On the Common Core

Less Twilight, more Tocqueville.

Anthony Esolen recently wrote a good piece on the Common Core. It’s worth a read, so go give it one.

Now, let me disagree. Before I disagree, though, let me say: I completely agree. Dr. Esolen’s critique is excellent. However, it does not have much to do with the Common Core. Yes, the Common Core is overtly utilitarian in its view of children, learning, and curriculum. Yes, its advocates may well render the sublime banal, the imaginative familiar, and leave the student in the role of critic (these dangers are inherent in all education, if we are honest; the Common Core language does not really make any bones about it). All true, all good objections. However:

The Common Core is not ushering in a new wave of educational utilitarianism or pragmatism (two different theories, I know). We have long been travelling in the utilitarian rut; since the 1950s, American education has operated on the narrative of “Work really hard, Johnny, and one day you will be successful and happy and white!” Or something like that. Production and monetary reward are the norm; a well-considered life with an eye for beauty, not so much. (I would add that whatever virtues of work ethic baby-boomer education instilled, it had the decided disadvantage of being a lie.)

One way to view the common core, however, is as a desperate last grasp to hold on to this “school-work=intelligence=success” narrative, and keep education relevant to American youth by the carrot-and-stick method. In this way, it is oddly traditional; albeit, “traditional” here is only a few generations old. But it does hearken back a few generations in terms of curriculum.

Some critics have pointed out that “fictional texts” (i.e., literature) are being replaced by “informational texts.”   Shakespeare is out and Time Magazine is in. But what these critics don’t mention is that some of the recommended “informational texts” include Chesterton’s “The Fallacy of Success,” De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Instead of “Less Shakespeare, more magazine time,” it may be more accurate in some cases that the Common Core means “Less Twilight, more Tocqueville.” Not all bad, then.

The problem, of course, is in the use of language–which Esolen nobly eviscerates: We are not cutting out some epics to make room for wisdom books; we are not swapping dialogues for novels; we are reducing fictional texts and increasing informational texts in order to produce robust critical engagement with blah blah blah bling bling bling blah. It sounds respectable in this jargon- riddled slogan-addled age. And after all, what the Common Core is really about is an attempt to prop up a facade of respectability on our government sponsored babysitting program.

But the Common Core is not creating this problem; it has been with us for some time now. Instead, the Common Core grants an admission that American education is in a dilapidated state and requires some accountability, and this is good as far as it goes. Yes, it is utterly utilitarian–but education is already utterly utilitarian, and Common Core standards will not change this fact.

But maybe, just maybe, one of those high-school seniors will ignore their babysitter’s attempt to foster critical engagement with text, and in their boredom they may actually read Plato or Tocqueville. And, if they read carefully, they may be able to see through the darkness of jargon with the insight of wisdom. And that would make the Common Core a fortunate fall.


Shane Ayers is an educator at a small private school in Northern Virginia.

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