Idealism has fueled the Independent Curriculum Group since our founding. We envisioned a better kind of educational system, one driven not by standardized testing requirements, the profit motive, or powerful anxieties about things like college admission and institutional prestige.
Above all we envisioned education not as one monolithic structure framed and maintained by giant corporate interests but rather as a highly complex ecosystem in which factors like student interests and needs and institutional beliefs and values would underlie a system designed and operated to produce not just engaged and active global citizens or life-long learners—to pick on the often tired-sounding language of many school mission statements—but curious and competent denizens of a better, more just, more hospitable world. The key, to the ICG, would be each school’s ability to identify the very best in its foundations and aspirations and then to embody its value system in an idiosyncratic learning environment and set of learning experiences reflective of its core beliefs.
We have our own ideas of what this might look like, and I imagine that many readers share the broad outlines of our idealistic vision. But we don’t have a prescription, and we no more believe that there is one best way to educate than that there is one and only one right answer to the question, “What is Hamlet about?”
Whenever I am contacted by a school with a question about “curriculum,” in whatever sense, I go immediately to the school’s statements of values and beliefs. I burrow into the mission statement, the core values, the board statement of diversity, the tagline, and even the motto, seeking the common threads that might be pulled tight and highlighted to help the school identify its own “convictions” and then to find the courage to live them, even if living them somehow repudiates aspects of its “business as usual” policies and programs.
These fruits of my excavations can sometimes feel a bit pat and glib, at other times too clever by half. “Lifelong learning” and “global citizenship” may invite cheap shots because of their frequent appearances, but if a school takes the time not only to define these but to embed them as desirable values into its programs, it’s making the world a better place. Taglines can be cute and mottoes cuter, but if a school really tries to imagine and build their meanings into the experience of students (and families), then the efforts of whoever chose or created these are yielding something greater than just some obscure Latin on a seal or an eye-catching slogan on the landing page.
With the exception of those places that occasionally throw mottos in the faces of their students as behavioral correctives (to wonderful ends sometimes, we happily admit), how many schools have regular and serious discussions of their own ideals and how these might—and must, we think—inform the development of policies and programs? How many department meetings start with the mission statement to drive conversations about not just course offerings but even assessment and the evaluation of student work?
This is not just an independent school conversation. Public school systems have their own mission statements and other proclamations of aspirations, and we cannot forget that public education is on a profound and urgent quest for a “positive social good” whose beneficiaries are every child and every being. Warped and distracted as public schools and their leaders may seem under the scrutiny of the media and political critics, public schools must truly be all things to all people. And they must first and foremost represent the highest ideals for community membership and the living of active, empathetic, and productive lives in the community. (If you’re in an independent, private, or charter school with a narrowly defined mission, try imagining how your school would go about educating every student in your community!)
I’ve always like the idea behind the Mao quote, “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” Allowing a multiplicity of ideas and ideals to take root, and then to bloom, is what the ICG has had in mind, too. We know that for every blossoming ideal there are countervailing constraints thrown up by the “real world,” but we know that ideals are worth fighting for.
Ideals worth fighting for can’t just be words on a page or a website, vapid truisms used to make people feel better. These words—missions, pillars, standards, whatever—must be the subject of ongoing exegesis and analysis, like the words of a sacred text. Which, in fact, is exactly what they are, in their way.
Maybe your founders just hired some graphic artist to design the seal, or maybe a consultant marched the board through a mission-statement “exercise” to appease accreditors. Maybe those “core standards” are just intended as feel-goods for prospective families. Maybe that board “diversity statement,” however well intended by its creators, is really only regarded as another box, checked.
Is this the best you can be? Is this what you wanted from a school and from a career when you became an educator? Boxes checked, feel-goods, appeasement? Is this what you believe in when the kids walk in?
Yes, yes, the constraints. But those constraints, whether they look like financial sustainability or imperatives around “preparation,” are only constraints, and they do not have to be prison walls for ideals. Can a student be well prepared for Ivy University and at the same time have had a school experience that that has supported in every way their becoming a truly wonderful person with a probing mind and a heart as big as the world? Cannot a school be full and thriving without its programs damping the passions or crushing the curiosity of its students en route to instrumental outcomes craved by families?
I often make the point that Advanced Placement courses, often seen as soul-crushing and an early ICG bugbear, can be taught as vibrant, engaging, and mission-aligned experiences that yield both passing scores and excited students. Teachers who can pull this off know how to work around constraints in the service of their hopes and dreams as teachers. They know that constraints do not have to be a dead hand on passionate learning.
Where does your school stand on this? How often does your community interrogate its foundation and aspirational words in search of guidance toward more effective and heartfelt programming? And how can you help it key its actions to its ideals?
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)