulated searches for alternative ways of construing the principles that should guide the study of practical affairs. The basic problem to be faced is the one that is central to all questions of social significance: how to relate matters of fact to matters of value. When we confront this issue, we should not neglect, as a way of responding to it, the possibility of recapturing something of the spirit that informed the humanities before they were changed, under the influence of Cartesian thinking, from ‘disciplines conceived as arts and methods to disciplines conceived as fields and established bodies of knowledge’ (McKeon 1967, 175). The barrier we face is the difficulty we experience in trying to think of academic subjects or policy-related studies as other than collections of facts or theories, on the one hand, or systems of axiomatic principles, on the other. We see the unfortunate consequences of this in, for example, teacher training courses which consist of admixtures of disconnected information and platitudinous prescriptions, and which only incidentally, or accidentally, help students to engage with the concrete realities of their art. Writers such as Dewey, Schwab, and Westbury11 suggest how we might develop a method in curriculum that allows for particularity, is under the control of people, and regards them as acting in morally committed ways. The consequences of working with such a view of method can be illustrated by reference to a specific example.

As an instance, I shall use the issue of ‘accountability’. This is a topical concern, in relation to the curriculum, of politicians and administrators in both Europe and North America. It is suggested that schools and teachers should be more accountable both for what they include in their curricula, and for the student achievement which results from the teaching of those curricula. Here is grist for the mill of curriculum studies. What are we to make of the notion of accountability? In the case of radical theorists, it is a reasonable guess that they will point to this as a further example of how the curriculum is used as an instrument of bourgeois cultural imperialism. And they should have a field day. If ever an issue cried out for this kind of analysis, it is that of accountability. To hold people accountable is, prima facie, to deprive them of freedom of choice. It is also evident that the conventional apparatus of testing is likely to bear on students, teachers, and schools in discriminatory ways. In terms of reinforcing the indictment of the capitalist system, accountability will have served its turn. It is unclear, however, in what ways total rejection of accountability will have served students, teachers, or schools. Are we to assume that participants in the enterprise of curriculum are to have no assurance that what they are experiencing is of an acceptable standard?

Writers in the systemic tradition, on the other hand, will be concerned to ‘help’ by building the technical apparatus of consultation, decision-making, and testing by which accountability can be set up. In England in the 1970s, for example, curriculum experts working with the national Assessment of Performance Unit pressed the case for monitoring of standards through use of the Rasch model of item analysis. This, they claimed, would provide, at low cost, results that were comparable over different types of curriculum and also over time. Such aspirations were criticized by other theorists for whom ‘The educational reality . . . is altogether different and has to do with a world which is too rich and complex to be reduced, without distortion, to such a simple model’ (Goldstein 1979, 217).

I cannot imagine, however, that an issue like accountability will, in itself, provide material for the existential theorist. Such questions lie mainly in the public domain, and the public domain is peripheral to the engagement of the individual consciousness with the curriculum. It will, of course, be of concern in so far as it is part of a complex of matters that affect the quality of the student’s encounter with the curriculum of the school.

Those who would advocate a deliberative approach to curriculum problems recognise in the question of accountability a part of the reality with which educators must deal in making curriculum decisions, and therefore something which should be a subject of enquiry. They would not, however, take the a priori view that moves for greater accountability are necessarily to be opposed: neither, on the other hand, would they see it as their role to accept political and administrative claims at their face value, and help build accountability systems geared to technical convenience. The fact that accountability enters the arena of public debate is evidence that problems exist to which educators should respond: it is not reliable evidence of what exactly those problems are. Theorists or researchers have to approach the issue in two ways. First to try to help schools and teachers respond constructively to the specific demands that are being made upon them, because questions of the quality of education are involved and cannot be postponed. Secondly, to work at illuminating the conditions that give rise to demands for accountability, and at characterizing the connotations of the term itself. Deliberative theorists do not, by seeing their role as helping schools repond to administrative demands, necessarily accept the legitimacy of those demands. Neither, on the other hand, do they accept that the schools or teachers are always right and adminstrators or politicians always wrong. They recognise here one of those fundamental dilemmas inherent in public education systems: on the one hand, what schools teach is some kind of public possession contingent upon political climates; on the other, the curriculum of the school is also the possession of individuals -- those who teach it and those who experience it. The tension between these contrary claims -- the national and public, the local and private -- admits of no final resolution. Different resolutions have to be found according to place and time. The role of the theorist is to help individuals and institutions find the resolution that best fits their case. It will be individual. Not universal, nor one of a standard set. And, though what is decided will represent, ideally, a consensus, it need not be a crude compromise. Deliberation can be -- and should be -- inventive. It does not endorse the managerial view that the model for the resolution of competing views must be based on the ‘zero-sum’ game. And there will also be times when no consensus is possible. The moral character of deliberation, which gives it a tendency to favor consensual decision-making, ensures that there will also be occasions when opposition or confrontation is the only morally acceptable response.12

But behind the question of immediate decisions lies that of a longer term engagement with problems. The causes of curriculum problems are many and varied: political, economic, moral, technical, social, intellectual, and personal. Problems do not come with labels neatly tied around their necks (as Schwab reminded us), and neither do solutions. Problems must be elucidated through deliberation and enquiry. What deliberative theory puts forward is not a ready-made remedy, but the idea of what to attend to, and where to place reliance in making the search. What we have to attend to is the relationship between institutional decisions about curricular purposes and practices, on the one hand, and, on the other, the wishes of publics and individuals who have legitimate interests in what is taught and with what results. These are not just economic relationships, involving investment and production; they are, more importantly, moral relationships, involving trust and responsibility. And, in all exercises of deliberation, practical questions have to be faced: if schools are to respond to publics, how are publics to be defined and how are they to articulate their views and their wishes? If publics are to appraise the work of schools, what kinds of information do they need, and how should it be collected and communicated?

Certain difficulties are inevitably raised when ideas such as these are put forward. Which of these are seen as substantial objections by particular critics depends on their individual stance, but, for the sake of brevity, I will ignore such distinctions in presenting them.

First difficulty: is this not just a parade of commonsense? Answer: yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the deliberative theorist does not set out with the idea of that the aim of curriculum studies is to evolve a body of theory, or a praxiology, which is accessible only to initiates who have read the right books, taken the right courses, or worked with the right mentors. Everyone can join in. Everyone should join in. But it becomes more than commonsense in that the world within which curriculum decisions have to be made is one among many worlds and we cannot be experienced in all of them. If there is to be benefit in writing and talking about something called ‘curriculum’, it must be because there is something unique to be said about it, or to be understood about it, which is not, by simple transposition, applicable to other activities.

Second difficulty: but what exactly do I have to do? Answer: if you want to subscribe to a curriculum theory that tells you precisely what to do, you will have to go elsewhere. Deliberative theory does not go in for ready-made solutions or axiomatic forms of reasoning. It suggests that good actions have to be discovered, and that the means for their discovery is the inventive behavior of people. Thus, while it is clearly possible to specify skills of deliberation in terms of devices, prescriptions, and principles, their application is a matter for informed judgment in response to an existing state of affairs, its antecedent states, and its possible successors.

Third difficulty: is this not a very conservative kind of theory? Answer: it depends on what you mean by conservative. It does not set out to turn the world upside down. On the other hand, it could have quite radical implications in terms of what is taught in schools -- which, after all, is what curriculum studies should be about. The main problem with the school curriculum could be not hegemony, not bourgeois exploitation, not falling standards of literacy and numeracy, but sheer boredom. The boredom that descends when what is taught is insulated from challenging ideas: when the black and white world of the politician and the grey world of the administrator conspire to produce an intellectual climate of simple categories of knowledge and minimalist goals of achievement. The implication of deliberative theory is that the arena for debate on the curriculum should be a much more open one; that publics, teachers, and students should have more influence over what is taught and that fundamental reappraisals of aims and practices should be a continuing social and professional responsibility, not token exercises, or reactions to administrative prodding.

Fourth difficulty: that’s all very well, but isn’t this too idealistic? Answer: it’s idealistic in the sense that it’s based on value commitments, and on the belief that policies directed toward the achievement of the good must be guided by visions of the good. Not because visions are ultimately attainable, but because morally worthwhile activity depends on their pursuit. It’s a truism that if you want people to act responsibly, you have to trust them. That is what deliberative theory, on its practical side, is about: trusting people to take charge of their destinies, to develop the skills they need to do that, and to exercise them artfully. It does not shut them out by demonstrating that they are not ‘expert’. Neither does it tell them that theory has already found the answers to their problems, or is on the way to doing so, or that they are powerless in face of a deterministic universe. Of course, what can be done in practice will be constrained: by the life of institutions, by lack knowledge, by sheer cussedness. Deliberative theory recognises the constraints of real decision-making situations and tries to increase appreciation of them. But the fact that constraints exist is not a good reason for taking a cynical or defeatist stance. How can it be good for people to act on theories that take a pessimistic view of human nature?

Fifth difficulty: is there not a circularity here? ‘A society has to learn to learn in order to be able to practice [deliberative] planning; and [deliberative] planning can only be achieved through a process of learning to learn’ (Camhis 1979, 77).13 Yes, deliberative theory has no problems with such apparent paradoxes. I have pointed out a similar one: ‘What [Schwab] proposes is a way in which a liberal education can be truly free in that it is not an imposed formula, but the product of its own liberal aims’ (Reid 1980, 260). Such statements are problematic only within closed systems of reasoning which, implicitly, contain all their conclusions in their premises. To claim that human beings contain all their conclusions in their premises is to advance a determinist proposition of very dubious status.

 Deliberation and Dialogue

My account of the deliberative position is perhaps controversial, and it is certainly incomplete. However, the discussion should have served to uncover some basic features of the position and to illuminate some aspects of the central notion of ‘method’.

At the outset, I suggested some reasons why I found myself in agreement with the deliberative stance. What further can I add to that in the light of my additional explanations? In ‘Rationalism or Humanism?’ (Reid, 1979), I put forward the idea that

  • if choice can be exercised, then the creation of a humane discipline of curriculum studies would seem to be the future that should be sought. The principles underlying such a choice are clear enough to give a coherence to theory and research, but, at the same time, the exact direction that a humane study should take is open (and by its nature has to be so) and gives scope for that debate and discussion between differing positions which, if engaged in a spirit of communal search, seems to me to be fundamental to any enquiry with policy implications.
  • This sums up my further reason for wishing to develop the deliberative position as one from which to attack curriculum problems. I see it as offering scope for debate and discussion between theorists of different persuasions, without, however, placing all other perspectives in a purely relativist frame of reference. In short, it holds out the possibility of fostering a spirit of critical pluralism by its recognition that the standards of criticism to be applied to curriculum theory and research need not be the unitary standards yielded by styles of thinking based on axiomatic premises.

    At this point, we need to pause and consider the question we are addressing. Methods of truth seeking, as I have suggested earlier, tend to develop in fairly closed ways, and to be impervious to criticism from other positions. I may feel that someone with whom I disagree is mistaken, and is promoting arguments made in the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (‘When I use a word . . . it means what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less’). The trouble is that, from the other person’s point of view, my arguments too are Humpty Dumpty ones. I can only criticise another’s position from the basis of assumptions that lie within my own logic, and vice-versa. If what we are disputing about is a question in natural science, either the issue can be settled (provisionally, at least) by establishing which one works better (oxygen wins over phlogiston in explaining combustion), or, if such a test cannot be made, it probably does not make much difference who has the better idea (we could let the question of continuous creation versus ‘big bang’ as an explanation of the origins of the universe be wide open, since nothing practical hinges on it -- it is truly theoretic). However, if we are disputing about something affecting people’s lives and happiness, we can neither be so certain of the meaning of our truth tests, nor so cavalier in the matter of leaving things open for decision. Provisional relativism will not do.

    But if relativism will not do, neither will monism. Human affairs are to complex to allow us to back one kind of orthodoxy in the hope that it is a winner. What we have to do is to try to see how curriculum theorizing can be an activity that permits the co-existence of a variety of styles of reasoning, which stimulates dialogue between exponents of these various styles, and which ensures that the possibility of pluralism is preserved and encouraged. So how can we rationally proceed? The answer, in my view, is to cultivate the idea of method rather than the idea of axiomatic reasoning. Method guides search, but does not predetermine its outcomes. Its logic is not completely closed: if we can feel comfortable with dilemma, with paradox, and ambiguity, we can pursue a style of reasoning within which the products and processes of various styles of theorizing can be evaluated and find a place. A precondition of this, of course, is that these other styles have at least some open features. For that reason, I see only restricted possibilities of dialogue between a deliberative position and ‘a priorist’ Marxist positions. ‘Those Marxists who claim that it is possible to achieve . . . a science [so secure and well grounded that it provides, once and for all, authoritarian decision procedures for what is to be done] . . . are the true progeny of that great bourgeois thinker, Hobbes. They do not dispute the ideal implicit in Hobbes’ project: that it is possible to achieve a scientific understanding of human beings and society which will provide a definite basis for reconstructing or revolutionising society’ (Bernstein 1976, 217-218).

    But what of the more traditional Hobbesians whose a priori assumptions are directed to the preservation rather than the overthrow of existing institutions? In this direction too there are problems about the extent to which dialogue is possible. However, from the point of view of the deliberative theorist, this kind of dialogue is necessary. One of the criticisms levelled at the conceptions put forward by writers such as Schwab -- and there is some substance in it -- is that they tend to have too little regard for the kinds of institutional knowledge that school curriculum-making demands. Schwab’s category of ‘milieu’ which, in terms of his experience of higher education, might be thought of largely on the level of the enviroment of the learning space, becomes, in the case of compulsory schooling, very large indeed.14 In such a situation, the deliberative process demands, as subject-matter, a rich stock of data, of analytical schemes and conceptual frameworks such as systemic theory can supply. And in this instance it is clearer that many writers and researcher who adopt a broadly systemic stance are not exclusively ‘a priorist’, but show some eclecticism of outlook.15

    In the case of both radical and systemic theorists, the possibility of dialogue depends on the extent to which they are content to see what are fundamentally ‘a priorist’ positions develop toward greater openness. When we turn to the existential position, however, we find less in the way of obvious barriers to dialogue, since it shares with the deliberative stance a concern for people rather than ideas as the basis for action, and for method rather than procedure as a means reaching decisions. This concern for people is, for the deliberative theorist, more than just a matter of declaring curriculum studies to be a ‘humane discipline’. Schwab points out that ‘the initial stage of deliberation . . . is the prime means by which each planner begins to discover himself’ (Schwab 1973, my emphasis). And here we can note a substantial overlapping with the central concern of the existential position. On the question of method, it is not possible to give here any close attention to Pinar’s ‘method of currere’, but the phrase is suggestive. It is indeed method and not procedure that is at issue. Here are chances for fruitful dialogue. Not surprisingly, we find sympathy for critical pluralism in Pinar’s writings, and I cannot do better than conclude with an extended quotation from his ‘Reply to my critics’ (Pinar, 1979):

  • One kind of critical response is born in an interest in assisting the work under scrutiny to become more complete, more sophisticated. This is the criticism of a pedagogue who offers criticism which is usable, which can be integrated into the work, improving it . . .

    There is a second kind of critical response which does not wish the other well, which is not interested in the improvement of his work. It is not born in a pedagogic interest, but in a cathartic one. It is ill-tempered, results not in the development of the other’s work, but in silence . . .


    Conversation cannot occur unless the participants are willing to maintain a minimum civility, a pedagogic orientation, and a willingness to be changed by the other. With such conditions present, a vital conversation, indicative of a vital field can occur.

  • Only two things need to be added. On is a small commentary on Pinar’s plea for conversation. His sentiment is thoroughly in keeping with the ethos of deliberation, and its dependence on trust and responsibility. What additionally should be said is that civility, though necessary, is not sufficient for dialogue to take place. We also have to look to the nature of the intellectual assumptions that undergird theoretical positions. The second is a reiteration of an earlier caveat. This paper has, for its own rhetorical purposes, simplified and reified certain positions on curriculum theory and research. If we make the mistake of thinking that these are the only positions, we shall be led to the conclusion that the scope for dialogue is not very great. So it is appropriate to end by reminding readers that reality is more complex than any account that can be given of it, and that there is indeed good hope that critical pluralism , based on methodic approaches to the study of the curriculum can be the occasion of important and varied dialogues, with practical as well as theoretical significance.




    1. For an elaboration of these categories, see Reid, 1992.

    2. Hunters of my own assumptions will note here the correspondence between the chosen themes and Aristotle’s four types of cause.

    3. In his ‘practical’ papers. See Westbury and Wilkof, 1978.

    4. In retrospect I can see that good curriculum writing was being produced, though it did not advertise itself under that name. I think, for example, of Jules Henry’s Culture against Man (1963) which I found impressive.

    5. Dewey’s intellectual connections with Schwab and others are explored in the introduction to Westbury and Wilkof (1978).

    6. For the contribution of Vickers, see Reid (1999a, 30-35).

    7. See, for example, Westbury and Wilkof (1978) and Reid (1999b).

    8. The words of Samuel Johnson, 18th century president of King’s College (later Columbia University, New York) quoted by McKeon (1967, 182-183).

    9. Strictly speaking, his conclusions were wrong as judged by a method that started from different premises. ‘Galileo could describe mathematically how a stone would fall under ideal conditions . . . Aristotle’s physics . . . could not measure its motion . . . Aristotle could do more important things. He could explain why a stone fell’ (Gillispie, 1960: 11).

    10. Callahan traces connections in the United States in the early 20th century between curriculum and ‘scientific management’. The scientific influence goes back further. Spencer, another 19th century proponent of the application of scientific laws to human affairs, had much to say about education and his writings were very popular in the United States (Callahan, 1962).

    11. See Westbury, 1994.

    12. See, for example, Rand, 1979, 85-86.

    13. The original has ‘transactive’, not ‘deliberative’, but the sense is clearly similar, if not identical.

    14. For a discussion of this point, see Reid (1992: Ch. 9).

    15. It could be argued that truly a priorist systematizers are a rare breed. See Reid (1993).



    Apple, Michael W. (1979) Ideology and Curriculum (London: Routledge).

    Bernstein, Richard J. (1976) The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (New York, Harcourt, Brace).

    Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean-Claude (1970) La Réproduction: Eléments pour une Théorie du Système d’Enseignement (Paris: Editions de Minuit).

    Brown, Harold I. (1979) Perception, Theory and Commitment: The New Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    Callahan, R.E. (1962) Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    Camhis, Marios (1979) Planning Theory and Philosophy (London: Tavistock).

    Crane, R.S. (1967) The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    Gillispie, C.G. (1960) The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

    Goldstein, Harvey (1979) Consequences of using the Rasch model for educational assessment. British Educational Research Journal, 5 (2), 211-220.

    Greene, Maxine (1988) The Dialectic of Freedom (New York, Teachers College Press).

    Grumet, Madeleine (1992) Existential and phenomenological foundations of auto-biographical method. In W.Pinar and W.Reynolds (eds), Understanding Curriculum as Phenomenological and Deconstructed Text (New York: Teachers College Press), 28-43.

    Jackson, P.W. (ed.) (1992) Handbook of Curriculum Research (New York: Macmillan).

    Henry, Jules (1963) Culture against Man (New York: Random House).

    Kallós, Daniel and Lundgren, Ulf P. (1976) An enquiry concerning curriculum: Foundations for curriculum change. Mimeo, Pedagogisk Institut, University of Gothenburg.

    McKeon, Richard (1952) Philosophy and action. Ethics, 62, 79-100.

    McKeon, Richard (1967) The battle of the books. In Booth, Wayne C. (ed), The Knowledge Most Worth Having (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

    McKeon, Richard (1977) Person and community: metaphysical and political. Ethics, 88, 207-217.

    Pinar, William F. (1975) Curriculum Theorizing: The Reconceptualists (Berkeley: McCutchan).

    Pinar, William F. (1979) A reply to my critics. Unpublished paper, University of Rochester, New York).

    Pinar, William F., Reynolds, William M., Slattery, Patrick and Taubman, Peter M. (1995) Understanding Curriculum (New York, Peter Lang).

    Rand, Per (1979) Accountability and resistance: the Norwegian teaching profession under the occupation. Educational Analysis, 1, 85-86.

    Reid, William A. (1979) Rationalism or humanism? The future of curriculum studies. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 2, 93-108.

    Reid, William A. (1980) Democracy, perfectability, and the ‘battle of the books’. Curriculum Inquiry, 10 (3), 249-263.

    Reid, William A. (1992) The Pursuit of Curriculum: Schooling and the Public Interest (Norwood, NJ: Ablex).

    Reid William A. (1993) Does Schwab improve on Tyler? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25 (6), 499-510.

    Reid, William A. (1999a) Curriculum as Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum).

    Reid, William A. (1999b) The voice of the practical: Schwab as correspondent. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31 (4), 385-397.

    Schwab, J.J. (1969a) The practical: A language for curriculum. School Review, 78 (1), 1-24.

    Schwab, J.J. (1969b) College Curriculum and Student Protest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    Schwab, J.J. (1973) The practical 3: Translation into curriculum. School Review, 81 (4), 501-522.

    Tylor, E.B. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches into the Derivation of Mythology, Philosophy, Language, Art and Custom, 2 vols. (London: John Murray).

    Westbury, Ian (1994) Deliberation and the improvement of schooling. In J.T.Dillon (ed), Deliberation in Education and Society (Norwood, NJ: Erlbaum).

    Westbury, Ian and Wilkof, Neil J. (eds) (1978) Science, Curriculum, and Liberal Education (Chigago: University of Chicago Press).