These days that question is often answered in exclusively economic terms – what can students study to ensure a good job upon graduation? – but it is also a political question, evident for example in certain U.S. school districts’ efforts to block the teaching of evolution, or skew the study of slavery. As those controversies make clear, the curriculum question is also an ethical question: what should students study to encourage them to become caring cosmopolitan citizens of their communities and countries and, as climate change requires, of the planet?
The great Canadian educator George Grant underlined the spiritual character of curriculum, insisting we ask why we are alive as well as how should we live, the two questions for him intertwined. For Grant, economics is a subset of ethics. Relegating curriculum to a means – to a good job or even to improve society – devalues it. For him study is an end in itself: a spiritual as well as academic practice.
George Grant was concerned about our relationship to technology, worried we would come to worship it, mesmerized by its many benefits, understating its many dangers, among them pollution, surveillance, the mass casualties of increasingly technological warfare. He predicted technology would produce homogenous societies worldwide, what we now understand as globalization (and the various often violent reactions to it). In that regard, the future of Quebec concerned Grant, but the future of Aboriginal peoples is also affirmed in his commitment to preserve what he termed particularity. Grant was quite critical of the United States, a country (he thought) that would sacrifice anything in the way of profits, now evident in efforts by computer companies to force secondary schools to replace the study of foreign languages with courses in coding.
For me, self-knowledge is knowledge of most worth, knowledge that requires knowledge of the world and its history. That answer positions history as the central subject for our era. In another time, another place, probably I would answer differently.