Modern Curriculum Makes "Fatal Error," Says 1920s Teachers Manual

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I recently came across an old work by Frederick Bonser entitled The Elementary School Curriculum. Written for American teachers in 1920, the book offers pedagogical practices and curriculum content to use in the classroom. Curious, I flipped to the section on English to see what children were reading nearly one hundred years ago. This is what I found:

Grade III
Lolami, the Cliff Dweller, Bayliss
Docas, the Indian Boy, Snedden
Pueblo Folk Stories, Sumner
Old Indian Legends, Zitkala Sa
Hiawatha, Longfellow
Stories of Ancient Peoples, Arnold
Old Stories of the East, Baldwin
Old Testament Bible Stories, Sheldon

Grade IV
Tanglewood Tales, Hawthorne
A Wonder Book, Hawthorne
Stories from Greek Tragedy, Church
Stories from Greek Comedy, Church
Homeric Stories
Gods and Heroes
, Francillon
Story of the Aeneid, Church
Stories from Livy, Church
Story of the Romans, Guerber
Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats
Horatius at the Bridge, Macaulay
Brave Three Hundred, Baldwin

Grade V
The Last Days of Pompeii, Bulwer-Lytton
The Story of Roland, Baldwin
The Story of Siegfried, James Baldwin
Viking Stories
Norse Stories
, Mabie
Short History of the Norman Conquest, Freeman
England’s Story, Harding
The Boys’ Life of Sir Francis Drake
In the Days of William the Conqueror
, Tappan
A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, Twain
King Arthur and His Knights, Pyle
Men of Iron, Pyle
Chivalric Days
Robin Hood
, Pyle
Life of Daniel Boone
David Crockett
The True Story of Columbus
The True Story of George Washington
American Inventions and Inventors
, Bachman
Four American Pioneers, Perry and Beebe
Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper

(Note: Many author names were not included in the manual. Thus, some of the authorship is based upon research and previous knowledge of what was commonly used in schools during that time.)

As I scanned the preceding list, I had a nagging feeling that something seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then it hit me. This literature list was formed around historical themes and was categorized chronologically. Thus, the third grade list centered on stories about early peoples, the fourth grade list contained stories of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the fifth grade list found students reading stories about medieval and early American times. The reason it seemed so familiar to me was because it followed the pattern of many classical schools today, which integrate history and literature and present them sequentially by time period. (As an aside, the books on these lists are also far more rigorous than those read in many of today’s schools, another characteristic of classical education.)

Just to be sure I wasn’t off base in my assumption, I dug deeper into the manual to see the rationale behind the construction of the reading lists. Sure enough, the manual confirmed that the literature selections corresponded with the geography, science, and history lessons which children were also receiving in their classroom. History, it seems, was particularly important to incorporate into the literature selections, for it gave students a “background” and a “general setting” upon which to base the many thoughts and ideas they would encounter in life.

Such a curriculum arrangement seems quite logical. After all, what better way to learn history than to have it presented in an orderly way across a chronological timeline? What better way to reinforce and review lessons taught in one subject by incorporating them in another?

Yet such a logical pattern of education is sadly missing from many of today’s schools. Instead, students jump from Native American history to ancient civilizations to the Holocaust—sometimes within the same year! As I remember from my own school years, such a method can breed confusion and foster large gaps in one’s frame of reference.

In the words of this 1920s education manual, failing to give children a curriculum on which to build a solid framework or historical background is a “fatal error.” It seems American schools have fallen into this error.

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