From educational Horizons, Summer 1995

"Integrating the Curriculum" and Other Slogans
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

See, What Works? Under What Conditions?


Like so many other rallying cries for one sort of school "reform" or another, calls for an "integrated" or "integrative" curriculum often amount to little more than empty sloganeering. They are simply the latest in a seemingly endless series of essentially empty buzzwords that fail to inform, while still exciting enthusiasm.

Technically, slogans are statements in which key terms are undefined. Indeed it is this very lack of specificity that makes them appealing. Lacking details we tend to supply our own meanings without even realizing it. We then conclude that we are in essential agreement with the slogan. It is in this way that slogans attract adherents as light attracts moths.

Slogans can serve positive purposes. They are useful if we are attempting to establish a broad but very shallow and temporary consensus among people of varied interests. Politicos sloganize at national conventions to rally the party faithful, for example, and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it would be folly if either party attempted to define the actual details of their platform. If you want to win, it is better to simply announce the coming of a "New Deal," "Great Society," or "Kinder, Gentler America" and wait until after the election to hammer out the details. Similarly, we do not require anything more than slogans when we launch ships, dedicate buildings, or even bury the dead. In all such cases well-crafted slogans can be used to temporarily paper over the cracks in the consensus and create the solidarity necessary for common celebration.

There are times, however, when sloganeering is unhelpful -- even problematic. For example, when state education officials attempt to mandate an "integrated" or maybe "integrative," curriculum they often leave the matter at the slogan stage. Still, there usually are deadlines to be met and documents to be filed. If so, the slogan ends up inconveniencing and distracting a lot of folks who would be better employed teaching children. Members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education have declared, for instance, that by the year 2000:

"All schools will focus instruction on the needs of each individual student at all levels within the framework of an integrated curriculum."

The Board neither describes nor prescribes what this "integrated curriculum" must amount to. Like education officials in other states, they are content to sloganize in order to avoid the problem of trying to work out a consensus on the matter. But slogan or no, state education officials usually get around to requiring school districts to do something -- usually create documents and fill in forms -- to "comply" with their slogan.

District officials are ill-advised to sit on their hands if they want state funds, so their response is typically to convene a series of meetings on "compliance" at various levels of the school bureaucracy. Then, sooner or latter, some hapless soul inherits the unenviable job of taking the school district's existing curriculum and "integrating" it.

Realists see this as a paper process. They know that the school administration cannot get the teachers to follow the district's present curriculum, much less persuade them to "integrate" their instruction at all levels. Besides, no one agrees on what this "integration" even amounts to. Nevertheless, in order to maintain at least the appearance of compliance, the next order of business is to involve the faculty in the process. This results in a series of mind-numbing meetings and vast amounts of busywork that prevent teachers from paying full attention to their charges. Finally, unable to establish anything that even approaches consensus on the matter, the faculty settles for making things look like they are "integrated."

Eventually a document is submitted to state authorities. Of course, little or nothing will have changed in the classroom, but enough paperwork has been generated to satisify the state officials who set the whole thing in motion. Each district now has a document which, when filed with all the other documents from hundreds of districts across the state, collectively vouchsafe that the pedagogical millenium is at hand.

Some day someone in the state education department who is cleaning up will find hundreds of curriculum integration documents moldering away in a forgotten file. By this time the members of the state board who mandated the "integrated curriculum" will have long-since served their terms, and been replaced by folks with new slogans. So the documents, representing hundreds of hours of work, will go to the shredder. Eventually, they will be recycled into more paper to possibly serve the process again.