Chariots of Fire

Etymologies, Epistemologies and the Emergence of Curriculum

I believe part of the problem of reconceptualising our study of schooling can be illustrated in the basic etymology of curriculum. The word curriculum derives from the Latin word currere, which means to run, and refers to a course (or a racing-chariot). The implications of etymology are that curriculum is thereby socially constructed and defined as a course to be followed, or most significantly, presented. As Barrow notes "as far as etymology goes, therefore the curriculum should be understood to be 'the presented content' for study".(1) Social context and construction by this view is relatively unproblematic for by etymological implication the power of 'reality-definition' is placed firmly in the hands of those who 'draw up' and define the course. The bond between curriculum and sequential prescription then was forged early; it has survived and strengthened over time. Part of the stregthening of this bond has been the emergence of sequential patterns of learning to follow and operationalise the curriculum as prescribed.
From these Latin origins it is important to trace the emergence of curriculum as a concept to be employed in schooling. According to Gibbons and Hamilton "the words class and curriculum seem to have entered educational discourse at a time when schooling was being transformed into a mass activity".(2) But the origins of the class/curriculum juxtaposition can be found earlier and at the higher education level. From Mir's analysis of the origins of 'classes' as first described in the statutes of the College of Montaign we learn:

It is in the 1509 programme of Montaign that one finds for the first time in Paris a precise and clear division of students into classes . . . That is, divisions graduated by stages or levels of increasing complexity according to the age and knowledge required by students.(3)

Mir argues that the College of Montaign actually inaugurated the Renaissance class system. The vital connection to establish however is the way in which organisation in classes became associated with a curriculum prescribed, and also sequenced, for stages or levels.

The Oxford English Dictionary locates the earliest source of 'curriculum' as 1663 in Glasgow, Scotland. The annexation of the Latin term for a race-course may be related to the emergence of -sequencing in schooling but the question 'Why Glasgow?' remains. Hamilton believes that 'the sense of discipline or structural order that was absorbed into curriculum came not so much from classical sources as from the ideas of John Calvin (1509-1564)'.

As Calvin's followers gained political as well as theological ascendancy in late sixteenth century Switzerland, Scotland and Holland, the idea of discipline - 'the very essence of Calvinism' - began to denote the internal principles and external machinery of civil government and personal conduct. From this perspective there is a homologous relationship between curriculum and discipline: curriculum was to Calvinist educational practice as discipline was to Calvinist social practice.(4)

We have then an early instance, if these speculations carry weight, of the relationship between knowledge and control. This works at two levels with regard to curriculum definition. Firstly there is the social context in which knowledge is conceived and produced. Secondly there is the manner which such knowledge is 'translated' for use in particular educational milieu. In this case classes but later classrooms. The social context of curriculum construction must take account of both levels.

The evidence of Paris and Glasgow in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be summarised as follows and makes a fairly clear statement of the interlinked nature of the emerging mode of curriculum and patterns of social organization and control:

the notion of classes came into prominence with the rise of sequential programmes of study which, in turn, resonated with various Renaissance and Reformation sentiments of upward mobility. In Calvinist countries (such as Scotland) these views found their expression theologically in the doctrine of predestination (the belief that only a preordained minority could attain spiritual salvation) and, educationally, in the emergence of national but bipartite education systems where the 'elect' (i.e. predominantly those with the ability to pay) were offered the prospect of advanced schooling, while the remainder (predominantly the rural poor) were fitted to a more conservative curriculum (the appreciation of religious knowledge and secular virtue).(5)

This quote sets up the unique significance of curriculum as it developed. For soon after as its power to designate what should go on in the classroom was realized, a further power was discovered. Alongside the power to designate was the power to differentiate. This meant that even children who went to the same school could be given access to what amounted to different 'worlds' through the curriculum they were taught.
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Publisher: Falmer
ISBN: 0 7507 0321 0
Subject: Curriculum
Available in: English
Appears in: The Making of Curriculum
Number of editions: 2
Price of book: £25.99
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