reviewed by John Ambrosio - 2004
Cuiculum Visions, edited by William Doll and Noel Gough, offers a fascinating journey through an eclectic array of curriculum landscapes. The text is organized as a dialogue among the editors, who sent draft copies of their introductory chapters to contributors and introduce each chapter, the authors, who refer to each other’s essays, and respondents, who have the frequently challenging task of translating narrative and theoretical arguments into teaching principles and practices. The dialogic structure of the book produces a lively and theoretically rich conversation about how to address the “limitations, distortions, defects, and dangers” of contemporary curriculum theory and practice (p. 16).
Gough’s introductory chapter calls for the embodiment of curricular visions, of accepting responsibility as engaged actors for the “frames and standpoints we select,” and suggests that science fiction can be generative of curriculum futures that locate meanings in the present. Doll’s introduction is primarily concerned with identifying and displacing the “spectral immanence” of control that dominates the history of curriculum, consigning the ghost of John Dewey to “hover over the American curriculum” as an unrealized possibility (p. 23).
Methodization, with its origins in Copernican science and Descartian epistemology, Doll argues, is the hallmark of the ghost of control that has inhabited curriculum since the sixteenth century. The certainty and predictability of the Newtonian “clockwork universe,” governed by natural laws waiting to be discovered, became the dominant metaphor of curriculum which Franklin Bobbitt, Ralph Tyler, and others translated into behavioral objectives. Doll wants to replace this mechanistic metaphor with a complexity of nature paradigm that views curriculum as a “complex and dynamic web of interactions evolving naturally into more varied interconnected forms” (p. 46). His postmodern vision, which posits the centrality of relationships, is characterized by the five C’s of curriculum as “currere, complexity, cosmology, conversation, and community” (p. 42).
Following Dewey, Doll argues for a form of control that “emerges from the interactions happening within an event or set of experiences” rather then being externally imposed. In this scenario, Dewey wrote, “ends arise and function within action” and serve as “terminals of deliberation, and so turning points in activity” (p. 39).
The ghosts C.A. Bowers seeks to exorcize are the “root metaphors” of the Industrial Revolution, such as “individualism, progress, creativity, freedom…that still serve as the moral and conceptual ideals that teachers are urged to foster through the curriculum” (p. 75). The new curriculum metaphors of “chaos, complexity, process, and co-emergent systems,” legitimated by current understandings of the physical universe, he argues, “do not represent a more progressive and creative form of human existence,” but revitalize the metanarrative of the Industrial Revolution by “encoding and reproducing” the “root metaphors” and cultural assumptions elite groups use to justify globalization, and the resulting commodification of human relationships (pp. 75-76).
Bowers insists that “science cannot be a basis for guiding curriculum reform” because it ignores “how the metanarratives now being constructed by mathematicians and theoretical physicists as well as the life-experiences of individuals are influenced by the cultural epistemology of their language community” (pp. 77, 79). The primary concern of theorists, he argues, should be to examine how the language of curriculum “reproduces the environmentally destructive moral norms of the dominant culture,” and to develop a conceptual schema to articulate non-commodified relationships, focusing on the ways in which different cultural groups resist the commodification of the commons (p. 80).
Deborah Britzman views curriculum as a site of “tragic loss” and poses the ultimate question: “Why curriculum at all?” What is the point of curriculum in a world that refuses to learn from knowledge, in which knowledge “cannot come to the rescue” (p. 94)? We must learn to live with death and loss, and the “conflict of ambivalence,” she argues, if we are to reconcile the split between thoughts and feelings. If affect is the “constitutive limit” of thought,” making knowledge susceptible to the distorting influence of “distress, denial, and disavowal,” Britzman asks, then what “will be the future of knowledge, indeed, the future of our capacity to think for the fields of curriculum” (p. 97)?
In a remarkable chapter entitled “Dewey’s Goats,” co-authors Peter Cole and Patricia O’Riley use poetry and narrative to construct an imaginary classroom dialogue, from a native perspective, between native students and their teacher, John Dewey. In this way, they offer an incisive and insightful critique of the concepts, metaphors, values, assumptions, and biases of Western epistemology and educational discourse.
In the final chapter, Hongyu Wang delineates Dwayne Huebner’s vision of education as a spiritual quest, as a transcendent journey. Through the metaphor of the stranger, conceptualized as self, other, or the world, Huebner “creates a space for the spiritual” in which education becomes a process of “reaching for otherness” as “the source of our transcendence” (pp. 294-295). Embracing strangeness, Wang argues, requires an openness, a vulnerability, that only a supportive “community of love, faith, and hope” can sustain. Donna Porche-Frilot, the respondent, asks whether calling on the stranger might not “conjure the hideous ghost of the other,” and answering the call result in being unwillingly inscribed with otherness, and the iconization of human differences (p. 302).
The contributors to this volume recognize the centrality of language in reconceptualizing curriculum, that metaphors matter, are productive, and have real material effects. How, then, do we “use words to go beyond words?” How can metaphor, as Donna Haraway asks, “be kept from collapsing into the thing-in-itself?” That is, how do we use historically sedimented metaphors without “replicating the worlds we analyze?” How do we “possess them without being possessed by them?” One way, of addressing this dilemma, as Cleo Cherryholmes suggests, is through the Derridean notion of reading under “erasure,” of both accepting and rejecting the word. Adopting this approach requires that we view curriculum as “dispersed and deferred,” and engage in a continuous process of “interpretation, criticism, and re-writing” (p. 120).
A central theme throughout the text focuses on bridging binary oppositions, of imagining either/or as both/and relationships, of finding ways to “keep knowledge alive” by combining “the rigorousness of science, with the imagination of story, with the vitality and creativity of spirit,” of prying open the “vital center” that “modernity keeps shut” (p. 48). Other major themes concern the issue of absences, of what has been denied and excluded, of the need to recover the spiritual and transcendent, to form communities of care, critique, hope, and resistance, and to reinvest curriculum with mystery, uncertainty, ambivalence, wisdom, and a sense of the sacred.
To what degree are these curriculum visions generative within the present educational context? Can the seeds of these visions grow simultaneously, side-by-side, with existing curriculum? As Doll acknowledges, theoretical innovations such as the five C’s “have had little or no effect on mainstream school-based curriculum development” (p. 53). Transformative visions are particularly difficult to enact in a context in which high-stakes standardized testing increasingly drives curriculum. Despite the often enormous pressure to narrow and limit curriculum to the predefined ends and prescribed content imposed by testing regimes, a number of respondents argue that it is still possible to carve out spaces, pockets of resistance, necessary for meaningful learning.
The spirit in our students, as Deborah Davis claims, “cannot be denied,” cannot be contained, and will always exceed the efforts of those who try to suppress it. As teachers we must embrace our visions and summon the moral courage and commitment to “take back the reins of education from those to whom the hearts, minds, and lives of our students are unknown” (p. 246).
Haraway, D. J. (1994). A game of cat's cradle: Science studies, feminist theory, cultural studies. Configurations, 2(1), 59-71.