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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Beyond Self-Interest: A Democratic Core Curriculum

Customized, boutique curricular approaches lose sight of the ultimate purpose of schoolingin a democratic society.

This actually happened: I dialed the main number for a public school district office, and the person whoanswered the phone cheerily announced, “Good morning. Customer service.” “Is this the school district?” Iasked. “Yes, it is,” the voice replied. I hung up without speaking, the purpose of the call forgotten. Howcould this be? Why would a school district have its phones answered, “Customer service”? Just to be sure, Itried the number again. Same voice, same greeting: “Good morning. Customer service.”
Looking back, I should not have been surprised by that phone call. After all, we are living in an era inwhich the role and purpose of our public institutions are being fundamentally redefined. I believe thatpublic institutions in a democratic society are meant to promote and support the public good. As a citizen,that would make my role in such institutions that of participant in their programs, critic of their policies,supporter of their purposes, volunteer in their causes, and more. Sure, my checkbook comes out every yearto pay school taxes; citizens do have an obligation to support our public institutions financially. But we'repaying toward the public good, not for some private “goods.” And the public good is not just my good. Callme anything else, but don't call me customer.
I can't be the only person who thinks this way. But as free market economies are glorified andpublic services privatized, the meaning of democracy is evolving almost exclusively as a matter of personalchoice and self-interest, and the complementary notion of a public or common good is disappearing (Apple& Beane, 1995; Sehr, 1997). A vibrant, just, and ethical democracy involves the interests of individuals andthose of the common good—and the possibility that the two can be integrated or at least kept in reasonablebalance.
In public schools, curricular decisions are being made to meet demands for a curriculumcustomized to individual preferences, resulting in an array of variations in which the words school andprogram are preceded by one or another adjective, including magnet, alternative, voucher, charter, andspecialty. More than the responsive practice of adapting the curriculum to accommodate individualdifferences, this is a smorgasbord of self-interest, full of boutique education choices for parents andstudents—in most cases, for parents and students with the financial and political resources to demand adifference.
Ironically, the move to create niche market education programs is occurring at the same time thatmandated standards and testing are pushing schools toward more standardized curriculum content andinstruction. Instead of adding choices, standards proponents insist that all students be taught the samethings and then legislate an arsenal of high-stakes tests to prevent anyone from balking. But attempts to tiepoor test scores in financially strapped urban schools to private school vouchers should tell us that, formany proponents, the standards movement as it is currently evolving is less about common knowledge andmore about gaining a foothold for publicly funded private choice.
In addition, the surface consensus among proponents that standards are good hides severedisagreements over which standards—or perhaps more accurately, whose standards—schools ought toteach. Many educators, business leaders, and academic pundits who promote standards ought toacknowledge that their interest in common knowledge has a lot to do with cloning themselves: Everyoneshould know what I know and want what I want.
To transcend curriculums of both free-market self-interest and standardization, we must ask acrucial question: What would a curriculum for the common good look like? A democratic curriculumwould need to meet several criteria. It would bring young people together in situations in which they wouldexperience the democratic way of life. It would connect self-interest and the common good. It would becreated collaboratively. It would address significant issues and accommodate multiple sources ofknowledge. It would involve students in activities that people in a democracy engage in to understandthemselves, one another, and the world around them.
There are many ways in which those ideas might be brought to life in classrooms and schools(Brodhagen, 1995; Daniels, Bizar, & Zemelman, 2001; Nagel, 1996; Wood, 1992). I would like to exploreone such curriculum in this article. It is not the only appropriate curriculum for democracy, but it is anexample of what is possible when schools balance self-interest and the common good.

A Democratic Curriculum Takes Shape

For several years, a network of teachers across the United States has been using a curriculum planningapproach that allows them to develop the curriculum from scratch with their students at the beginning ofthe school year. These teachers ask students to respond to two questions: What questions or concerns doyou have about yourself? What questions or concerns do you have about the world? Students gather insmall groups to discuss the questions they have generated, and their teachers help them group common andrelated questions into themes.
In one classroom, student questions such as How long will I live? Will I be healthy? Will cures befound for deadly diseases? Will there be a good place to live when we are older? How much will the worldchange? and Will there ever be a president who isn't a white man? framed a theme called “Living in theFuture.” Students worked to answer these and other related questions by investigating family healthhistories, planning a healthy lifestyle, reviewing and extrapolating trend statistics on diseases, surveyingpeers at other schools to identify their opinions about political possibilities, inventing machines of thefuture, examining the accuracy of forecasts that had been made for their own time, and makingrecommendations to the city planning office for dealing with anticipated future problems in theircommunity, such as land use, transportation, and housing.
Having completed that theme, the group tackled “Show Me the Money.” This theme grew out ofstudent questions about where money originally came from, how it is manufactured and distributed, how tomake a budget, and how much various occupations pay. To answer such questions, students researched theevolution of barter and money in ancient civilizations; created budgets for families in wealth and poverty;studied statistical trends of the distribution of wealth; researched ways to improve the economic system;and investigated the economies and economic conditions of the countries in which their favorite clothes aremade, including the presence of sweatshops and the incidence of slavery in those countries.
As the year progressed, students interviewed gang members and researched rates and causes ofabuse and local trend statistics on various types of crime for a theme called “Conflict and Violence.” Theyalso took on such themes as “Outer Space” and “Isms and Prejudice.”
To answer their own questions, students researched ideas and statistics, debated findings, usedvarious reference materials, evaluated the accuracy of claims, prepared reports, made presentations offindings, interviewed family and community members, and more. Students used information from corecontent-area sources as well as from popular culture. In addition, students experienced a sense ofcommunity in small groups and in the class as a whole as they negotiated which themes they wouldaddress, how to research their questions, who would take responsibility for which projects, and how toreport and assess the work that they had done.

Lessons Learned

We should give this curricular approach a name. Historically, curriculums meant to include all youngpeople have been referred to as the core curriculum. But that term has come to mean simply a collection ofrequired subjects or a list of things that all students should know, as in a core knowledge curriculum. Bycontrast, the approach I describe here follows in the tradition of the problem-centered core programs of themid-20th century progressive movement (Faunce & Bossing, 1951; National Association for CoreCurriculum, 1995; Wesley, 1941; Vars, 1991; Zapf, 1959) and the most sophisticated versions ofcurriculum integration (Beane, 1997). This approach involves not only common knowledge but also thevalues and processes of the democratic way of life. To capture this meaning, then, we should call thisapproach a democratic core curriculum.
Integrating self-interest and the common good. Notice that the teachers did not ask their studentsquestions such as What are you interested in? or What do you want to study? Asking such questions isdemocratic only if democracy is defined by process and choice alone, as in boutique choice programs.Instead, the two questions asked of students echo the two avenues of democratic decision making: concernsabout self and concerns about the larger world. The questions help students see how their fates are tied tothe fates of others and how self-interest and the common good might be integrated. So, for example, the“Living in the Future” question How long will I live? is tied to the question Will cures be found for deadlydiseases? In “Show Me the Money,” students tied questions about personal economic security to thoseabout the distribution of wealth. In “Conflict and Violence,” students connected concerns about personalsafety to questions about the causes of violent crime. Themes, then, usually center on issues or problems inthe larger world such as change and the future, conflict, the environment, the economy, and health andwellness. Problem-centered themes like these engage young people with the world and expand theirawareness of its complexity.
Valuing diversity. A democratic core curriculum helps students prize diversity as a strength of thegroup. Themes and questions often involve issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, andencouraging students to tackle such questions results in far more authentic learning than providing studentswith a few multicultural resources to fill curriculum gaps.
Although the entire class decides on the themes that they will study during the year, plenty of timeexists for small groups and individuals to create projects around theme-related questions that do notconcern the whole group. In subsequent reports and project displays, small groups and individual studentscan present their findings to the entire class. In essence, a curriculum built on the democratic ideals ofmutual benefit and group consensus can also encourage students to pursue minority concerns and to beinformed about those concerns.
Asking powerful questions. When asked What questions or concerns do you have about yourself?and What questions or concerns do you have about the world? students usually raise questions that haveserious social significance. After all, students are real people living in a real world about which they havereal concerns. And diverse students in widely different communities tend to ask the same questions: Willthere be world peace? Why do people hate one another? How can we save the environment? Will myfamily stay together? Will cures be found for deadly diseases?
Doing real work. When students experience a democratic core curriculum, they engage in rigorousintellectual work. Coming to consensus on questions and themes, finding resources, learning content andskills related to significant issues, doing deep research, and creating projects and substantive reportsdemand much more time and intellectual energy than completing worksheets, following the textbook, andanswering simple paper-and-pencil questions.
Meeting rigorous standards. Although the democratic core curriculum does not intentionally beginor end with the purpose of achieving subject-based academic standards, it seems to do so anyway. This ishardly surprising because students need to use extensive content knowledge—as well as such high-levelskills as problem finding, researching, resource finding, and, of course, problem solving—to resolveproblems and issues in a democratic society.
Focusing on the affective dimensions of education. As students work together to research andsolve problems, create projects, make decisions, and organize their efforts, they learn to respect oneanother, contribute to the group, and build a community in the classroom. These lessons are more authenticthan contrived character education lessons or moralizing stories. A real democracy needs a schoolcurriculum with a social conscience. The collaborative methods, substantive questions, and powerfulthemes of a democratic core curriculum offer that possibility.

A Worthy Conversation

In a sad irony, such obstacles as bureaucracies wedded to testing and slogan-filled character educationprograms have driven some advocates of the democratic core curriculum to set up “choice” schools andprograms just to keep their ideas alive (Daniels, Bizar, & Zemelman, 2001). If we are interested inexpanding the concept of a public democracy, there should be space made at all levels of the schoolprogram for a democratic core curriculum.
Instead of discussing how to expand boutique programs to customize education for each individualstudent, imagine having a conversation about a curriculum that students and teachers create together andthat responds to students' self-interests as well as to the common good. Now that would be a conversationworth having, and one more suitable for citizens than for customers.

Apple, M., & Beane, J. (Eds.). (1995). Democratic schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Beane, J. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education.New York: Teachers College Press.

Brodhagen, B. (1995). The situation made us special. In M. Apple & J. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools(pp. 83–100). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Daniels, H., Bizar, M., & Zemelman, S. (2001). Rethinking high schools. Portsmouth,NH: Heinemann.

Faunce, R., & Bossing, N. (1951). Developing the core curriculum. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Nagel, N. (1996). Learning through real-world problem solving. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

National Association for Core Curriculum. (1995). Current concepts of core curriculum: Alternativedesigns for integrative programs. Kent, OH: Author.

Sehr, D. (1997). Education for public democracy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Vars, G. (1991). Integrated curriculum in historical perspective. EducationalLeadership, 49(1), 14–15.

Wesley, C. (1941). Education for citizenship in a democracy. Journal of NegroEducation, 10(1), 68–78.

Wood, G. (1992). Schools that work. New York: Dutton.

Zapf, R. (1959). Democratic processes in the secondary classroom. EnglewoodCliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

James A. Beane has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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