Man: A Course of Study
September 25, 2011 5:18 AM   Subscribe

Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) was a social sciences educational curriculum designed in the late 1960s. The course examined the commonalities between human behavior and that of several animal species, and culminated with a series of short films documenting the lives of the Netsilik Eskimo people. Although many school systems initially adopted MACOS, it was largely abandoned after a campaign of opposition from conservative Christians, who saw it as a Trojan horse for the indoctrination of secular humanism and cultural relativism in the public schools. The 2004 documentary Though These Eyes looks at creation of MACOS and the controversy surrounding it.
posted by Horace Rumpole (17 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post!

Believe it or not, MACOS was one of the foundational elements of my elementary education training in the early 1990s. We had a progressivist/constructivist curriculum, and we studied the creation, adoption, and discarding of MACOS as well as the content itself and how it applied to questions of learning. It formed one of the major structural frameworks for our methods class. Fascinating story and really interesting educational approach.
posted by Miko at 5:21 AM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Those conservative Christians pretty much have it right.

That said... So what? Fark 'em. If they want Christian (or other religious) indoctrination, they can open their own schools.
posted by pla at 6:16 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're monkeys with lies on top.
posted by fraac at 6:44 AM on September 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

At its peak, the MACOS curriculum was taught in 47 states, in 1,700 schools, and to over 400,000 students. Unfortunately, the culturally relative point of view of the course, that is, the basic assumption that different cultures find different ways to solve basic human problems, also appeared to seriously challenge some basic assumptions that some parents and some congresspersons had about the goal of education.
Amazing, isn't it?
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I prefer "great ape with elaborate societal structures and advanced tool usage," myself.

I haven't finished watching the doc yet; I will, because I want to see if this is where my ninth-grade social studies teacher got the footage of little Inuit kids eating a fresh-butchered seal with all the joy of third-graders at a pizza party. But I'm pretty sure that I know where this is going: the Nacirema, a powerful neighboring people, were threatened by the aims of the project and claimed it was blasphemous, so little else was heard of it thereafter. This, too, is of anthropological interest.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:14 AM on September 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

Thank you for posting this, the documentary is excellent. I'm not so happy with the feeling of impotent rage I've developed by the end of the film, but hey, maybe I can turn that to constructive activity. Anyone got any ideas?
posted by sixohsix at 7:27 AM on September 25, 2011

We did this in my elementary school and I remember chanting something about Irvin deVore being Irvin De Bore with some of my classmates.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:05 AM on September 25, 2011

Thank you for an interesting post.
There was really good education for kids to be had during the late sixties and seventies, and even conservative parents like mine backed it. The documentary shows a bit of what went wrong, but I still don't entirely get how these religious crazies could (and can) coup everyone else.
Education-wise, we've gone through a decade of PISA-led madness, which would never have been possible if the religious conservatives hadn't brought down the progressive educators.

That said - education is difficult. Something like MACOS is an elite program, depending on intelligent and well-educated teachers throughout the system. Anyone who has attended a school or has children in school will know that not all teachers are intelligent and well-educated. I guess that's why they had an expensive course for the teachers built into the program. What I am trying to say is, I think a lot of the great ideas of the sixties were brought down by the sub-standard teachers parents experienced in their everyday life. Heck, my illiterate aunt was a teacher for several years. (I love my aunt, and I do her writing for her).

Is anybody else here seeing a shift in education? I wrote somewhere else about my youngest child's public school. It is definitely progressive and has a strong support among parents in the community. I'm thinking it's because we parents grew up going to schools with lot's of project work and cross-disciplinary teaching, and feel happy with the way we can make use of that in our lives. Whereas the generation older than us felt uncomfortable in the transition between the "old" school and the "new", and didn't want their children to experience that.
posted by mumimor at 8:25 AM on September 25, 2011

AB: The greatest strength of MACOS…the films obviously! I mean the special kind of films! Also the inclusion of the research scientist in curriculum creation! Also the teacher’s changing status, he has become a helper of the student! And getting rid of the textbook and inviting the student to learn directly from field notes!

In the mid 80s I studied just one year of a high school social studies program based on MACOS, at the last school here in Western Australia to use it. Our teacher was a rather butch lesbian named Gwen, on the old school hard left of the political spectrum, who later became a comrade in various struggles and a friend once I'd left school.

She had amazing levels of energy and joy at having us participate and act out the life of the Netsilik. We made seal hunting spears with materials available on the school oval (we did need to import rope). We took primal cuts of meat to the park to butcher as though they were seals then shared the meat according to traditional values - you're old Gwen so only fat for you, because you have no teeth!. She had us design hypothetical sleds using materials available to the Netsilik before we got to watch the film about sled building. It was often weird but it was always fun.

But beyond that, Gwen really got the "helper of the student" bit like no other teacher I've ever met. I don't remember her ever answering a question. Ever. Instead she'd provide the skills needed to find the resources that would answer the question. She didn't teach us, she helped us learn to teach ourselves.

I'm not really sure whether it was Gwen herself, or the cultural relativity embedded in MACOS, or the somewhat peripatetic direction my life has taken, but I continue to carry the sense that people and things are both truly very different, and truly the same, wherever one goes. I certainly think MACOS had quite a lot to do with that.

And that it's helped make me a much more independent, tolerant, understanding, and deeply human individual than I would otherwise have been. It was a course that made people who could live in societies. Live at peace, with other people. All education systems need more courses like that.
posted by Ahab at 8:49 AM on September 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

What about Mac OS X ? :)
posted by teletype1 at 10:15 AM on September 25, 2011

Whoa - does that take me back!

Interesting, in the film, Asen Balikci speaking how strongly they believed that the MACOs program would eliminate “racism and technocentralism” in North America. So touching when he returns to the Inuit community, he cries when meeting one of the women featured in the film. So sad, to see such a vibrant culture be destroyed by criticism and domination.

“Without awareness (of other cultures), there is a moral and mental death.” Jerome Bruner

It’s a shocking reminder on how powerful a few right wing Christians are.

Thanks for the info!
posted by what's her name at 10:44 AM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's kind of ridiculous, because at it's core, learning about cultures like the Netsilik reinforces conservatism, because it emphasizes the value and importance of ancient traditions. I think learning about Inuit cultures as a child was probably what inspired me to ultimately take up hunting myself, not exactly a left-wing hobby. But yes, it did make me skeptical of Christianity because I saw that these other religions had value and it didn't make sense to me that these people were going to hell or that they should become Baptists. I was a homeschooler in an Evangelical home and didn't learn this from MACOS, I learned it from a National Geographic subscription my grandmother gave me as a gift.

I think what really tipped the balanced away from things like MACOS is not only were they charged with promoting secular humanism and cultural relativism, but with being less rigorous as they didn't emphasize reading and people felt they were crowding that out and wasting kid's time.
posted by melissam at 11:26 AM on September 25, 2011

Although many school systems initially adopted MACOS, it was largely abandoned after a campaign of opposition from conservative Christians, who saw it as a Trojan horse for the indoctrination of secular humanism and cultural relativism in the public schools.

I thought it was a FUD campaign from the competing WINTEL (Western Intellect Elevated) curriculum.
posted by kmz at 12:39 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure I encountered some of this curricula in the early '70's NYC Presbyterian private elementary school I attended. I was hoping it might be part of the answer to an AskMe of mine that remains unanswered. But maybe among Mefites interested in this (wonderful) post, there might be someone who knows what I was asking about?
posted by emhutchinson at 1:40 PM on September 25, 2011

Hey, we did MACOS in my primary school in Sydney - it was probably my favourite part of the day, and I hold it at least partially responsible for me wanting to study secular humanist, culturally relativist liberal arts at university.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:38 PM on September 25, 2011

Damn, they don't seem to have that caribou hunting game on the site yet. I wanted to check if it really was the most half-arsed game design, the caribou move in random directions based on the roll of a die. As if they'd ever behave like that in nature! Grumble grumble. (of course, I'm just annoyed at losing the grand final of the Netsilik caribou hunting competition, when the bastards doubled-back unexpectedly from my cunning traps)
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:45 PM on September 25, 2011

I think what really tipped the balanced away from things like MACOS is not only were they charged with promoting secular humanism and cultural relativism, but with being less rigorous as they didn't emphasize reading and people felt they were crowding that out and wasting kid's time.

I really don't think that would account for it. For evidence you have to consider every other foolish non-reading waste of time in the school curriculum, perhaps starting with gym but extending to art, music, lab science, the school play, nutrition, and much more that is now written into most state curricula (which have been expanding topically for decades) rather than shrinking. I think it's a decent speculation, but it falls short of explaining related but more contemporary realities --social studies texts are still the most commonly challenged type of textbook, and it's rarely because people are worried about time not spent on reading (reading and writing were central to MACOS and reading is still central to social studies learning) - it's because in the 1960s and 70s, the comparitive study of human social organization essentially replaced the study of geography and civics from an American perspective, and that made a lot of people really anxious, and still does.

In fact, I kind of suspect it's this kind of thing that drove the Back to Basics movement of the 1980s, rather than the other way around. If we're locked into teaching "Basics" by a huge sense of urgency, we won't even have time for topics which step onto our cultural battleground.
posted by Miko at 6:40 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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