The invention of the scientific curriculum expert represented an extraordinary shift in power away from teachers, parents, and local communities to professional experts. . . . In modern school districts, control over curriculum was transferred from educators who had majored in English, history, or mathematics to trained curriculum specialists.
What was the ultimate goal? What were these so-called scientists trying to accomplish? Bobbitt and his peers conceived of curriculum designers as educational engineers who could establish the exact criteria for each child’s proper functioning and the optimum profession in which he or she might bring about “social progress.” The aim was utilitarian advantage to “society.” For example, “if agricultural production falls off … the schools must provide better agricultural education. If factory production is inefficient, the schools must teach industrial education. When studies show the cost of ill health, the schools must provide health education.” And so on for any number of other “practical” activities, including driving techniques and military training. Students would learn the specific skills necessary to their “proper” professions and useful to “society.”
Of what utilitarian value is it, Bobbitt asked, for students to study the literature of long-gone centuries? How would a 20th-century plumber’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s drama or poetry benefit society? Beyond the basic science training necessary to help a farmer grow crops, how would his understanding of physics or mathematics aid society? For what social purpose should we teach a future factory worker ancient history? Such a field “deals with a world that is dead, a civilization that is mouldered, with governments that are now obsolete, with manners and customs and languages that are altogether impracticable in this modern age.”
Bobbitt’s 1918 book, Curriculum, was for years the standard textbook on the subject in the teachers’ colleges.
His fellow curriculum designer, W. W. Charters at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, shared this view. He disdained the study in schools of “the works of the masters.” Such “brilliant products of genius” were of little value to most Americans, he thought. Instead, curriculum designers should discover what was “most useful to the young in coping with the humble problems of their lives.” The schools should identify a student’s likely future profession and train him for it. For example, if a student would most likely become a department store clerk specializing in credit applications, the schools should train him in the requisite skills, including “friendliness,” “ability to question tactfully,” “spirit of follow-up,” “keen judgment in answering credit questions,” and so forth. The topics taught in the American schools should be calculated neither to bestow upon a student knowledge of academic subjects nor to nurture his intellect, but, rather, to prepare him for the “humble” problems and activities of everyday life as a cog in his community.
It is jaw-dropping that in 1918, after Americans had made superlative intellectual advances in literature (Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and others), psychology (William James), applied science and technology (Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers), and numerous other fields, that the leading organization of American educators virtually stripped academic training from the core of the nation’s schooling.