In 1975, education scholar Peter Dow wrote to a close collaborator that “If you haven’t already heard . . . Man: A Course of Study [MACOS] may become the best known and least used curriculum effort of the entire sixties.”[1] MACOS was one of the last Sputnik-era curriculum projects and aimed to introduce elementary-school children to anthropology. More profoundly, the curriculum developers also hoped to teach students how to think like scientists about questions like “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can they be made more so?”[2]

As the administrative director of the curriculum project from 1967-1975, Dow participated in the excitement of developing MACOS in the 1960s, its 1970 commercial release and adoption by public and private schools around the country, and the tribulations that quickly followed in some communities where it was taught.[3] This hopeful rise and rancorous fall of MACOS culminated in a dramatic series of showdowns on the floor of the US Congress; Dow defended the curriculum against accusations of introducing innocent children to secular humanism, immoral behavior, and the violence of “uncivilized” hunting practices. For its critics, attacking MACOS was also politically useful. They mobilized their frustration that federal funds had been used to develop the curriculum as a means of opening a far larger investigation into the management of the National Science Foundation and a thorough questioning of the kinds of projects supported by federal research dollars.

MACOS designers elected not to include a unit on the biological origins of humanity in the final version of the curriculum. They worried that addressing evolution directly might prove controversial. This 17-page document shows what such a unit might have included. Box 2, Folder 5, Peter B. Dow–Man: A Course of Study Records, Monroe C. Gutman Library, Special Collections, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Given the lack of future funding, the Educational Development Center (EDC)—the non-profit company that coordinated the transformation of MACOS from a curriculum project into a viable product—scrapped plans for a second curriculum along the same lines but aimed at older children. By 1977, the EDC had collected all of the materials they possessed relating to MACOS and deposited them at the Gutman Library within the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Yet they stayed there for only three years. In 1980, the library gave them back, citing concerns over space and the limited interest the collection would likely generate. MACOS, it seemed, was a program everyone was keen to forget. Dow worried that the EDC would eventually discard the collection, so he packed the files into the back of his pickup and drove them 450 miles west to his home in Buffalo. 

When Dow published an account of the curriculum’s storied past, Schoolhouse Politics, he wrote that the “correspondence, internal memoranda, newspaper and journal articles, classroom reports, formal and informal evaluations, drafts of materials under development, and copies of many of the published materials of the course in various editions,” plus “transcripts of forty-six interviews conducted with individuals associated with the development, implementation, and public reaction to the course” were all housed “in his personal library.”[4] This remarkable archive captured a snapshot of four-field anthropological thought in the 1960s—from the dawn of humanity to the origins of cities—and lived in his basement, where it gathered dust for over a decade. Then, Gutman Library called to ask whether Dow still had the files. He once again loaded them into his pickup, now supplemented with press clippings and interviews he had collected in writing the book, and drove them back east.

I delved into the MACOS papers on my first research foray for the project that would become Creatures of Cain.[5] I sought to understand why this well-intentioned course—a continuing favorite at Friends’ schools for decades after its commercial release—had been met with such political vitriol. Dow had preserved the internal conversations at EDC and Harvard as MACOS materials were tested in classrooms and refined. He kept, too, records of pedagogical materials the program had started developing but ultimately chose not to include in the final version of the course. I found entrancing his transcripts of interviews he conducted with MACOS staff reflecting back on the program. 

Reading through the MACOS papers, my research snowballed. I began to see how at least two very different public conversations about evolution and human nature co-existed in the 1970s. Throughout the 1960s, a cohort of professional biologists and anthropologists (including those involved with MACOS) sought to reach lay readers with their message that humanity already possessed the ability to shape our nature in the future. Their optimism ran afoul of a very different message promulgated in the colloquial scientific press, that the best hope for society came from identifying and embracing our limitations as a species. In this more pessimistic account, human nature had been fixed in evolutionary history. MACOS, developed by scientists committed to the transformative power of education, came under fire for promoting a vision of humanity as barbaric. Sorting out how and why this had happened became the kernel of my nascent project.  

Dow’s MACOS records were essential reading. Since their re-deposition at Gutman Library, they have been supplemented by Harvard University Archive’s accession of the collected papers of psychologist Jerome Bruner and biological anthropologist Irven DeVore—two faculty members deeply involved in the project.[6] The fate of the MACOS papers illustrates how archives house memories deemed worthy of preservation. Like any form of collective remembrance, they are always in the process of becoming. 

[1] Peter Dow to Jerome Bruner, 7 April 1975, Box 38, Folder 1, Peter B. Dow–Man: A Course of Study Records, Monroe C. Gutman Library, Special Collections, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[2] Jerome S. Bruner, “Man: A Course of Study,” ESI Quarterly Report (1965), 3–13.

[3] Dow’s research served as the basis of his dissertation (Ed.D. 1979) and eventual book: Peter Dow, Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[4] Schoolhouse Politics, 277.

[5] Erika Lorraine Milam, Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). 

[6] Papers of Jerome Seymour Bruner, Accessions 10823, 11380, 14728; Papers of Irven DeVore, Accession 14898; Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, MA.

Erika Lorraine Milam: contributions /