Ernest Boyer delivered this speech to the the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s 48th Annual Conference Creating Learning Communities, held at Washington, D.C., on 26 – 30 March 1993.
Please note that this is an exact transcript rather than a cleaned-up print version.
I’m delighted to be invited to join you to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ASCD is one of the nation’s most distinguished and most effective educational associations. You have throughout the years focused on teaching and on learning. The goal of this Association has, from the very first, been to achieve excellence for all. This Association has, for more than 50 years, been a true Community of Learning, and I salute you, all of you assembled in this room, for a half century of dedicated and inspired service to the nation, and most especially to our children. This morning, at the launching of this convention, I should wish to celebrate Communities of Learning in the classroom, Communities of Learning that extends into the neighborhoods and to the families, but my focus this morning will be to talk about coherence within the curriculum itself, and I should like to talk about an issue that has perplexed educators and philosophers and parents for at least one thousand years. The question I should like to ask at the beginning of this conference is “Just what is an educated person?” Or more precisely – “What should we be teaching students in our schools as we approach Century 21?”, and to put my remarks in larger context I’d like to begin by telling you a story.
In 1972 I was sitting in my office in Albany, New York. It was a dreary Monday morning, which is a kind of redundancy I know, and to avoid the pressures of the day I turned instinctively to the stack of third class mail that I kept perched precariously on the corner of my desk to create the illusion of being very very busy – it’s an old administrative trick – and on top of the heap was the student newspaper from Stanford University and the headlines grabbed my attention because they announced that the faculty at Stanford had reintroduced the required course in western civilization after having abolished all requirements just three years before. And I also was intrigued to discover that the students at Stanford were mightily offended by this brash act, and in a front page editorial they declared “A required course is an illiberal act,” and then the editor concluded with this blockbuster question “How dare they impose uniform standards on non-uniform people?” Well at first I was amused and then, I must tell you, troubled by that statement. I was troubled that some of America’s most gifted students, after 14 or more years of formal learning, still had not learned the simple truth that while we’re uniform, of course we’re non-uniform, just look to your left and to your right and say a prayer of thanks, but bear in mind it’s a game everyone can play. It’s true we’re non-uniform, but they had not learned the fact that while we’re different we still have many things in common. They had not discovered the essential truth that with all of our diversity, which I celebrate today, there are still characteristics at the very core of our existence that bind us all together. There are, to put it simply, connections to be found.
And this brings me to the central theme of my remarks this morning, being an educated person, in my opinion, surely means becoming well informed; it means developing our own aptitude to interests; it means discovering the diversity that makes each of us unique and gives distinctiveness to our cultures, but there is another side to the equation, and it’s called connections.
They, almost all students in the nation’s schools, complete their Carnegie Units, they’re handed a diploma, but I am convinced that in our fragmented academic world, what they often fail to gain is a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life. To put it simply – Learning for far too many years has become an exercise in fragmentation, a pursuit of trivial pursuit, and for far too long education in this country has been based on seat time, not on learning, and it’s enormously revealing that the most frequent question asked in many classrooms is “Will we have this on the test?” and frankly I am convinced the time has come to bury once and for all the old Carnegie Unit.
Further, since the Foundation I now Head created this academic measurement a century ago, I feel authorized this morning to officially declare the Carnegie Unit obsolete. I also am convinced that the proposed National Assessment Program should not be implemented until we are very clear about what schools should be teaching as we enter Century 21. It’s absolutely urgent that we don’t get the cart before the horse.
But I return then to this question that brings me here this morning. “What should we be teaching to our students, just what does it mean to be an educated person?” To put it as simply as I can – an educated person is someone who is well-informed, acts wisely and continues learning. But to be truly educated means going beyond the isolated facts, it means putting learning in larger context, and above all it means, to return to my favorite word, it means discovering the connectedness of things. The Nobel Laureate, Barbara McLintock, wrote on one occasion “Everything is one”. “There is no way”, she said, “to draw a line between things”. I wonder if Professor McLintock has looked at a school curriculum in recent years, with all the separate academic boxes.
Frank Kress, President of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a recent speech that scientists are in some respects like artists, and to illustrate the point he said as a magnificent double helix, which broke the genetic code was not only rational, he said, it was beautiful as well, and yet in most schools science and art teachers live in absolutely separate worlds. They don’t communicate with one another, and when I read Frank’s speech I thought of the early days of the space program, when I used to watch with fascination the lift off from Cape Kennedy, and I was intrigued that in the final moments as they went from 10 to 9, to 8 to 7, the scientists and engineers sat with anxiety in their faces and then when they got to 3-2-1-Contact and the space shuttles were rocketing into orbit, the technologists and technicians wouldn’t say “Well our formulas worked again”, they would say almost in unison the words “Beautiful”. It has always intrigued me that they chose an aesthetic term to describe a technological achievement.
Which raises the fascinating question of where does the work of the scientist and artist begin and end? Is it possible that across the academic discipline which we consider so preciously to protect, that we’re all inquiring not just for intellectual searches but down deep inside we’re looking for patterns in relationships that bring intellectual satisfaction too. Are scientists at their best in fact artists. The world renowned physicist, Victor Weisskoft was asked on one occasion “What gives you hope in troubled times?” and he replied “Mozart and Quantum Mechanics”. But where in the school experience do students begin to see even at the most fundamental level, connections such as these? Of course students should become knowledgeable at history and literature and in science and all the rest, but what we urgently need today are students who can put their learning in larger context, and for this to be accomplished I believe we need a more thematic curriculum a curriculum with more coherence, one that goes beyond these separate academic subjects and uses the disciplines not as ends but to illuminate larger, more integrated ends.
But where do we begin. Several years ago, in a book called “Quest for Common Leaning”, I suggested as just one approach that we might organize the school curriculum, not on the basis of disciplines or departments, but on the basis of what might be called the “Core Commonalities” and by core commonalities I mean those universal human experiences that are shared by all people and all cultures on the planet. Those core experiences that make us truly human. And while reflecting on the possibility of this thematic structure I concluded that there are in fact eight human commonalities that bind us all together. Let me recite them for you very briefly this morning.