The present article is a reply to the recent piece in these pages by Timothy Gordon and Stephen Jonathan Rummelsburg, which in turn was a response to an article by Dr. Kevin Brady and me, again in The Imaginative Conservative.
I speak here for myself, leaving my co-author to file his own reply if he so chooses. To fill in readers who have not seen our original piece: Dr. Brady and I criticized our friends on the Right for making outlandish arguments against the new Common Core standards for the English Language Arts (ELA). Whether from the carelessness of their research or from the desire to stir up the political base (and, it must be said, sympathetic donors), fevered critics on the Right, we argued, have blamed the Common Core for various Left-wing and some downright nutty assignments given out by teachers across the country. Dr. Brady and I pointed out that in no way do the standards themselves mandate the assignments in question, and we demonstrated that the Common Core focuses on skills, not content, and is not meant to be a complete curriculum.
Dr. Brady and I went on to show that the Common Core simply calls for students to develop the necessary comprehension skills to analyze literature and what it calls “informational texts” (works of non-fiction). We suggested that conservatives might be surprised to learn that many classic texts (by Sophocles, Euclid, Homer, Shakespeare, Chesterton, Edgar Allan Poe, etc.) and speeches by conservatives (including Ronald Reagan) are included on the Common Core’s list of exemplars. We suggested that the state of modern American education is so abysmal and so dominated by Left-wing ideology that conservatives might indeed be able to use the Common Core to their advantage by promoting the use of texts to their liking. Finally, we advised that conservatives should either make fact-based arguments against the new standards (and there are many reasonable and serious objections to them) or else drop their opposition and use the Common Core as an opportunity to further their own agenda.
Now to Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg’s reply: Frankly, I have trouble understanding the arguments they make in their opening paragraphs and can only glean from their abstruse poetry that they do not like centralized direction of education. In this I agree with them. I am compelled to insert biography here and mention that not long ago I served as headmaster of a Catholic, classical K-12 academy. In a perfect world I would mandate that all students receive an education grounded in the medieval trivium.
The Common Core, of course, is not reflective of the assumptions of a program that guides the young through the stages of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. However, it does seek to instill in students the sort of reading comprehension skills that are necessary for minds everywhere. It may be true that requiring students and teachers to devote too much attention to these basic skills (through the Common Core’s emphasis on assessments) will detract from the encouragement of reading for pure enjoyment and dampen the enthusiasm of a blossoming imagination. The same, however, would be true of almost any type of standards adopted by a school, a county, a state, or by the federal government.
At the classical school I ran, the students were required to take state tests every year. In addition, high school sophomores and juniors studied for the PSAT and SAT tests in after-school programs that we conducted. Standards and testing are part of the reality of educational life in modern America. At our classical school, and indeed at every type of school with which I have familiarity, testing is the paradigm by which grades are determined. Though I find the entire practice of testing students the way we do in America highly problematic (I would prefer return to the somewhat subjective, yet more accurate, individual judgment of the medieval master), we as conservatives must take into account present realities.
So, it is easy for conservative critics of the Common Core to posture as high-minded classicists and champions of the Great Books and to sound alarms about the quashing of the imagination and the extinguishing of the search for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But to expect any standards to be able to provide a proscription as to how a teacher is to fire the imaginations of his students or to fall in love with the book of Frost poems that they are given the first day of class is to ask the impossible of standards qua standards. Basic reading comprehension skills are a prerequisite so that students can come to love Hawthorne, Faulkner, or Hemingway. One does not simply hand a student a volume of Emerson and say, “Now, wallow in its beauties… never mind what the words mean!” One could similarly criticize the classical approach to education for making students in the primary grades memorize those nasty vocabulary words or the boring multiplication times tables. Is this killing their imagination? No, it is preparing them to use their reason and their imagination.
Now, to address the numbered rebuttal points made by Messrs. Gordon and Rummselburg in their essay. Here I at least understand their criticisms.
1. G&R: “More or less, states must accept most funded mandates, lest they be left behind by the other states who do so.” Well, federal persuasion through the dangling of federal monies is a tried and true tactic and has been used in education since Jimmy Carter established the federal Department of Education. Nevertheless, contra Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg, several states have rejected Common Core, and more may do so.
2. G&R: “‘Teachers are free to choose content.’ This is illusory, they employ the language of freedom to pave the way—all the way—to a state-sanctioned Stockholm syndrome.” Here we have inflammatory statements by Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg (“Stockholm syndrome”?) that lack specific proof. The reader is simply told that this terrible Götterdämmerung will come to pass—and is supposed to believe it. How are teachers less free to choose content under Common Core than under “the previous system” (which one?). Teachers will undoubtedly face pressure from administrators and parents to pick politically-correct texts, but this is not because of Common Core.
3. G&R: “It is arguable that, by the standards existent at the turn of the 19th or 20th centuries, most teachers are formally illiterate.” This is quite a radical claim and is again made without sufficient evidence. Assuming for the moment that “most teachers are formally illiterate,” how will they then be able to teach students the glories of Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Eliot’s The Wasteland, tasks which Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg agree are more challenging than the nuts-and-bolts analysis of texts required by the Common Core?
4. G&R: “The Common Core may not ennoble the spirit as true curricula are supposed to, but curriculum it is.” Again, no standards will “ennoble the spirit”; that is a magic that occurs somewhere in the space between the student and his book, between the teacher and the student. Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg are asking the impossible of the Common Core, creating, again, a straw man. To repeat also: The Common Core emphasizes the development of skills and does not focus on content. So, it depends upon what one means by curriculum; if curriculum includes skills-development, then the Common Core is a partial curriculum.
5. G&R: “Promoters of the Common Core mean to isolate a passage of Shakespeare—without any historical context… This flies in the face of the Western Tradition, which supposes that a text must always be read for its whole.” In no way do the Common Core standards prohibit teachers from reading an entire play of Shakespeare. An exercise in developing reading comprehension skills entails by its very nature that students take an excerpt and analyze it in isolation, if only briefly. I was taught by Benedictine monks from seventh grade through twelfth grade in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In literature class we used a textbook that included excerpts from great works and some shorter works in their entirety. There was no Common Core then, no federal standards at all.
6. G&R: “The ‘skills’ taught through the Common Core are ‘empty skill sets’ at best.” Reading comprehension skills are not “empty” but are the foundation of reading. If conservative critics would descend from sermonizing and take a look at some of the exercises developed in conjunction with the Common Core standards, they might be impressed; for example, there is this challenging exercise involving the story of Daedalus and Icarus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
7. G&R: “The public schools steeped in multiculturalism have long held the great books in contempt and without a change of heart, will likely continue to do so.” Again, a statement without sufficient proof. If true, this is not the fault of the Common Core. Once again, Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg are arguing against the state of American education and not against the Common Core per se.
8. G&R: “The promoters of the Common Core have little or no interest in fine literature.” See my response to #7 above.
I am obliged to point out that Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg misleadingly suggest that the first sentence of a block quotation in their article are the words of Dr. Brady and me (“The fight over Common Core is a ‘dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other’s worst impulses.”) These words are actually those of conservative columnist, Ramesh Ponnuru.
Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg quote Scripture in defense of their arguments and conclude that “the Common Core is counterfeit education; the values it propagates are counterfeit virtues.” After reading their entire article, I am still at a loss as to what “values/virtues” the Common Core supposedly promotes. How does a skill-based, content-free, partial curriculum advocate virtue at all?
Dr. Brady and I are told that we “propose a dreadful compromise” by suggesting that conservatives either making fact-based, reasonable arguments against the Common Core—of which, to repeat, there are undoubtedly several—or find a way to achieve their ends within the paradigm of the new standards. Messrs. But Gordon and Rummelsburg believe that they have a third alternative, their anthem being “reject Common Core; reject federal education!”
This final bit of sloganeering belies the fact that Messrs. Gordon and Rummelsburg have committed the fallacy of composition in their piece; i.e., they are making the Common Core a whipping boy for their more generalized opposition to federal control of education. Their response actually makes our point. What conservatives are upset about is the state of the American education system, and they use the Common Core as a punching bag to vent their legitimate frustrations by using slogans and unfounded arguments.
The sky above the American education system may indeed be falling. The Common Core standards may indeed constitute an insufficient shield against this calamity. But they are hardly the cause of it. I urge my friends on the Right to read the Common Core standards in their entirety, to make fact-based arguments against them, and to abandon inflammatory sloganeering. As the Lord says in Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.