Curriculum Consciousness and Brown v. Board of Education

Earlier posts (examples: here and here) have considered how curriculum is understood as involving more than just the kind of “course of study” for which the word “curriculum” is often used.

The consequences of this broader understanding can be seen in the testimony of Dr. Hugh W. Speer, chairman of the Department of Education at the University of Kansas City, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The trial court in Brown ruled in favor of the defendant school board, even though their sympathies were with the plaintiffs (see Kluger, 1977, p. 424). The trial court was obliged to follow the doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that racial segregation was not a violation of the “Equal Protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (one of the Amendments added to the Constitution following the U. S. Civil War): The Plessy Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional for the state to provide separate facilities for whites and blacks, so long as the facilities provided for members of both groups were equal.

The Topeka School Board was arguing that it provided “separate but equal” schools for whites and blacks. The trial court, using the record of evidence in this case, including Dr. Speer’s testimony, wrote an opinion that obediently followed Plessy — but an opinion that would prompt the Supreme Court to, in effect, overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine from the Plessy case (something that only the Supreme Court itself would have the power to do).

The simple, central argument for this landmark change in Constitutional Law was introduced into evidence in Dr. Speer’s testimony. As the Supreme Court itself pronounced in deciding the Brown case:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. (347 U.S. 483, at p. 495)

In the final sentence of the excerpt below, we see how this position follows from a recognition of the nature of curriculum:

[Direct examination by Mr. Greenberg (Counsel for plaintiffs)]:

Q. Dr. Speer, did you examine the curriculum in the schools in the City of Topeka.
A. Yes.

Q. Tell the Court what you mean by “curriculum”, also.
A. By “curriculum” we mean something more than the course of study. As commonly defined and accepted now, “curriculum” means the total school experience of the child. Now, when it comes to the mere prescription of the course of study, we found no significant difference. But, when it comes to the total school experience of the child, there are some differences. In other words, we consider that education is more than just remembering something. It is concerned with a child’s total development, his personality, his personal and social adjustment. Therefore it becomes the obligation of the school to provide the kind of an environment in which the child can learn knowledge and skills such as the three “R’s” and also social skills and social attitudes and appreciations and interests, and these considerations are all now part of the curriculum.

Q. I see, Dr. Speer. Do you have anything further to say?
A. Yes. And we might add the more heterogeneous the group in which the children participate, the better [they] can function in our multi-cultural and multi-group society. For example, if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90% of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child’s curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation.

Transcript, p. 118

Dr. Speer continuing, under direct examination:

… the books in the Randolph School are better than the books in the Buchanan building, in my judgment. There are better heating and lighting in the Randolph building, and I think I would add, Your Honor, that most important of all the curriculum in the Randolph building provides a much better educational opportunity than the one in the Buchanan building, be- [p. 126] cause, in the Randolph building, the colored child would have opportunity to learn to live with, to work with, to cooperate with, white children who are representative of approximately 90% of the population of the society in which he is to live.

Transcript, pp. 125-126

Dr. Speer under cross-examination by Mr. Goodell, Counsel for the defendants:

[The Witness] … the faculty preparation is approximately equal, the class size equal, and so forth. But, in the latter instance, other things are not equal primarily because of the difference in the curriculum which is a very important factor.

Q. All right, now, what is present in the case of the Quinton Heights white school, in the curriculum you talk about, that is not present for comparison purposes in any of the four colored schools?

A. Because in Quinton Heights the child has the opportunity to learn his personal adjustments, his social adjustments and his citizenship skills in the presence of a cross-section of the population.
[p. 133]
Q. I asked you to eliminate the racial feature entirely and restrict it to physical things alone; that is what I asked you.

The Witness: If the Court will permit, I don’t think that we can answer an [on?] educational opportunity purely on physical features. There are too many other elements that are also involved.

Transcript, pp. 132-133

Continuing under cross-examination by Mr. Goodell:

Q. What—is the faculty, then, comparing it to the other factor which you mentioned, curriculum, on the four white schools covered by the illustration and the four negro schools
A. How does the curriculum compare?
[p. 135]
Q. Yes.
A. Between the two schools. As far as course of study is concerned, as far as I know, it is probably about equal but as far as the total curriculum is concerned, and that is the only basis on which I can discuss it, it is not equal.

Q. What do you mean by total curriculum?
A. I mean the total school experience of the school child, what the instructions, what the books are, what the surroundings of the buildings are, what his associations with the other children are.

Q. Well, eliminating that feature, the associations with the other children, which is the racial feature, what are the other part of the curriculum which is any dissimilarity or inferior factors present in the case of the negro schools and the white schools that I have used for illustration.
A. In professional circles we have a term called the great “gestalt” which means the sum is greater—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and, when we start taking into account only the parts one by one, we destroy our “gestalt”, and we cannot make a wise comparison.

Judge Mellott: What was that word?
The Witness: (Spelling) G-e-s-t-a-l-t.

Transcript, pp. 134-135

With Dr. Speer under cross-examination:

Judge Huxman: I think Dr. Speer has made it quite clear from his evidence—he has to me at least, if I understand it—that segregation, racial segregation, is the prime and controlling factor of the equality of the whole curriculum, and that these physical factors are secondary, and that his testimony, as it registered with me, is that aside from racial segregation he perhaps would not testify that there was any such inequality in the physical properties as would deny anybody an equal educational opportunity. Do I understand your testimony correctly?

The Witness: If I may say, Your Honor, I think I would sum up this way: That there is, in my opinion, some inequality in physical facilities between the groups in Topeka, but, in addition to that, there is also the difference of segregation itself which affects the school curriculum.

Transcript, p. 136

Skillful cross-examination generally does not provide the opposing witness opportunities to restate their position as crisply and emphatically as this:

By Mr. Goodell:
Q. . . . It’s your opinion, then, that you can’t have separate schools in any public school system and have equality, is that right?
A. Yes.

Transcript, p. 137


Thanks to Fran O’Malley of the Democracy Project and the Delaware Social Studies Education Project at the University of Delaware for bringing this testimony to my attention.

© 2008 James Anthony Whitson. Permission to use this material is granted subject to the condition that the source is cited, including the information in the following citations (1 for Chicago style A [15th]; or 2 for APA style [5th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2008). Curriculum Consciousness and Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved Month date, 20xx from
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. “Curriculum Consciousness and Brown v. Board of Education.” (2008), (accessed Month date, 20xx).
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