What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life


Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?


11 responses to “What Should We Teach?

  • Jimmy

    If you get a chance, check out The End of Education by Neil Postman. I read it years ago, but he distills the core subjects to something like Astronomy, Anthropology, and Language Arts.

    • thehurt

      Wow, thanks for the recommendation. Looks like a fascinating read, so I’ve added it to my long reading list. 🙂 Thanks!

  • Leroy Hurt

    I think a lot of adults would benefit from this approach. It looks like something that would be popular as a continuing ed course at a community college (http://www.greenriver.edu/ce/teach/). This might make a good outreach program to parents (perhaps an abbreviated version) to illustrate the value of a liberal education and motivate parents to be active in their children’s education. It could also be a good outline for public library programming. I was involved in such an effort way back when and still have my old notes. These last two ideas could be funded by grants.

    • thehurt

      Interesting ideas. The one problem I note is your idea that taking such a course might motivate parents to be more active. Based on what I’ve experienced, those parents that would be interested in continuing their own education are the same ones that already value learning and are already involved in what their children are doing in school.

  • Elisabeth

    I think your dream curriculum is definitely ambitious and noble. I wish I had that intensive curriculum during my high school years, which would have carried into an intellectual stimulation during college life. But alas, such a curriculum did not exist. While I do not have a structured dream curriculum to suggest, I was wondering what people’s thoughts were on re-incorporating vocabulary into high school curriculum? Many tough reads required a breadth of knowledge of intense vocabulary yet no such curriculum that I know of caters to that or even fosters it. Suggestions or comments?

    • thehurt

      Interesting question, and one our department has spent a good deal of time discussing. The struggle is that we recognize that vocabulary is best learned in context, so we want to avoid independent instruction. The advantage to a curriculum like the one I have dreamed up is that the vocabulary is embedded in the works we would be reading, allowing for some explicit instruction on the meaning (both denotative and connotative), as well as the literary and historical context of the words.

      • Elisabeth

        That’s reasonable for high school-ers with most difficult reads but what about younger crowds? Do you think it’s more appropriate for independent instruction or a more interactive approach outside literature? Such as through videos or visuals with context? Wouldn’t that help preparation for say high school?

  • Dana Huff

    Are you going to NCTE this year? I am presenting with Glenda Funk, Paul Hankins, and Ami Szerencse on the Hero’s Journey.

  • leesa

    I would like to take your “dream class!” I agree with you that “there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.”
    Unfortunately, it seems that many students today are concerned more about the grade than the learning. Getting into college and then getting the job after college is the goal, and students want to do just what it takes to achieve that. Many don’t seem to care to read for the sake of learning something new, becoming intellectually stimulated, or increasing their knowledge; they want a grade that will add to the GPA they need to put on the resume. I applaud the idea of including ethics in the course of study. Having students discover different perspectives and realize how their ideas fit in in the safe classroom environment will get them ready when issues arise in the work setting. They will know how to react, having already pondered and gotten feedback on the deeper issues.
    I dislike the notion that “we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests” and hope that the dream curriculum of caring educators one day becomes the reality.

  • Patricia Toohey

    I am not an English teacher but a science teacher. I do agree with your statement that we tend to focus on the content more than encouraging students to discuss issues surrounding the content. I teach 8th grade science and it is a tough age for children to understand the morality and bigger issues that face many of our present medical practices. When we teach students about stem cell research it brings up many questions as to why we are not doing more with stem cells. I encourage them to voice their opinons openly. I always make sure they understand they will be past of the decision making process in the future.

  • Victoria Liberty

    I really like this approach! I find it to be much easier when students have some kind of year long theme to connect to throughout each piece of literature they study. In our 9th grade curriculum we teach Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, a series of short stories and A Separate Piece. It is difficult to find connection between all of the works, however, the hero aspect may work. As for your question about dreams curriculum…we do that in the 10th grade. It is a really cool unit; however, I don’t teach 10th graders, so I’m not too familiar with all of the details. For my senior class our theme is Events that Shape your Life and the kids really connect to this. We are able to come full circle by the end of the year and next year I will be tying in non-fiction pieces for the first time. Should be fun!

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