Curriculum: A Sourcebook

Originally drafted August 14, 2022 and last tended May 16, 2023 by Matt McElwee.
(See Revision History).

  • Accuracy:

    Largely accurate, though strongly trends in a defense of liberal education for the sake of a flourishing liberal, pluralistic democracy. The nature of both liberalism and pluralism are both worthy of discussion, but are out of scope here.

  • Certainty:


  • Completeness:

    Largely complete

  • Mental Effort:

    I have spent the last few years engaging in these topic areas, especially in areas of America's racial history and more recently in curriculum development and pedagogy. This list is at once a reflection of that effort and an attempt to bring that together to form a sourcebook oriented towards current concerns about curriculum in public schools.

The culture war seems to be shifting. When it began, the central focus was on abortion.1 It extended out with concerns of feminism, sexual mores, and the like. In the last two years, a seismic shift seems to have taken place. Rather than the culture war being defined by a vision of morality, as in Haidt's moral foundations theory, the culture war seems to have shifted to what we believe to be true about our purpose and praxis as a nation.

This shift is borne out in current debates over school curriculum, with the most acute focus not on pedagogy or praxis, but on what is considered good and bad content. Two issues arise as the battlefields for content: race and sexuality.

The battle lines are drawn between the usual subjects. To sexuality, we've seen more than two generations of this sort of conflict, and the differences between right and left can easily be divided into Haidt's binding cluster (loyalty, authority, and sanctity) and individualizing cluster (care and fairness), respectively.

If only sexuality (or even discussions on the human life ethics) were at play, we might simply chalk this up to differences in moral foundations and urge people to a view of empathy and fair-mindedness that observes the Imago dei in others with different moral foundations than ourselves. But the sudden interest in a once niche discipline within legal studies called Critical Race Theory seems to complicate this theory.

This sudden moral panic around the proper teaching of US history with regard to race is not limited to one party or moral foundation. It could be said, albeit reductively, that the majority of the right would prefer these topics ignored while the majority of the left would shift the curriculum to focus on this issue above all else.2 But as I said, this is reductive.3 Both right and left have seen fissures in their praxis and content.

Nevertheless, we've seen a rise in concerns by the right over content presented to children. Centrally, I suggest that this is a combination of a lack of civic catechesis as well as a growing sense of alienation by the right. Haidt points to the prominent placement of left-leaning individuals within teacher's unions and teaching colleges. This is unsurprising given Tanner's observations on the draw to the teaching profession being one of care. It seems sensible then that those whose moral foundations belong to the individualizing cluster would be found most predominantly within the teaching profession. With this in mind, it is understandable that this feeling of alienation by the right would only grow as the teaching guild becomes increasingly homogenous, leading to enforcement of social boundaries.

I would consider however that while we have seen strong overcorrection, especially from the very progressive and even leftist elements of the left, they have not departed from a vision of liberalism and pluralism which were founding ideals of our nation.

The purpose of this sourcebook is to point liberal education as a key mechanism in preserving our democracy and the American project. I will offer fleeting commentary on some sources and allow others to speak for themselves. I have also provided sources which address directly some of those issues which are motivating so much conflict in school board meetings today. The aim is to demonstrate the vast amount of content, technicality, and nuance present in these disciplines and to cast aspersions at the notion that anyone is genuinely trying to infuse curriculum with these disciplines.

A final note before presenting the source list. It is my view that the topics of sexuality, gender, LGBTQ+ issues, and the troubled history of race in America are all important and necessary subjects which all Americans ought to grapple with. The posture of a liberal, pluralistic democracy is not that everyone would come out with the same conclusions, but that we would be introduced to the relevant data and share in a discourse as a community. What I hope these sources will demonstrate is just that.

What these sources will not do is provide the nuance that is desperately needing in determining when and how much we should teach children.

For example, there is considerable value in telling children of a certain age a story about World War II which paints Nazism as pure villainy4 and America as a united front against it. Sure it took some time for us to get involved, but in the end, America united against tyranny and fascism. Yet it is equally valuable to tell children (likely of an older age) the story of the of the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, an event attended by more than 20,000 Americans. In this telling of the story of America versus fascism, we are forced to think about Arendt's banality of evil and wrestle with the reality that it could happen here.

We shouldn't further our conversations on whether both visions of America should be taught to children.5 Rather, we should be ardently focused on when and how we should teach those visions. They cannot be taught at the same time, they are in some ways conflicting stories. But at the same time, they aren't. They are stories of a nation that wrestled with its own demons (and still is) but ultimately overcame them to fight one of the greatest evils in the last century.

What we do when we try to jettison content out of mere discomfort or a vision of history that can only see the former America and not the latter, we open ourselves up to not learn from past mistakes, not out of hatred for our nation, but out of deep love for both it and our neighbor.

A Biblical Primer on Education

The Biblical witness on education is somewhat scant. This is sensible as the oral tradition and scant writings which formed the basis for the Torah originated at a time when Israel was a small, isolated nation whose primary vocation was subsistence farming. The emergence of statecraft would've been wholly unnecessary until at least the united monarchy in the 10th century, and even the idea of civic life โ€“ as conceived by Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero, would've been a long time in coming.

As such, the content on which pedagogical instruction from the Scriptures point is not on civic engagement, but on passing on the faith and God's teaching.

By Jesus and Paul's day, civic life was more in view, especially as wealthier (and therefore higher society) gentiles joined the Church. But again, for the average Christian, civic education was not overly important, as the participation in civic life was primarily (and often only) a matter of paying taxes.

Exodus 12:24-28, 13:11-16

When the feast of Passover is instituted, instruction is given on how the teaching of this feast and what it recalls is to be done. Years (even generations) before this event would've been written down, the common family table was invested with the responsibility to keep the memory of the night of Passover.

Exodus 15

Here we see one of the principle practices of passing down the faith: song.

Exodus 17

The first time in the Bible that the writing of the Bible is mentioned.

Leviticus 10, Leviticus 14, Deuteronomy 24, Deuteronomy 33

Here we see the Levites tasked the responsibility of teaching the instructions (torah) of ื™ื”ื•ื” to the people of Israel. This is something that was meant to be retained over generations, to keep the memory of these instructions. What we see in Judges especially (and then drawn on in Ruth much later) is that the Levites had neglected the teaching of the torah and even participated in apostasy and violence (cf. Judges 18-28).

Deuteronomy 4-6, 11

The memory of the torah and of ื™ื”ื•ื”'s sovereignty is meant to be kept by the people in their daily practice. The shema of Deuteronomy 6 was prayed every morning and night, even bound in boxes and tied to the forehead or right hand as a way of keeping the torah always on their minds. They are instructed to teach them to their children. In this way, whole community participates in passing the torah on, both by explicitly teaching and by keeping the commands.

Deuteronomy 17

In one of the rare instructions on civic life, we are given the instructions for what a good king of Israel looks like and what he is prohibited from doing. Importantly, the Levites are meant to provide him with

2 Kings 17, 2 Chronicles 15

Two reminders even into the darkest times of Israel's history of the role of the priest in the religious education of the people. The priest's role was perhaps seen first as pedagogue and only then as mediator.

Psalm 71

Psalm 71 is among many Psalms (and so is offered as representative of the whole) that speak of ื™ื”ื•ื”'s teaching of the Psalmist. The Psalmist's response is a deep zeal that wishes to proclaim the mighty deeds of ื™ื”ื•ื” to the next generation.

We ought to consider in all of these Psalms examples that the Psalmist may well be speaking of the Torah as the instruction of ื™ื”ื•ื” and personalizing it, as though ื™ื”ื•ื” had personally taught it in a classroom to the Psalmist. This is not to say that ื™ื”ื•ื” met on a mountaintop with the Psalmist, but that ื™ื”ื•ื”'s instruction (torah) is always new and fresh, teaching each generation as if being taught for the first time.

Proverbs 22:6

Perhaps the most commonly applied verse by the Christian homeschooling community, this verse is employed to imply that the teaching of children is first vested within the home.

This is of course an inference and not strictly stated in the text. Chanak (train up) is used only once in all of Scripture in this sense. Rashi suggests that this is speaking less to an imperative command and more to the sense that "whatever you teach your child, good or bad, that is how he will remain." Under this reading, we ought to be mindful of what we are teaching and what is being taught. The how is subjective.

It has been highlighted too (and Milgrom draws on this definition in his Numbers commentary) that we might better render this as, "train up a child in the way that is right for them." This is a very important distinction.

A Good, Liberal, and Enlightened Polis

Aristotle. (2004). Nicomachean Ethics (Thomson, H. T. J. A. K., Trans.). Penguin Classics. (Originally published c. 335 โ€“ 322 BCE)

Haidt, J. (2022, April 11). Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. The Atlantic.

Locke, J. (1996). Some Thoughts Concerning Education and of the Conduct of the Understanding (Grant, R. W., & Tarcov, N., Eds.). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Original work published 1693)

Madison, J. (n.d.). Federalist Papers No. 10 (1787).

Plato. (2007). The Republic (Lee, D., Trans.). Penguin Classics. (Originally published c. 375 BCE)

Rousseau, J. J. (2012). Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings (Bertram, C., Ed., Hoare, Q., Trans.). Penguin Classics. (Originally published 1762)

On the Christian Case for Love of Nation

Lewis, C. S. (2017). The Four Loves (Reissue edition). HarperOne.

Mouw, R. J. (2022). How to Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor. IVP.

Schiess, K. (2020). The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor. IVP.

On Pedagogy

Bauers, S. W. (2016) The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (4th edition). W. W. Norton & Company. (Originally published 1999)

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th edition). Bloomsbury Academic. (Originally published 1968)

Levinson, M. (1999). The Demands of Liberal Education. Oxford University Press.

Postman, N. (2005). Amusing Ourselves to Death (Anniversary edition). Penguin Books.

Wexler, N. (2019). The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education systemโ€“and how to fix it. Avery.

On Critical Race Theory

Delgado, R., & Stefanic, J. (2017). Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction (3rd edition). NYU Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (5th edition). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Rothstein, R. (2018). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint edition). Liveright.

This is one of the most useful introductions to the basic history of de jure racism in America. An important note, this is not a critical race theory text. It is rather a refutation of Milliken v. Bradley through the discipline of history. It does serve as a helpful primer to better explore the theories of Crenshaw, Delgado, and Silva in light of injustices which have been encoded into law, either implicitly or explicitly.

This sourcebook, outside of the Scripture references, largely focused on the need for education which benefits civic life โ€“ especially in a liberal, democratic polis. I have offered little in the way of Christian formation and education. To that end, I will also submit a small note of my own, which I hope to eventually develop into a full essay, but is now a collection of thoughts: Children should have a robust Christian education.


  1. And segregation. Randall Balmer is considered the first to make this connection, but everyone from Kruse to Du Mez to Vischer have further highlighted the peculiarity in the evangelical (and then Moral Majority) rally around the pro-life cause. โ†ฉ

  2. It's important to emphasize that within this rhetorical device I am not claiming that any proponent on the left is extending the discussion of race (as a content-area) beyond the subjects in which it has traditionally been taught (social studies, history, and occasionally language arts). โ†ฉ

  3. Phil Vischer's viral video on race is an excellent example of this. Vischer is quite conservative, both socially and religiously. Yet he presents a nuanced, well-researched history of the racial question in America. โ†ฉ

  4. Which it was, this is not the bit that needs nuance. โ†ฉ

  5. There is a concept especially in the teaching of science called "Lies to children." โ†ฉ