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Our principle in lockstep adherence to strict curriculum requirements seems particularly biased and misguided if we look beyond the lens of the fundamental question, how well does the high school curriculum make students ready for their adult lives? The Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education believed that asking this question was not only rational but deeply needed—in 1918! Its report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, produced a sensible set of criteria by which to reasonably judge the high school curriculum.
The commission emphasized that these criteria must flow from the mission of schooling: education in a democratic system, both within and without the school, must cultivate in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideas, habits, and powers whereby he will find his position and use that position to mould both him and society toward ever better ends.
In 1892, the Cardinal Principles were a purposeful counterweight to the policies that had surfaced from the work of the Committee of Ten. That group had memorably claimed that a college-prep education, including several years of Latin and Greek, was suitable for all students—even if fewer than 10 per cent of high school students went to college.
The Committee of Ten, directed by the president of Harvard, was arranged into subject-area groups and supervised by professors and teachers of those subjects. (Our present system, along with its interest to a limited collection of “traditional” academic subjects, still symbolizes the worst effects of the work of this group.) The Committee of Ten reports is understood as trying to maintain an exclusive form of secondary education controlled by the college-entrance function.
In contrast, the Cardinal Principles were deliberately external to the traditional subjects and were established on an understanding of the broad mission of schooling as allowing individuals to improve themselves and society. They planned the following “main objectives of education”: (1) health; (2) command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); (3) worthy home participation; (4) aptitude; (5) nationality; (6) a form of relaxation; and (7) moral compas.
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It is a bit surprising to see health first in the list, ahead of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic,” isn’t it? But that surprise is also a useful reminder of how much schools have lost their way. What could be more crucial in moving into adulthood than learning how to lead a healthy life, in the broadest sense?
Check out this video for more healthy habits:
In reality, this idea has much older roots. Herbert Spencer, perhaps wrote the first modern critique of out-of-touch college-prep education in his renowned essay, “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” Herbert Spencer composes that as vigorous health and its supplementary high spirits are larger aspects of happiness than any other things whatever, then educating how to sustain them is a teaching that generates at the moment to no other whatever.
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