The Question Concerning Curriculum Theory

Dennis Carlson


After finishing my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980, I accepted a short-term offer to teach at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. It so happened that Madeleine Grumet was chair of the Education Department there, and through her, I was introduced to William Pinar, who taught nearby at the University of Rochester. Subsequently, when he took a leave of absence to teach at Colgate University, he asked me to cover his course for secondary English student teachers and supervise them in the field. One of the books he had selected for the course that term was Jean Paul Sartre’s What is Literature? (1978). It was a difficult text for the students, and I remember that some complained that they could not understand what this had to do with the concerns they faced as student teachers “in the trenches” each day. But the struggle with this text, like all struggles, was necessary; and in the end, everyone in the seminar agreed that the book had made them think about their work in new ways, and had renewed their sense of commitment to teaching. Sartre called upon these student teachers, myself, and the graduate assistant for that seminar (a young man named William Reynolds), to make a difference through our work, and to teach within “the situation,” to use Sartre’s term. “The situation” was, for Sartre, the situation at hand, the situation that confronted us personally and concretely, but also culturally and historically. Literature was not just literature, not just art for art’s sake. The writer speaks to the present, to our times, wittingly or unwittingly, and for Sartre it is best that we speak wittingly, as active subjects of history, engaged in the battles currently being waged over the course and direction of democratic public life.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Dennis Carlson