Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Curriculum and Our Technocracy Culture: The Problem of Reform

by C. A. Bowers - 1976

This article examines the values and typifications that underlie the conservative center of society; whether they are still viable in view of our ecological situation, and how they are reinforced in curriculum materials. (Source: ERIC)

C. A. Bowers is professor of education, department of educational policy studies, University of Oregon, Eugene.

In recent years the public school social science curriculum has been challenged by a number of groups who have traditionally occupied the economically and politically marginal areas of society. Blacks, Spanish-Americans, native-Americans, and, more recently, feminists have recognized that as an important instrument of socialization the public school curriculum has been both a contributing factor to social injustice and a potential means of social progress. Their efforts have led to much needed changes in the content and purpose of social science curricula. More accurate representation of ethnic cultures and the elimination of demeaning stereotypes in textbooks represent a major step forward.

But one must ask whether the reform efforts of these groups in achieving greater equality of opportunity and thus fuller participation in the consumer orientated middle class is sufficient in terms of the crucial issues facing our society. To put it in the form of a question: Do we really need an enlargement of the middle class that finds its ultimate purpose in sustaining the current exponential rates of consumption (and thus depletion) of natural resources, or do we need a transformation of the middle class itself in order to insure a better chance of ecological survival? That these groups should have committed their energies to achieving equal access to the power and material benefits of the middle class should not be a source of ridicule or blame. It has been the history of major reform movements in this country to facilitate movement from the poverty and powerlessness of the social fringe to fuller membership within the conservative center of society—what today we call the technocracy. Viewed historically, these recent reforms in social science curricula can be seen as the most recent effort to broaden (insofar as ethnic groups are able to maintain vestiges of their ethnic culture) and strengthen the conservative center of society.

While the current efforts to eliminate racism and sexism from curriculum materials need to be continued, one must ask whether the problem of reforming the conservative center of society is not an equally urgent task. In order to put the problem in better perspective we need to examine briefly (1) the values and typifications that underlie the conservative center; (2) whether these values and typifications are still viable in view of our ecological situation; and (3) how these values and typifications are reinforced in curriculum materials. It should then be possible to look at what educators can do, particularly in the area of curriculum, to facilitate reform of the conservative center of society.

The conservative center of society is anchored in the values of the middle class, but its influence extends to groups traditionally not associated with the middle class. The most useful way to grasp what is meant by the conservative center and to avoid identifying it exclusively with the middle class is to identify those values, attitudes, and typifications that underlie our technocracy.

Unlike its earlier use in the thirties, the term technocracy should be understood to mean the complex interlocking set of social and economic activities that sustains our current fever-pitch level of consumerism. The energy, logistics, and mystique which keep the whole process going is a matter of techniques: techniques of production, techniques of distribution, techniques for creating the need for a certain product or service, techniques for storing and retrieving information on the whereabouts of people and products, techniques for selling the politician's image, techniques for restoring human relations and psyches damaged by the impersonality of social and mechanical techniques, and techniques for more efficient socialization of youth into the world view of our technological social order. While the use of technique has emerged as one of the most pervasive characteristics there are a number of other values and typifications that are equally important to the conservative center of society. It is important to identify them briefly before examining how they are presented in school textbooks.


The foundation of the conservative center is composed of a widely shared and highly typified set of attitudes toward work, consumption, progress, time, success, individualism, freedom, and technique. There are, of course, other values and attitudes which can also be associated with the conservative center, but these seem to be the more important ones. The connection between these values suggests the special meaning they have for us: We work in order to consume, and consume in order to progress as individuals.

A more careful delineation of how these values and attitudes are operationalized within the conservative center would include the following characteristics: Work involves toil as well as delayed and substitute forms of gratification. It is performed in accordance with mechanical time and for the purpose of earning a living-which is defined in terms of our higher levels of consumption. It is not done, as E.F. Schumacher pointed out, "To give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth goods and services needed for a becoming existence."1 The relation of work and its rewards are more like the proverbial donkey and the carrot, where the carrot or reward always remains close but nevertheless out of reach, thus insuring a continual source of motivation. Consumption is more directed toward fulfilling the "wants" than the needs and, parenthetically, to insure that our industrial capacity is not buried under the weight of its own productivity. It also provides for meeting some of the ego needs which supply a basic source of energy for keeping the technocracy going. Progress, in its typified sense, is determined in terms of technological innovation and a rising GNP. Individually it means being upwardly mobile, and increasing one's standard of living-which again means an ever-increasing level of consumption. Technique is associated with efficiency, rationality, and the "one best way." It means progress, power, and protection from the threat of the forces of nature-both the forces within ourselves and the physical environment. As Philip Slater observed, it has become our plains sorcerer. Individualism means the opportunity to make it on one's own, to break from family ties and traditions that bind, to compete and thus to give expression to one's fullest potential as a producer and consumer. Of course, these values and attitudes, as they are experienced in their typified form, are far more complex than I have indicated here.

For most of us, including members of ethnic minority groups, the values and attitudes of the conservative center are the touchstones of our social existence. As such, they are also the source of greatest threat to the physical environment. This is not a new insight for scientists and environmentalists who have studied the impact of our consumer-orientated culture on the ecosystems. Nor should it be a startling revelation to the casual reader of the newspaper to learn that much of the material resources basic to our technocracy will be used up within our lifetime. The purpose of this paper is not to reiterate what should now be obvious to most thoughtful people but to suggest that educators have a responsibility to examine how the attitudes and values that underlie our technocracy are represented in textbooks, and to begin to create the kind of curriculum materials that will enable students to begin rethinking the most basic aspects of their culture. Before examining a possible approach to curricular reform we first need a better understanding of how textbooks transmit and reinforce these values and attitudes, and what the consequences of this socialization process are in terms of how the student organizes his life space.


Although there is considerable variation in the format and quality of elementary social science textbooks, they nevertheless present a uniform view of social existence: Man's ultimate purpose is expressed in his dual role as producer and consumer. This view of existence is not simply described, it is celebrated in a variety of contexts intended to demonstrate how man's basic needs find expression and fulfillment within the technocracy. The basic themes are developed in the first grade, and reinforced in succeeding grades. As stated in the teacher's guide to Our Country, a textbook used in the first grade, the major concepts to be taught are "The family is an economic unit . . . . The nature of the process of consumption may be observed in the family. Every member is a consumer with needs and wants. One or more members of the family are producers."2 As the student progresses through the grades, he will be systematically exposed to the interlocking set of values and attitudes that make up the conservative center of society. Ten year olds will read in Industry: Man and Machine that competition is the common denominator of society, and that winning is not only the American way, to paraphrase one of our folk heroes, "It is the only way." To quote directly: "We see competition every day. In sports, teams compete with each other to win games. In elections, people compete to win office. In business, companies compete with other companies to sell products and make a profit. The companies that sell many products and earn a good profit are the winners in business."3 This same textbook identifies for students the relation between competition and a broader meaning of the word freedom: "There are two ways," according to the textbook, "to develop industries. One is the free way. The other way puts an end to freedom. In America and Western Europe the free way is followed. Industry is built up by the savings and work of willing people . . . . People have many choices . . . .Instead of letting people save and invest, the government in unfree societies takes money from the people. It takes everything it can from them . . . . Which way will win?"4

In Using the Social Studies freedom and free enterprise are shown to be synonymous terms. The unit on free enterprise begins with the following explanation (which is opposite of a picture of a woman looking in a shop window displaying a "Waitress Wanted" sign): "What free enterprise means. The woman shown here needs a job. She first had to decide whether or not to work. Her family left her free to make the decision. She also had to decide what work to do. She was free to make this decision, too. Most of the workers in our country are free to make decisions such as her."5 The textbook goes on to suggest how an auction epitomizes the workings of the free enterprise system. Like the old country auction supply and demand work together to determine the price, and the consumer, utilizing his free choice, determines what goods and services will be produced.

The nature and motivation for work is explained in equally unproblematic terms. Everybody has needs (which are identified in terms of consumer goods) and the only way to satisfy these needs is to work. According to Using the Social Studies, work involves the expenditure of mental or physical energy to produce something. Furthermore, people who work receive wages and, of course, we all know what we can do with wages. Another textbook explains that work (labor) is one of the four factors of production, and is most efficient when it involves performing a specialized task. Again, the message is reiterated: People work in order to be consumers, although it is acknowledged that the owner of a business works because he "wants to make a profit."6 The curriculum units on work do not mention the problematic aspects of work: worker alienation, the conflict between craftsmanship and mass production, and work that is detrimental to the well being of society.

The basic values and attitudes underlying the technocracy also serve as a means of categorizing the socially deviant-the losers in the game of life. In one of the best social studies series, the Holt Databank, there is a unit on poverty in America that is taught at the sixth grade level. The unit begins in a promising enough manner with a statement that the president needs a definition of poverty in America. But the authors of the unit do not treat it as an opportunity to examine different forms of poverty, such as its moral, aesthetic, and psychological forms. The student is told that the answer to the president's question can be found in the statistics collected by government agencies. What follows are the familiar (and outdated) graphs showing how much people earned in terms of level of education, occupation, sex, and race. The unit concludes with the explanation that the economist to whom we should look (no reference is made to the fact that the point of view of the psychologist, political scientist, artist, or social philosopher might be equally important) for the definition of poverty has determined that poverty is a matter of earning less than $1,500 a year. While "less advanced" cultures might define poverty in terms of an excessive materialistic sense of values, an inadequate ability to share in the concerns of others, or inability to be honest in one's dealings with others, the public school is reinforcing what most adults in our society have been socialized to experience as part of their natural attitude toward life-that poverty is a matter of how much people earn and consume.

The relation between the social science curriculum and conservative center of society can perhaps best be seen in the way technology is treated. Technology is dealt with from grade one on, but the most systematic treatment occurs in the middle grades. Although there is considerable variation in the depth of treatment, there is essentially a uniform point of view presented that contemporary technology "means applied science." Or as one textbook succinctly put it: "Technology is the application of science to solve a practical problem"7 Most often the examples of modern technology include either machines (bicycles, electric lamps, typewriters, etc.) or products (rayon, DDT, "miracle seeds"). Social techniques which embody the same values of efficiency, prefigured procedure, the sense of the one best way of doing something, are not mentioned. Though the student is left with an incomplete understanding of the different kinds of techniques and how they influence his existence, he will nevertheless obtain the idea that technology and progress are synonymous terms (again read: progress = higher standard of living = higher level of consumption). In looking at the effects of technology on the individual, one textbook states:

The technological revolution is one of the amazing episodes in the human adventure. The breakthroughs discussed in this chapter are just a few among many. Even to list the most important of the many others would take pages and pages. Man's daily life all over the world has been affected, directly and indirectly, by these breakthroughs. ... If you wish to study for yourself some more scientific and technological breakthroughs, here are some suggestions: the atomic bomb, heart transplants, radar, digital and analog computers, television, building with concrete and steel, the "miracle seeds," the nucleic acids, antibiotics, transistors, lasers, DDT. Before you read on, how many good and bad effects of the technological revolution can you think of?8

By identifying these technological developments as "breakthroughs," it would almost seem as an unpatriotic act for the student to give serious consideration to the negative effects of technology. While the textbook itself suggests that technology does have bad side effects (depersonalization, materialism, and "strangely enough," personal insecurity) and that students should reflect carefully on them, the conclusion that students are expected to reach is clearly suggested. The student is asked, "What examples can you give of 'turning the clock back'—that is, rejecting higher values and going back to earlier ideas of tyranny and slavery?"9 After being told that "life is better for more people. . . . They can now choose from an array of goods and services, from transistors to jumbo jets," it would seem that only one answer would be open to the student, unless he wished to appear stupid and unappreciative.

In recent years curriculum units dealing with technology have attempted to provide a more balanced view, but even though they help students identify real problems they nevertheless reinforce the old mystique surrounding our view of technology: Technology possesses self-correcting mechanisms that will pull us through, thus insuring that progress and a higher standard of living will continue as our national destiny. In one unit, for example, students are told that pollution (which is never related to our level of consumption) and depletion of natural resources are some of the dangerous side effects of technology. The students are also told that conservation will solve the problem—again no reference is made to the exponential rate at which we are consuming our nonrenewable resources. The unit concludes with the explanation that even though science and technology create a changing world there are, nevertheless, "many good human values that never change." They are: "truthfulness, courage, kindness, hard work, patience, love of freedom, love of our country, love of children and parents, love of knowledge."10 In another curriculum unit each problem created by technology is shown to have a technological solution.11 Thus the mystique is sustained in the mind of the student. The problematic nature of technological change, much less the possibility of cultural disaster, is put to rest with the assurance that the old values are indeed eternal.

When there is such massive reporting on the rapid depletion of natural resources, increasing dangers from pollution, and inflation that reflects the period of scarcity we are entering, one can only wonder about the cultural lag evidenced in public school textbooks. One explanation why the conservative values and vision continue to be taught in the public schools is that they reflect the taken-for-granted attitudes of the teachers and textbook writers. The values and typifications are simply part of their natural attitude, and thus are personally experienced as nonproblematic. The natural or taken-for-granted attitude toward the values and typifications of the conservative center reflects not only the prior socialization they underwent but the general optimistic and affluent sense which prevaded the social milieu in which they grew up. That was, indeed, a period of "good times," and the values and typifications of the conservative center were seen to be both the source and guarantor of the future.


The important question now has to do with the consequences of socializing youth to the values underlying a level of consumption that threatens to deplete essential non-renewable resources by the beginning of the next century. There is the equally important question of whether the classroom can be used to foster a more explicit understanding of the values and assumptions underlying our technocracy culture. But this question will be put off until we look briefly at how social science curricular materials relate to the socialization process—that is, how these materials influence the consciousness of the student. This is important because any change in the approach to social science curricula must be based on an understanding of socialization if we are to grasp its consequences for how the student experiences and interprets the world.

In order to identify the special contribution schools make to the socialization of the student, it is important to recognize that he comes to the classroom with a broad background of cultural experience acquired during the previous six years of life. He will have a functional knowledge of the culture, including what others mean by being on time, what property is his and what belongs to others, how to compete for attention, how he should speak to adults, what thoughts should not be communicated to others and which can be safely shared, what money is and how it is used, how to respond to pain, and so forth. In other words, he will have internalized into his consciousness a considerable amount of his society's taken-for-granted culture, as well as demonstrated a functional capacity to live it in ways understood and reinforced by others.

What he will acquire in school, in addition to the formal symbolic systems of reading, etc., is a systematic exposure to selected aspects of the culture, many of which he has already acquired a functional capacity to deal with at the experiential level. This systematic exposure, for the most part, will be in the form of textbook explanations that are highly typified and thus highly abstract and objectified. "Economic advisers define poverty," "The United States wants developing nations to develop the free way," "People are expected to know and obey the laws that affect their every day life," "When people do any kind of work, they use energy"" Neighbors are families or people who live near one another," "The most efficient way of producing goods and services is by specialization, or the division of labor," "Technology means. . . applied science ."—to cite a few examples.

Of course these statements are presented in the context of a more elaborate explanation of a concept of social process, generally in a formal and highly abstract manner. In essence what the student is acquiring are the typified ways of interpreting the social experiences they have already had or are likely to have in the future. The typified way of seeing rules, work, technology, poverty, family, change, wants, etc., reflect the tacitly agreed upon way in which other members of society—mostly adult middle class society—perceive and interpret social reality.

To put it another way, while students have already had experience relating to time, space, and technology they will acquire from the classroom explanations and definitions that reflect the typified ways adult society experiences these phenomena. The students thus learn to interpret their own experience in a manner congruent with the typified social reality of the adult world. In effect, the process of socialization in the classroom is a process of internalizing into the student's consciousness (frame of reference) the culture (ways of organizing and perceiving reality) that is shared by the larger society. The student also gets exposed to typified ways of understanding and perceiving other aspects of his own culture that he may not yet have experienced directly (an assembly line, city government). There are also the curriculum units on other cultures that represent an important part of public school socialization.

Socialization is not a mechanistic process whereby the student automatically internalizes what significant others communicate to him. The frame of reference he brings to the classroom setting (which reflects past socialization experiences), as well as the inclination and ability to interpret what gets communicated by teacher or textbook in terms of his own experience, are important factors influencing the socialization process in the classroom. But the student is in a highly vulnerable situation. Insofar as the teacher or textbook expose him to new areas of culture he has not experienced personally or introduce him to the typified ways of defining and perceiving those aspects of culture he has already experienced at a functional level, he will be highly dependent upon their explanation of what is problematic in the situation and on the typiflcations they use to define it.

In a curriculum unit designed to introduce the student to what a home is, there is a picture of a woman vacuuming the living room and a man building a shelf. Besides presenting a typified view of role distinctions between women and men, the picture also presents a typified sense of cleanliness, order, and aesthetic appearance in a middle class home. For the student whose own experience may have been reflected in the textbook, his experience is being further reinforced by being given an ideal or typified image against which he can compare his own experience; for the student whose social background stands in sharp contrast to the middle class values of affluence, neatness, and role differentiation represented in the pictures and accompanying narrative, he has an idealized or typified image against which he can measure how far he has to go in order to attain respectability.


The typified way to perceive one's cultural experience is communicated outside the classroom as well, but the public school communicates the typifications in a way not duplicated elsewhere. In the earliest grades the student is exposed to verbal explanations of those aspects of his culture's belief system that are not likely to be discussed formally in any other setting-unless he goes on to graduate school. The range of topics include human wants, family, change, time, space, modernity, community, production, consumption, work, etc. As the treatment is short and simplified, it is also highly typified: The topics are definitely not presented as problematic or subject to personal interpretation.

Two other factors make the socialization process carried on in the school especially significant in terms of shaping the social reality of the student. One is that most of the communication takes place at the taken-for-granted level: The teacher presents an explanation of "change" or "human wants" that reflects the typifications he was socialized to, and has used to organize and interpret his own experience. When the culture, (e.g., ways of perceiving time, space, technology, poverty) are communicated to the student at the taken-for-granted level, he is likely to internalize it at the same level. The taken-for-granted aspects of other people's belief system-teacher and textbook writer-thus become part of his taken-for-granted sense of reality-unless, of course, there is a significant discrepancy between the typifications that are communicated in the classroom and his own personal experience.

The other factor influencing the effect of socialization on the student's consciousness is the objectified way in which the communication occurs. Textbooks are more prone to objectification of culture than are teachers, because it is easier for the student to perceive that the teacher may be expressing a personal interpretation of the material. Textbooks contain countless examples of objectified explanations: "Work can produce either goods or services," "Everyone in our country has the right to own property." "Slums do not make good commercial or industrial areas," or "The land added to a city must be linked to it by highways."

When socialization occurs through objectified communication, it becomes difficult for the student to recognize the human origin of these statements. In their objectified form they appear as facts, as the "givens" of the situation. It is as though the statements represent impartial reporting about the way things really are rather than being a person's interpretation represented in the objective mode. If the student encounters his culture as fact, as objective reality, and thus does not see its human origin, he will be less likely to feel that it can be reinterpreted or viewed as problematic. To put it another way, his own sense of agency will be reduced as he encounters a culture that is perceived and explained by others as being finalized. Who is he to challenge or re-think the explanation of "work" or "competition" that is accepted by adults? On the other hand, if the communication process includes an awareness that what is being explained represents somebody's interpretation, the student will be more likely to question it than to passively accept it.

The vulnerability of the student is increased by the teacher's practice of reinforcing the student's self-image when his thought corresponds to the teacher's position. Because of the compulsory aspect of schooling, much of the educational process concerns itself with controlling students (while making it appear as benevolent as possible). The fact that the school has the task of systematically exposing the student to the socially sanctioned explanation of the culture adds another dimension to the problem of control. Like most people, the teacher's self-image is tied to his views of reality; for this reason it is difficult for the teacher not to be ego-involved in how the student learns to perceive his cultural experience. If the teacher is open to different interpretations and if he values independent thought, these qualities will likely be reinforced in the student. But for the teacher who is easily threatened or who possesses a messianic desire to shape the student in his own image, the classroom can be a precarious place indeed, particularly when neither the teacher nor student is fully aware of the hidden cultural messages being communicated and reinforced.

The irony is that while teachers are socializing students to the hidden assumptions underlying the technocracy, they justify schooling on the basis of those humanistic values which are threatened by the voraciousness of our technological society. It is not that teachers are stupid or deliberately devious; the fault lies more with the way teachers are educated. Although formal education is essentially a process of cultural transmission, few teacher training programs offer courses dealing with the cultural nature of their enterprise. Courses which explore the relation of the socialization process to what occurs in the classroom are equally scarce. Future teachers, however, are exposed continuously to the same ritualistic jargon that is used by professional educators to justify everything from behavior modification to open classrooms. The jargon is the educator's talisman, and thus serves as a substitute for critical analysis. The problem is further exacerbated in that most teachers were socialized to experience the values and typifications of the technocracy at the taken-for-granted level. The cultural values they reinforce in the classroom are as natural to them as water is to the fish and air is to the bird.


This brings us back to the interrelated questions of whether the values and typifications underlying our technocracy are dysfunctional and what, if anything, can the teacher do to avoid socializing our youth to blindly accept them. With regard to the first question, I am inclined to accept C. P. Snow's observation that "We've seen the best of the game." The basic assumption upon which our consumer orientated technocracy is based is that resources are unlimited. A host of respectable foundations and research institutes are documenting the alarming impact of exponential growth on our natural resources. Food and population experts point out that the affluence of the West seriously aggravates the food shortage problem faced by parts of Africa and Asia. With consumer indebtedness in the United States reaching $180 billion, one must ask whether we haven't put our own economic system in serious jeopardy. That our technocracy culture is out of balance with the sustaining capacity of planet earth, as well as with any system of equitable distribution of resources among the different regions of the world, seems irrefutable. Faced with the very real possibility that this phase of our civilization is at a turning point, one must address the second question: What can teachers do to insure that they are not intensifying the problem?

During the depression of the thirties many educators faced a similar question and for some the answer was clear. Education, they said, was by its very nature a political process, and the only choice for the responsible educator was to recognize this by aligning himself with the forces of social reform.12 For these educators the remedy to the crisis seemed obvious: The capitalist values of competitiveness and profit would have to be replaced with the socialist values of collective responsibility and democratic decision making. The severity of the crisis justified, for some educators, the use of indoctrination in the classroom as a means of ushering in the new social order. Because of the many parallels between that period and our own, one might be inclined to accept a similar solution on the grounds that time is running out. Time may indeed be running out, or to put it another way, the wasteful life style generated by our technology culture may have mortgaged so much of our children's future that collapse may be inevitable. Regardless of how the crisis is perceived, indoctrination of youth with a new set of values would not represent an intelligent position for educators to take. Yet the "business as usual" attitude conveyed in most social science textbook represents a cultural lag that is indefensible under the circumstances.

An alternative course for educators that would avoid politicizing the classroom through deliberate indoctrination or the more subtle form of indoctrination that occurs when teachers share their taken-for-granted set of attitudes with students would be to use the classroom for the purpose of helping the student to become explicitly aware of his own cultural experience, and the assumptions upon which it rests. It might simply be called education for cultural literacy. Society already accepts the idea that everybody needs to be literate-able to use the different symbolic systems for thinking, communicating, and retrieving information. Cultural literacy is simply an extension of the idea and is based on the premise that the individual must be able to decode his cultural experience in order to make responsible decisions. To put it another way, the individual needs to be able to make explicit those aspects of the culture that relate to the current ecological crisis if he is going to participate in finding a viable solution to the problem.

The possibility of increasing the student's cultural literacy is based on a crucial distinction between socialization (where culture is communicated on the taken-for-granted level of awareness) and socialization that involves making explicit what gets communicated about the culture. It is simply a matter of altering the way in which socialization has traditionally been carried on in the classroom. This involves shifting the emphasis from transmitting to students the consensus view of reality shared by adults to focusing directly on the assumptions which underlie and hold that world view together. It would also involve a greater emphasis on openness and questioning, as opposed to reinforcing students for accepting the explanations to which adults were socialized a generation earlier.

Contrary to what some might expect, education for cultural literacy would not involve the ideologically based attacks on the values and typifications of our technocracy culture. If most of culture is transmitted and experienced at the taken-for-granted level, then it is impossible to prejudge which aspects of the culture are dysfunctional; the culture must first be brought to the level of conscious awareness before it can be examined and eventually judged as to its social worth. The public schools cannot take on the mission of reforming society as some of Dewey's followers proposed, but it can equip students with the skills necessary for decoding their own cultural experience. To escape from being unconsciously swayed by the technocracy culture is the first step that must be taken if there is to be any hope of reforming it.

A curriculum designed to help students make explicit their own cultural experience has the advantage over traditional approaches to social science curricula in that it begins with the actual experience of the student rather than with the concepts and cultural typifications that are of interest to the textbook writer and teacher. It also avoids the dangers involved in the use of abstract textbook explanations that are often impossible for students to check against their own experience. A third advantage of starting with the culture experienced by the student is that it becomes more difficult for the teacher to fall back on prefigured answers. The inquiry process thus remains a dialectical one rather than one where inquiry is guided by the prefigured answers in the possession of the teacher. As with most ideas, the possibility of perversion is great-particularly the possibility that educators will see the development of cultural literacy as simply a variation of the old practice of getting students to share their experiences.

Genuine curriculum reform involves more than putting new content into the old format. The format itself must be changed if the new content is not to be distorted by the covert socialization processes inherent in traditional social science textbooks and learning packages. The starting point for developing a curriculum that fosters cultural literacy is to recognize that for the culture to be made explicit and examined, the values and typifications underlying our technocracy are already a part of the student's consciousness. Thus the purpose of the curriculum is to help the student examine the interface between his experience and the culture forces that have shaped it, and to do this in a manner that has some explanatory power that can be used in the student's future. This involves helping the student to see how social and historical forces have interacted to shape the particular aspect of the student's cultural experience that is under investigation. Because it is difficult to see what one takes for granted, it is important to provide the student with cross-cultural sources that can be used for comparative purposes. It would also be useful to have the student consider the future implications of that part of the culture being studied.


Helping students examine these different facets of their cultural experience can be formalized into specific steps for obtaining the necessary distance and perspective. These steps,13 or what we can call the formal structure of a curriculum, can be used to examine how culture influences different aspects of our experience, such as space, technology, conflict, family, ways of knowing, consumption, etc. These steps can be loosely identified as (1) establishing the interface; (2) doing a phenomenological description; (3) examining the social-historical dimension; (4) developing a cross-cultural perspective; and (5) designing a futurist perspective. To take an example, if the teacher wanted the students to learn how to decode their cultural experience relating to competition, he would begin with establishing the interface between the students' existential experience and the cultural forces that shape it. This would involve establishing through the use of questions and examples a sense of connectedness between the students' experience and the cultural aspects of competition that are to be examined.

The second step, the phenomenological description on the part of the students, would provide the data normally acquired from the textbook but which would not necessarily relate to the students' experience. In getting the students to keep a log or journal in which they describe how they experience competition in a variety of social settings, the teacher is obtaining the data upon which the rest of the curriculum unit will be based.

The mapping, or descriptive account, of the students' own experience relating to competition will raise a number of issues that can then be examined in terms of their social and historical context. In this part of the curriculum, the teacher's task would be to help the students see relationships that they might not have been consciously aware of before, and to gain a historical understanding of how those aspects of the culture evolved. The students might wish to look at the relationship of competition to individualism and to examine the taken-for-granted assumptions which underlie both, or the curriculum might take the direction of identifying the different kind of social activities that involve competition as well as those that involve cooperation. This line of inquiry could lead the teacher and students into an examination of underlying myth and folk beliefs or into how our cultural sense of competition influences the organization and use of social space. They could also examine the effects of competition on the human psyche or study its relation to innovation and creativity. The important part of this segment of the curriculum would not be to learn a prefigured set of facts about society, but to help the students learn how to see relationships, to ask new questions, and to gain a sense of how crucial aspects of the culture were shaped historically.

The fourth step would be to provide a contrasting perspective for seeing their own cultural experience more clearly. This would involve examining the nature of conflict within the context of another culture. Or to provide a sharper source of contrast, the teacher could have the students examine a culture that emphasizes cooperation. In either case, the students should be encouraged to examine how competition or cooperation influence other aspects of the culture, and then to look at these relationships in terms of their own culture. The last step would be for the students to look at the different cultural aspects of competition in terms of how they perceive the future. This would be the place in the curriculum where they could be encouraged to consider the future implications of their cultural experience and to sort out their commitment and sense of responsibility for either preserving or changing it.

The age level at which culture clarification can begin is an important question. An examination of current curriculum materials will reveal that there is a considerable amount of mystification about such complex issues as consumption, technology, human needs, and competition taking place in the earliest grades. If students at that level are capable of understanding the traditional explanations of these issues, they are equally capable of looking at them as part of the culture that actually impinges on their own experience. From the point of view of a theory of learning, one could make the case that a cultural literacy approach would be less likely to indoctrinate because the culture to be examined is already a part of the students' experience. Developing the curriculum around the students' phenomenology of the culture insures that the teacher or textbook will not be introducing explanations and answers that are foreign to the students. The students' age level, however, would be an important determinate on how far the examination of cultural assumptions could be carried. Students in the upper grades would certainly be more able to take a sophisticated look at their own cultural experience than could students in the primary grades. But the latter group are capable of grasping what culture is and how it influences their own experience.

The major problem would not be the students but the teachers who continue to experience at the taken-for-granted level the values and typifications that make up the conservative center of our society. As there is an important connection between self-concept and world view, many of these teachers would feel that their self identity was being threatened if the values and typification with which they identify were to be directly challenged. Other classroom teachers are more open to rethinking their most basic cultural assumptions but often lack the energy or time to think through the problems associated with a curriculum for cultural literacy. There would also be a problem connected with protecting the student and teacher's right to examine aspects of the culture that might be regarded by different people in the community as controversial. A new approach to socialization in the classroom will involve rethinking the relation between freedom of inquiry and local control of education. The current trend of utilizing behavior modification in regular classrooms as a means of controlling students is yet another major obstacle to helping students understand their own cultural experience. The advocates of behavior modification appear to accept the values and typifications of the conservative center, and are using their techniques to socialize students to accept blindly the same social values. Using the values and tokens of the consumer culture to reinforce conformity to teacher expectations appears to be, in view of the massive evidence that our consumer culture threatens to doom us all, the ultimate folly. Yet the mystique of technique seems to be gaining in educational circles.


Given the magnitude of these problems—and a few that were not mentioned like the inertia of teacher training institutions-one might be inclined to be exceedingly pessimistic about the prospects for the schools fostering greater cultural awareness. Pessimism can easily lead to the attitude that nothing makes any difference, which is another way of accepting a kind of historical determanism. But this view overlooks the fact that culture is a product of human consciousness and that human consciousness is capable of becoming aware of what it has created. At this point one could quote Camus on the existential nobility inherent in the continual struggle to become conscious of one's situation, but existential writers have had little appeal to the devotees of the conservative center of American society. Ultimately, arguments for the development of a reflexive consciousness will have to be justified on the basis of a more home-grown philosophical tradition-pragmatism. Self-interest and ultimately survival depend upon becoming aware of the consequences of our actions. To put it another way, the meaning of our culture is in the consequences it creates for its people and the environment. The consequences-depleted resources, pollution, a general malaise about the future-are everywhere in evidence, and they do not suggest that the American dream is a raging success. The problem is for people to see the relation between their own culture and these consequences. Perhaps then self-interest will dictate creating an alternative to the current Weltgeist fostered in the schools.


1 E.F. Schumaher. Small is Beautiful. New York, N.Y.: Harper Torchbooks, 1973, p. 51.

2 Education Research Council of America. Our Country: Teacher's Guide. Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1970, p. 43.

3 Educational Research Council of America. Industry: Man and Machine. Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1971, p. 191.

4 Ibid., pp. 238-239.

5 Frederick M. King, Herbert C. Rudman, Herbert V. Epperly, and Ralph J. Cooke. Using the Social Studies. River Forest, Ill.: Laidlaw Bros., 1970, p. 169.

6 P. Hanna, C. Kohn, J. Lee, and C. VerSteeg. Investigating Man's World, teacher's edition. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1970, p. 116.

7 Education Research Council of America. Technology: Promises and Problems. Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1972, p. 59.

8 Ibid., pp. 73-74.

9 Ibid., p. 142

10 Educational Research Council of America, Industry: Man and Machine, op. cit., p. 240.

11 Anthony E. Conte. My Community and Other Communities. New York, N.Y.: William H. Sadlier, 1971, pp. 128-137.

12 For a fuller treatment of this period see C.A. Bowers. The Progressive Educator and the Depression: The Radical Years. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1969.

13 A more extended discussion of a curriculum for cultural literacy can be found in C. A. Bowers. Cultural Literacy for Freedom: An Existential Perspective on Teaching: Curriculum and School Policy. Eugene, Ore.: Elan Pub., 1974.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 78 Number 1, 1976, p. 53-67
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1209, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 4:59:24 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • C. Bowers

Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue