A functional curriculum for youth

Earlier this week I was browsing a freebie rack containing books that someone had discarded. Following the principle that one’s trash is another’s treasure, I looked closely and discovered William B. Featherstone’s, A Functional Curriculum for Youth. It was published in 1950, shortly before his untimely death, and long before current talk about integrative learning, service learning, community-based education, or youth community informatics.

Featherstone talks about a broad curriculum, based upon the idea that the school’s function is “building meanings for life.” He argues for education that contributes to “improvement of daily living in the here and now” and that supports the individual’s “involvement in in community life.” He advocates community councils to guide schools in their role as the co-ordinators of the complete educational effort within a community, essentially, the school as social center. The focus is on wholeness of learning and action in the world, so that schools

do not teach language arts as such; they teach life, carrying on projects, units, and other lifelike enterprises in which language arts function as principal means of communication and expression.

One of his more surprising suggestions is that youth should be paid to go to school. The rationale is that schooling is a social investment that benefits the entire society; going to school is socially useful work of value at least equal to that of most jobs:

when the right kind of school is provided, society cannot afford to allow any youth to remain out of school…solely because his personal economic resources …do not enable him to continue.

In Featherstone’s day, and even more so in ours, there are relentless attempts to reduce schooling to a factory model. Capitalist economics extends that agenda to many other realms of life–office work, grocery shopping, community involvement. Featherstone realized that even if we could somehow justify the factory approach for the school experience that it would in no way prepare students for the life that he valued. He saw, as Ella Flagg Young had before him, that the project of promoting democratic education was inseparable from the project of working towards a democratic society.

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