Monday, March 14, 2011

Nobody talks about the Caulfield problem

This is one of those fundamental, difficult-to-resolve questions with important implications that almost no one in the education debate has any interest in discussing. How do we handle students learning things that aren't "on the list"?

There are valid arguments to be made on both sides. Some of the happiest educational outcomes often start with something far from the standard curriculum. (Goosebumps leads to King who leads to Lovecraft who leads to Machen who leads to Joseph Campbell. Puzzle books lead to Gardner who leads to Smullyan who leads to Gödel and Tarski.)

But as valuable as these excursion may be, there is still a case to be made for a body of essential knowledge, things that everyone should know. Not only are things that make it into the curriculum considered more important; the very fact that they are common is itself valuable. A diverse, democratic society functions better when its people have a shared frame of reference.

Those in the reform movement have come down heavily on the side of valuing only what falls within the curriculum. Schools are actually penalized when students go off-list since time spent reading Gödel, Escher, Bach or the Hero with a Thousand Faces is being taken away from learning those things that are being measured. That is a perfectly defensible position but I get the impression that it is largely an unintentional one, that proponents of a system built around standardized testing often failed to think through the implications of their policies.


  1. Godel, Escher, Bach is soooooo overrated. (See the first paragraph here for an example.)

  2. Andrew,

    Perhaps, it's still a vast improvement over the standard intellectual diet of tenth grade. Besides, GED can be a gateway drug. I hate to admit it, but GED was my introduction to Gödel, koans, and the mathematical side of Carroll. (of course, I was a creative writing major.)