All educational issues that matter, come to a head in curriculum. That is familiar in schools, where the struggle to democratise an elitist curriculum has been at the centre of school reform for the last century.
This is also true in universities, though there is less explicit discussion here. To many university students, teachers and managers, the curriculum is taken for granted. Naturally it has to be updated from time to time. Departmental meetings rage over how much material can be crammed into an introductory course, or which advanced option can be deleted. Usually the debates go no farther than this.
But they should – and sometimes they have. Two centuries ago, the curriculum in most universities came from a very particular social source. This was the literary culture of European ruling-class men. In English universities a student was said to be ‘reading’ Arts, or Law, or Theology. Classical and religious literature, sanctified by tradition, provided moral instruction and life examples. These texts were the origin of the modern humanities curriculum and its ‘canon’ of Great Books.
Universities also taught logic and mathematics – also a classical legacy. This became vitally important with the invention of the research university, and the expansion of natural sciences. Nineteenth-century reformers argued for more useful, technical knowledge to go into the university curriculum. As new universities were founded in industrial cities, colonies and independent states, this was done. Gradually research, rather than tradition, became the main authority behind curriculum decisions. A fusion of professional education and research-based knowledge, organised in ‘disciplines’, came into existence. That is the university curriculum we know today.
Design of curricula as a profit-making enterprise
We like to think of research as producing impartial, disembodied knowledge. But in practice, research embeds its own inequalities of gender, race and class. Conventional science is mainly directed by men—Just count the number of women awarded Nobel Prizes in science! The global economy of knowledge centres on the elite institutions of the global North. The research workforce isn’t selected by genteel status as it once was, but because it is selected by success in advanced levels of university study, researchers mainly come from the more privileged classes.
It is not surprising that these social forces operate in the making of university curricula. We see this, very clearly, in textbooks, which for many students define what they are supposed to learn. Textbooks are not just lists of facts, but provide selections of facts, offer interpretations, provide patterns for thinking. And in these, the world-vision of the groups who write and edit the textbooks, and teach with their aid, come into play.
In my discipline of sociology, for instance, textbooks taught students that their discipline was created by a bunch of bearded Founding Fathers who lived in Europe. Women, Black men, colonial intellectuals, the whole social thought of other cultures, were simply written out of the story. Across the social sciences, perhaps the most famous textbook of all is Samuelson’s Economics. Historians have now studied in fine detail how this book was written, and show that its picture of the economic world was shaped as a political compromise, under hostile scrutiny by right-wing businessmen.
Some corporations are now moving into the design of curricula as a profit-making enterprise. The old idea of the ‘textbook’ can be expanded to a whole system of lesson plans and materials, tests, and teacher preparation. This is already an international business in school education, where corporations sell packages designed in the global North to governments panicked by ‘League Tables’.
It is now developing in universities too. Packaged tests are well established for student selection (e.g. the mis-named SAT, Scholastic Aptitude Test). Some elite universities have put their course outlines online (I think MIT was the first) as models for others. Some have tried to profit directly by selling access to courses online, the famous MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. They turn out to be less massive than hoped, as the great majority of students drop out, but the pathway to commodification is clear.
There are continuing struggles against these hierarchies. There have been many attempts to remove sexist and racist biases from textbooks and course content, and this has had some impact –the list of Founding Fathers is now a bit more diverse. There have been campaigns to include indigenous knowledge in university curricula; and in Latin America and other parts of the world, indigenous universities and colleges have been set up. Islamic universities try to combine secular science and professions with religious knowledge. There are many attempts to provide university courses in community languages, though that is made harder by the rise of English as the language of international business and science.
In the era of neoliberal politics, however, efforts to open and democratise curricula have had only limited effects. For the most part, university curricula are still constructed within the culture of the privileged groups in world society, and that is the culture that is being placed on the market. There is much to be done.