The “What’s worthwhile?” question in Curriculum Studies

The key curriculum question in the United States – what knowledge is of most worth – is not a quiet question. It is a call to arms; it is a call to contemplation; it is a call to complicated conversation. It is our uniquely vocational call. For those who aspire to work within the vocation of curriculum studies, let us provide an ongoing answer.

In the concluding sentences of his 2007 proposal for the AAACS Canon Project (reprinted in the introduction to Pinar, 2007), Bill Pinar invokes the question that has often been regarded as the central question for curriculum work in the United States. This article traces some of the historical background of this question, and how it has been used more recently in conversations concerning Curriculum Studies.

The question, as formulated, recites the title of an essay by Herbert Spencer Wikipedia on Herbert Spencer which was first published in 1859, and which is available online in facsimile form at Google books, and in text form at Project Gutenberg and at questia. As noted by Brian Holmes (on p. 12 of this 1994 article [pdf]),

His curriculum theory broke new ground. Unlike the essentialism of Plato and Aristotle and the encyclopaedism of Comenius and Condorcet, it was not subject-centred but rather activity-centred.

In asking the question ‘what knowledge is of most worth?’, Spencer answered that it is the knowledge needed to pursue the leading kinds of activity which constitute human life. He wrote:

[These activities] may be naturally arranged into: 1) those activities which directly minister to self-preservation; 2) those activities which, by securing the necessaries of life, indirectly administer to self-preservation; 3) those activities which have for their end the rearing and discipline of offspring; 4) those activities which are involved in the maintenance of proper social and political relations; 5) those miscellaneous activities which fill up the leisure part of life, devoted to the gratification of the tastes and feelings (ibid.).

The influence of Spencer’s formulation, both in his framing of the question, and in his approach to answering, might be seen n the first U.S. textbook on curriculum by J. Franklin Bobbitt (1918 WorldCat.gif); although Bobbitt’s experience over the course of his career led him to abandon such conceptions of curriculum (see, e.g., Whitson, 2008, pp. 122-125)).

In 1967 the University of Chicago Press published papers from a conference on Liberal Arts in the university, under the title The Knowledge Most Worth Having. Wayne Booth edited the volume, which included his own paper titled “Is there any knowledge that a man must have?” (Other contributors included F. C. Ward, Northrop Frye, J. Cockcroft, J. A. Simpson, J. R. Platt, A. F. Scott, J. M. Redfield, Richard McKeon, and Edward H. Levi Wikipedia.png.)

In their lead article in the 2008 inaugural issue of the AAACS Newsletter, AAACS publications committee members Brian Casemore, Erik Malewski, and Brian Schultz “return to Herbert Spencer’s perennial question, ‘What knowledge is of most worth?’ to consider the contemporary significance of this provocation to thought about curriculum.”:

Given the proclamations, fads, and buzzwords that currently surround educational policy and curriculum implementation in classrooms, schools, and universities, we wonder when, where, and how the question of worthwhile knowledge and experience is authentically articulated and pursued. Teachers and students face an increasing erasure of opportunities to use their own critical judgment in determining what knowledge and experience might expand intellectual, emotional, and social capacities. Rather than articulating their own versions of Spencer’s question, they find themselves occupied with prescribed, insipid, and decontextualized questions— inundated by the rhetoric and demands of high-stakes testing, hyper accountability, adequate yearly progress, no child left behind, highly qualified teachers, core knowledge, success for all, prescriptive curricula, and teacher proofing.

We wonder, therefore, both how the field of curriculum studies can rearticulate Spencer’s question toward intervening in this educational culture and how it can help young people and adults both inside and outside of schools reclaim Spencer’s question in its subjective and social complexity. In this work, it is clear, we must listen closely for the diverse articulations, the unique voices and styles, that give life to the question of meaning in particular places and times. . . .

In the 2009 report for what began as the committee on the Canon Project (now retitled in the committee’s report as the AAACS Project to Advance Curriculum Studies through Disciplinarity), the section on “Heuristic Perspectives” foregrounds the questioning character of Spencer’s question:

If anything has been consistent in the history of curriculum studies, it is a character of questioning, though even this has conjured different meanings in different contexts. Usually traced back to Herbert Spencer’s (1861) query: “What knowledge is of most worth?” I have reiterated this in diverse ways in many of my writings, it is a staple in the most influential synoptic texts, and William Pinar (2007) calls the question “a call to arms as well as a call to contemplation; it is a call to complicated conversation” (p. xix)

Bill Schubert concludes the introductory section of the report with this reflection:

If there is any idea derived from my work (Schubert, 1986 & Schubert, et al., 2002) that is shared among curriculum scholars of diverse orientations, it is a focus on what is worthwhile, e.g., What’s worth knowing, needing, experiencing, doing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, contributing, wondering? Therefore, as I recommend categories of literature below, I suggest that they contribute to a more complex understanding of this fundamental curriculum question.

Accordingly, in the final version, headings for the categories were revised to incorporate the “what is worthwhile” question, so that the heading

  • Experientialist Origins (progressive origins in theory of experience) became
  • Experientialist or Progressives Perspectives (How is what is worthwhile derived from experience?)


  • Social Behaviorist Origins (scientific origins in scientistic conceptual empiricism) became
  • Experientialist or Progressives Perspectives (How is what is worthwhile derived from experience?), et cetera.

In a footnote, Bill explains that

When Madeleine Grumet, Janet Miller, and others suggested the categories might be reframed as questions, they may have had a more thematic purport in mind, or they might have been suggesting that questions could integrate some of the topics. I recommend here that the committee consider variations on questions as framing devices. However, I am simply suggesting questions that facilitated my designation of categories as they appear in the document. These are a springboard for new committee deliberations, and I only offer them as suggestions.

So we are encouraged to continue questioning — and even questioning the questioning. And while the question of what is worthwhile has classically been treated as a — perhaps the — central question for the field of curriculum, the centrality of this question for Curriculum Studies might itself be considered as an open question.

Bobbitt, J. F. (1918). The curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Booth, W. C. (Ed.). (1967). The Knowledge most worth having. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Casemore, B., Malewski, E., & Schultz, B. D. (2008). Re-Reading the Question (“What knowledge is of most worth?”). AAACS Newsletter(1), 1, 6.
Pinar, W. F. (2007). Intellectual advancement through disciplinarity: verticality and horizontality in curriculum studies. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Schubert, W. H. (1986). Curriculum: perspective, paradigm, and possibility. New York: Macmillan.
Schubert, W. H., et al. (2002). Curriculum books: the first hundred years (2nd ed.). New York: P. Lang.
Whitson, J. A. (2008). Decomposing Curriculum, vs. Curriculum-as-Text. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 5(1), 111-137.

© 2009  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 APA style [5th]; 2 for Chicago style A [15th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2009). The “What’s worthwhile?” question. Retrieved Month date, 20xx from’s-worthwhile-question/.
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. “The ‘What’s worthwhile?’ question.” (2009),’s-worthwhile-question/ (accessed Month date, 20xx).

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