Choice in the Realm of Canon and Curriculum | Day 19

The nature of choice in one’s educational path, and its repercussions, is an issue that doesn’t receive as much attention as it should. To what extent is complete freedom of choice an ideal situation? Does genuine freedom of choice actually exist? From an operational perspective, less choice is actually more effective as the burden of selection is reduced – one can focus less on deciding and more on doing. Moreover, when we consider all of the environmental factors that inform the greater context of the situation, complete freedom of choice is merely an ideal without tangible grounding. Our very existence is a case study in limitation. Perhaps, then, we should define our terms more clearly: what exactly do we mean by “freedom” in the domain of content selection for one’s educational journey?

When one thinks of choice in the educational context, the hindrances of curriculum and canon come to mind – bodies of works selected for you by individuals vested with authority and considered experts in their respective field. Works are defined as canon while others remain in the apocrypha; specific bodies of knowledge are considered relevant to the core of one’s training while others are relegated to electives. It would appear that the canon and curriculum are working against one’s freedom of choice, yet, we must really question if this is the case. Does not freedom emerge through restriction? Do we not require a defined scope before action can be taken? Perhaps a false dichotomy has been set up between one’s powers of choice and predefined paths of educational consumption – perhaps there is more interaction than we initially perceive.

If we understand choice to be an emergent phenomenon, rather than one that exists a priori, then the discussion shifts from one of progressive restriction to one of progressive enablement. Thus, rather than seeing the predefined paths as barriers to immediate choice, we can choose to see them as governing parameters that enable a further degree of choice. By stepping down a proven path, you are able to focus on other aspects of the journey. For instance, I’ve been recently learning about the Rails framework in which convention takes precedence over configuration. Rather than having to configure the file structures yourself, you heed the established conventions and are thereby able to focus on what matters: building what you desire to build. This notion of convention plays into my understanding of industrial automation, where the repetitive and monotonous processes are taken care of by control panels so that the creative capacity of the human can be devoted to less mundane endeavours. In a similar sense, once a student has decided upon a course of study (e.g. humanities, sciences, engineering, commerce etc.) having an established curriculum helps the student to worry less about figuring out what to study so that he can focus on the actual studying.

However, beyond the enabling aspect of having predefined paths of study, canon and curriculum help to act as common points of reference throughout the timeline of one’s studies. Individuals engaged with the same course material will be able to use course texts as springboards for discussions that will only help them to deepen their understanding of the material. Without such a framework of commonality, intellectual distance emerges and community dissolves – departmental silos become entrenched. Consequently, wherever possible, it seems best to batch students together in small groups with aligned intellectual interests, such that the greatest amount of interaction is possible when these students are given a common curriculum to work through together – this has been my experience at Bitmaker Labs. Cohort criteria such as age, gender, ethnicity and the like are largely unimportant – what matters is that the group of students share the same intellectual interests and that they remain numerically small enough so that a community can form amongst them. When you have these two factors, adding a common curriculum for the group enhances their overall effectiveness in learning the material. It is as though you have given the students an overarching ideology that allows them to structure their actions within an overarching paradigm – they become nodes in a network that relay information at an enhanced rate.

On a final note, before ending, it’s important to mention one aspect of canon and curriculum that is beyond the scope of this post to address: decisions of inclusion and exclusion. Accepted curriculums and canons are the paths that structure a given student’s intellectual development – he who shapes the curriculum, in turn, shapes the minds of the students. Thus, it becomes increasingly important as to what exactly is included in the accepted canon and curriculum, where the decisions always reflect the agenda and biases of the decider. At present, it is simply important to note that there are individuals deciding upon what should be accepted as canon and that everyone has the responsibility to assess whether or not a given selection reflects their deeply held beliefs. If a canon does not align with one’s values and interests, one must have the courage to reject it and seek out curricula that better embodies the values that one espouses. Life is too short to spend doing what does not inspire you.

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