The Saber-Tooth Curriculum

A few months ago, frequent commenter Red Five noted a pretty much forgotten book, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. Written in 1939 by the mythical J. Abner Peddiwell – the creation of education professor H. R. W. Benjamin – the book is a series of drunken lectures on the nature of education during the paleolithic era. That education supposedly included lessons such as saber-tooth-tiger-scaring-with-fire, long after saber-tooth tigers had disappeared, and so on.

The book is crazily satirical, happily takes shots at everybody, and it holds up well. Maybe not well enough to bother hunting out – it is difficult to sustain such a parody for 100+ pages – but The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is clever and pretty funny. Surprisingly so since humour, particularly topical humour, tends to date quickly.

Below is our favourite passage from the book, concerned with the establishment of university courses for teachers, and the introduction of professors of paleolithic education.


The crude, naive work of the education professors was regarded with contempt by the subject-matter specialists. It was inevitable that a man who who had devoted a lifetime of productive scholarship or systematic speculation to such a problem as The Mystical Element in Sputtering Firebrands as Applied to Tiger-Whiskers or Variations in Thumb-Holds for Grabbing Fish Headed Outward from the Grabber at an Angle of Forty-Five Degrees Plus or Minus Three should be contemptuous of pseudo scholars who were merely trying to show students how to teach.

The academic contempt for pedagogy had a good effect on the education professors. Stung by justified references to their low cultural status, they resolved to make their discipline respectable. With a magnificent display of energy and self-denial, they achieved this goal. First, they organized their subject systematically, breaking it down into respectably small units, erecting barriers to keep professors conventionally isolated from ideas outside their restricted areas, and demanding specialization and more specialization in order to achieve the narrow knowledge and broad ignorance which the paleolithic university demanded of its most truly distinguished faculty members.

Second, they required all members of their group to engage in scientific research in education by counting and measuring quantitatively everything related to education which could be counted and measured. It was here that the professors of education showed the greatest courage and ingenuity. They confronted almost insuperable obstacles in the fact that education dealt with the changing of human minds, a most complex phenomenon. The task of measuring a learning situation involving an unknown number of factors continually modifying each other at unknown rates of speed and with unknown effects was a tremendous one, but the professors did not hesitate to attack it.

Finally, the professors of education worked for academic respectability by making their subject hard to learn. This, too, was a difficult task, but they succeeded admirably by imitating the procedures of their academic colleagues. They organized their subject logically. This necessarily resulted in their giving the abstract and philosophical courses in education first, delaying all practical work in the subject until the student was thoroughly familiar with the accustomed verbalizations of the craft and, thereby, immunized against infection from new ideas. They adopted the lecture method almost exclusively and labored with success to make it an even duller instrument of instruction than it was in the fields of ichthyology, equinology and defense engineering. They developed a special terminology for their lectures until they were as difficult to understand as any in the strictly cultural fields.

Thus the subject of education became respectable. It had as great a variety of specialists as any field. Some of its professors tried to cover the whole area of the psychology of learning, it is true, but most of them confined their efforts to some more manageable topic like the psychology of learning the preliminary water approach in fish-grabbing. Its research workers were so completely scientific that they could take a large error in the measurement of what they thought maybe was learning in a particular situation and refine it statistically until it seemed to be almost smaller and certainly more respectable than before. Its professors could lecture on modern activity methods of instruction with a scholarly dullness unequalled even by professors of equicephalic anatomy. Their cultured colleagues who had once treated them with contempt were now forced to regard them with suspicious but respectful envy. They had arrived academically.


4 Replies to “The Saber-Tooth Curriculum”

  1. My favorite part is where they begin to question teaching fish-grabbing when there are no fish to grab and claim the teaching of modern skills “would be mere training.”

    The whole book makes me want to quit teaching and find the Australian equivalent of Tijuana to retire.

    I’ll race you there.

    1. Yes, the book definitely makes one long for a session of tequila daisies.

      I think you’ve touched upon a weak spot of Benjamin’s parody. It’s fair enough to parody the dismissal of training. But poking fun at fish-grabbing is not really contrasting training versus education; it’s contrasting useful training versus redundant training.

      1. I will forgive Peddiwell many things in this book as I think, on balance, it is absolutely wonderful in the unapologetic way it derides so much of the US (although very relevant in Aus) education system.

        Another great part I remember is the private schools who claimed their education experiences were superior as they had actual sabre-tooth tigers to practice scaring. I sometimes wonder if the CASification of Mathematics could be mirrored in this somehow.

        In another way though, the way the book ends is perhaps all too real a warning for where education is going (and we have quite possibly long passed the point of no return).

        1. We have definitely gone past the point of no return. I can see absolutely no way to get from here to there.

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