Curriculum and Aims & Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility

reviewed by Michael W. Apple & Ralph W. Tyler - 1987

coverTitle: Curriculum and Aims & Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility
Author(s): Decker F. Walker, Jonas F. Soltis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807736759, Pages: 130, Year: 1997
Search for book at

No matter how hard curriculum “technicians” try to keep curriculum concerns as purely instrumental matters, reality keeps rearing its head. The language of efficiency, of standardization, of cost accountability, of bureaucratic rationalization—always promising to become the primary if not the only way we deal with curriculum—seems never to quite succeed in placing a lid on other even more powerful curriculum issues. Somehow, politics and values keep entering into curriculum deliberations, creating difficulties not easily dealt with under the rubrics of management ideologies. The content of the curriculum continues to be a source of social conflict. The pedagogy that accompanies the curriculum and the evaluation procedures that come with it as well are subject to criticism by groups with distinctly different educational and ideological visions. In the real world of education, the simple theories of curriculum workers dressed up as accountants and systems managers seem to be just that—too simple.

This should not surprise us. Curriculum—as both a field and a practice—has never been divorced from the ethical, economic, political, and cultural conflicts of the society at large.1 The conflicts may at times not make us comfortable and may lead some of us to despair at finding solutions to the dilemmas we confront. We cannot, however, escape the clear implication that questions about what knowledge is of most worth and about how it should be organized and taught are very difficult, often very contentious, and above all very serious.

The argument is recognized by others as well, and not only here in the United States. Fred Inglis, one of the most perceptive curriculum scholars in Britain, points out that, as a message to and about the future, the curriculum is essentially the knowledge system of a society. It contains within itself a society’s ontology, its metaphysics, its dominant ideology.2 The word dominant is key here, for the curriculum is not “our knowledge.” It is actually something of a battleground in which cultural authority—the right to define what is to be considered legitimate "thats,” “hows,” and “tos”—is struggled over. Only certain knowledge and only certain principles of organizing receive the official stamp of approval.3

Introductory texts in curriculumas—both Schubert’s and Walker and Soltis’s books are—need to be responsive to these tensions. They may or may not present techniques and practices; they may or may not focus on what should go on in schools right now; but one thing that I believe they must do is treat their topics with the seriousness they deserve. Curriculum problems are not and never will be easy to resolve. They involve real groups of people with real differences, differences that cannot be adequately dealt with through technical, top-down procedures. These kinds of differences need to be discussed at the outset of one’s training in curriculum, not delayed until “more advanced” study later on. Yet, it is not easy to accomplish this in introductory material.

With these points in mind, let me propose a short list of criteria on which we can judge some of the worth of books such as Curriculum and Aims and Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility.

First, does the text present the dominant tradition accurately? This is important in two ways. All too often, none of the criticisms of, for example, the behavioral tradition are included within basic curriculum texts, thereby naturalizing a framework that has been subject to severe criticism since its inception.4 Yet this in itself is not sufficient. Books on the other side that are themselves critical of mainstream models of curriculum work are also apt to engage in stereotyping. Their discussions of the dominant tradition are dismissive, arguing that there is no place for it since it is totally retrogressive. This is too reductive and is liable to be subject to the genetic fallacy in logic, that is, all of the insights of a position are fundamentally polluted by the social and political tendencies out of which they arose. If only it were that easy. I for one am certainly no supporter of the behavioral position in curriculum, and have criticized it extensively in my writing. However, if we conceive of the curriculum not only as subject matter but as a form of environmental design as Dewey, Huebner, and others urged us to do, then the fruits of behavioral research on environments can be quite helpful if they are reorganized around a more democratic set of curricular and pedagogical relations.5

Second, are alternatives to the more usually accepted models presented fairly and in enough detail to be seen as real alternatives? This too is significant, since more aesthetically or politically oriented curricular traditions are often subject to misrepresentation or ill-informed attacks. Just as I would ask critically minded curriculum writers to base their criticisms of dominant models on a thorough and informed reading of them, so too is it incumbent on those who wish to criticize the writings within these alternative traditions to read widely and deeply within them.

Third, are the complicated aesthetic, ethical, and political issues so deeply implicated in curriculum work presented not as some sort of conceptual add-on, but as truly fundamental aspects of curriculum theory, research, and development? Without these elements, we are left with accountancy and systems management.

Fourth, does the book have a thought-out sense of the practical attached to it? That is, does it balance the urge to answer the question “What do I do on Monday?” with the equally important query ‘Why am I doing this on Monday?” Both are significant, each informing the other.

Finally, is the book written in an unmystified style that is still substantive, one that both enables the student to understand the main outlines of the arguments and proposals being presented and provides for the possibility of honest and serious further discussion by the student and professor who are jointly engaged in employing the text? If such curriculum texts supply everything and leave no room for the intentionality of the student or teacher, if they do not provoke further discussion and questioning, then they may tend to mirror the process of the deskilling of teachers that has had such damaging effects in education.6

This list of criteria could and should be added to, but it does provide us with some purchase on the value of basic volumes in curriculum. How do the books by Walker and Soltis and Schubert do in this regard?

There is a fine sense of the complexity of curriculum work, and its accompanying ethical and political tensions, in Curriculum and Aims. As Walker and Soltis put it:

In deciding what and how to teach our children, we are expressing and thus exposing and risking our identity—personal, social, and cultural. In expressing what we think is true and important, we run the risk that others who disagree may oppose us or that we may come to question our own beliefs. Yet we cannot avoid this risk as educators, because we must act. Doing nothing about curriculum matters is an action that leads to certain consequences for which we would be responsible in just the same way we would had we acted vigorously. (p. 14)

Walker and Soltis balance the need for a programmatic approach to curriculum (What should I teach? How shall I teach it?) with a clear recognition of the importance of criticism and theoretical clarification. For them, the development of a critical attitude toward curriculum practice is essential, given the complex practical, valuative, and conceptual issues involved in actually planning curricular and teaching programs. ‘We believe that [developing such a critical stance] is the only responsible and ethical position for people who are engaged as professionals in the human services of education to adopt” (p. 56).

The range of distinct programmatic theories of the curriculum that the authors treat is also obvious. The positions of Bantock, Broudy/Smith/Burnett, Tyler, Schwab, and Freire, to mention only those whose theories are dealt with in the most detail, are counterposed. Many of the major social, cultural, and educative presuppositions underpinning each are described and a number of the most significant differences analyzed.

Walker and Soltis’s selection of curriculum “critics” is also nicely balanced. The work of Kliebard, Dahlloff, Ong, and myself is dealt with. While the discussions of each are relatively brief—as they would have to be in a book of only 116 pages—the attempt to represent each of these differing stances fairly is quite evident.

In essence, the position ultimately taken in Curriculum and Aims is that the curriculum field has wedded itself much too completely to “technical-rational” forms of curriculum theory. It has assumed a false or easy consensus over aims and means and has neglected the political dimension in all curriculum decisions in the real world of education. Thus, considerably more emphasis on curriculum as a deliberative and political process is needed. “Science” and “democracy” can be reconciled through long-term and participative social planning that sponsors and seeks compromises on debates over the merits of competing policies, programs, and practices. This is not left on the level of abstraction. Walker and Soltis briefly outline a proposal for such a democratic and deliberative model.

Even though I am not in total agreement with all of the positions taken in Walker and Soltis’s volume, it is a truly excellent introductory text. The design—with its “Cases and Disputes” section nicely integrated with the issues raised within the text itself—is wise. Its positions are clear. Its discussions are well balanced and open to all sides. In many ways it is the perfect book for those of us who are looking for a brief yet cogent outline of the major concerns in curriculum.

If I were to add anything to the Walker and Soltis volume it would be a somewhat more “sociological” discussion of the linkage between curriculum and teaching. The lack of this is unfortunate, since it would have enabled a more structural sense of the place of social values in curriculum planning to have evolved. Thus, in the United States, at the elementary school level in particular, the relationship between the development of models of preplanned and rationalized curricula and standardized evaluation and accountability strategies on the one hand and the construction of teaching as gendered labor on the other is becoming much clearer.7 Since so many “teachers in training” who will read this book will be women (approximately 90 percent of all elementary school teachers are women, and 67 percent of teachers overall), this could have put some bite into the discussion. However, a book of this kind cannot do everything and what it does, it does very well indeed.

William Schubert’s Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility shows similar strengths. It too recognizes the inherent valuative complexity in curriculum planning. It too stresses the productive quality of the tension between programmatic activity and criticism, and between technical models of curriculum work and expanding democratic deliberation. It is not a guide to practice, a “how to” curriculum book (though it does include discussions of past and present practices); nor was it meant to be. As an overall, almost encyclopedic, survey of the literature of the field, the volume is well worth reading. There may be times that it reads just a bit too much like a review of every current and past moment in the field, but that does not detract from its overall value as a text.

In many ways, the encyclopedic character of the book is not a weakness, but a very real strength. Schubert has already given us a valuable volume that surveys the major tendencies in twentieth-century curriculum literature.8 It is nice to see this introduced in a readable way to students who are novices in the field. Since all too few students will read Herbert Kliebard’s recently published and masterful history of the American curriculum9 (and this is indeed unfortunate), it is more than a little helpful to have a curriculum text that gives a well-balanced sense of the historical rootedness of its discussions.

Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility, like Curriculum and Aims, pays attention to a wider range of political and conceptual frameworks than is often found in standard texts. It too is well balanced in its presentation of the varying alternatives and it too has sympathies with the more deliberative and less technical models of curriculum work. Its style is often considerably less ponderous than that of other standard texts and this is certainly a positive feature. At the same time, it takes serious questions seriously and aims to stimulate further discussion, not close off issues with the premature single “correct” answer. Finally, Schubert obviously cares about the kind of curriculum thinking that educators do, knowing that the quality of the questions one asks often determines the quality of the answers one gets. Issues might be raised about the adequacy of his taxonomic system for categorizing curriculum theories, but it does serve as a useful device to organize the complexity of a diverse field.

Both of these volumes show a similar kind of concern with conceptualization. Curriculum and Aims is one of a series of books, entitled Thinking About Education, edited by Jonas Soltis, so the enhancement of more analytically sound and conceptually refined thought is one of its primary aims. Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility is written by an individual with similar tendencies, though one whose style is that of presenting the richness and diversity of as many ideas as possible that have had and might have an influence on curriculum.

Each of these books documents the strengths of the curriculum field, its intellectual and political differences and conflicts, its constitutive tension between action and reflection. Their focus is rather more on the latter than the former. While this is of real importance in a field where practical demands make time for reflection hard to find and where the conservative restoration would like to make criticism seem almost un-American, we need to remember that the world does not change only by reflecting on it, even though such thoughtfulness is absolutely essential. Class, race, and gender inequalities in this society are not small by any means. The knowledge of dominant groups still pervades the curriculum. Our political system still favors the rich and powerful more than we would like. The most widely accepted official educational models and practices are still too rationalized, too oriented toward efficiency and control, and often simply boring and ineffective.10 These conditions require concerted and organized political and cultural, as well as educational, action. The aim of reflection is not only the life of the mind, but to make a difference in conditions such as these as well.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 4, 1987, p. 598-608 ID Number: 649, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:09:19 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review