On Curriculum, Charlottesville, and the People We Teach

School starts tomorrow. It is daunting, to say the least, but other teachers understand my mix of excitement and dread.

This past weekend, however, made the looming school year look even more threatening on the horizon. The Charlottesville incident inspired posts and tweets about posterity, along the lines of “This will be in our history books…” and “How will I explain this to my child?” “What is my responsibility? What will I tell my children when they ask how I reacted?” All valuable questions… but my thoughts turned, of course, to students.

In a Curriculum and Development class I took a couple of years ago, we discussed explicit and implicit curriculum. Though explicit curriculum choices often make it into the syllabus (for example, my freshmen are starting with The Iliad this week), the implicit curriculum are the values, learning environment, cultural assumptions, and practices that inform our explicit studies. And just as important is the null curriculum—that which we choose not to address.

As I saw pictures of the protesters, watched the video of the car driving through the crowd, and read about the horrifying chants of the white nationalists, my gut reaction was probably similar to yours: “Is this America? In 2017?” But then I remembered human nature and history and realized that this is just a dot on a timeline, and humanity is tempted yet again by power and pride. Tower of Babel, anyone? We’ve always wanted to be our own gods, to claim our place among the nations.

from The New Yorker

And then I looked more closely at the pictures. Many who marched look about my age. Many who marched look only a few years older than the seniors I’ll welcome to my class tomorrow. All of them had some sort of education. Some of them went to private school. Most of them probably read The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hamlet. All of them studied American history. In a few short years, my students will have to make the decision: Which march do I join? Which protest? What do I say? What do I post?

Posterity is a concern of mine as well. Yes, one day I’ll tell the story to my children of the age of terrorism that we’re currently living in—my vivid memory of 9/11, the unending attacks in Europe, ISIS and the refugees trying to make their way to safety. But right now, my students are watching what I say in the classroom, my former students are watching what I post on Twitter, and we’re all living in a week of history. My fear is that issues like Charlottesville will become so commonplace that they become part of our null curriculum in the classroom—that which is not addressed. Not only does that take away from valuable discussion of what it means to live as a Christian in this country, and how Homer and Hawthorne and Augustine would react to such an event, but it communicates to my students that Charlottesville and similar issues are not worth being thought about deeply or discussed.

Like the beginning of every school year, teachers everywhere are thinking about goals for their students. Which equations should they have memorized by the end of the year? Which literary devices should they know? How many research papers should they write? Should public speaking be a requirement?

I’m there too, thinking about the number of pages a week, the books in a semester, the questions driving the entire year. But Charlottesville brought me back to the ultimate telos of education—the type of people my students are becoming. How are they being formed by my curriculum (the explicit, implicit, and null)? How will they react to the Charlottesville of their time?

Perhaps I have a certain advantage, being a literature teacher. If I wanted to, I could discuss Achilles’ rage, whether or not it is justified, and even compare it to protesting in general. But whatever we teach, the implicit values and null curriculum often speak louder than the syllabus. This year, I’m beginning to realize the weight of my responsibility as a teacher. May my curriculum choices invite compassion, charity, and wisdom into the lives of my students.

3 thoughts on “On Curriculum, Charlottesville, and the People We Teach

  1. I have been thinking along the same lines. In the midst of emminetly practical questions about assessments, essays, and pages read, it is important to be reminded that the purpose of education is to inculcate virtue in students. And Achilles’s rage is on my mind too:

    “Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
    Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
    Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
    Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
    And left their bodies to rot as feasts
    For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.”


    1. Those lines get me every time.

      I do think it’s easier to think about inculcating virtue when the students are in front of me, rather than names on a page. for that reason, I’m glad I have the first three days of school under my belt! I hope you have a great start to the semester.


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