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common core

by Timothy Gordon and Stephen Jonathan Rummelsburg

Mr. Stephen Klugewicz and Mr. Kevin Brady surprised us in their Imaginative Conservative article last week by affixing the epithet “straw men” to arguments against the Common Core’s increasingly centralized approach to education. Precisely speaking, arguments for or against the Common Core doubtless employ at least a few straw men, as most every polemic does. Natural bias notwithstanding, one remains confident in christening the Common Core a straw house—insufficient shelter for the young, as against the seasons of life.

Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady fail to connect the roundly conceded educative catastrophe in America with the newest and most aggressive attack on educative subsidiarity—that pole star of conservative bona fides. Of course the catastrophe antedates the new Common Core push, by many generations. But selfsame reasoning belies each: a rejection of local curricular rule.

As to the ostensible shock and handwringing over education’s failure, one wonders: how is it surprising (or unrelated) that a thing which contradicted its first principle turned out badly? “Localness,” after all, is the very principle by which one teaches, an epistemic movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Conversely, a citizen educated by bureaucratic dicta emanating from a nerve center 3,000 miles away, will surely, on account of the anti-subsidiarian administration of his education, misunderstand the central principle of civics: subsidiarity. As importantly, he will also look past and fail to grasp the central principle of quality control: subsidiarity.  Neither of these constitutes a “negligible” moment in the edification of any student.

Of still greater importance, the quality of his education will consequently be poor. The American student of public education knows this morality tale only too well, even if he cannot tell you what a morality tale is.

It is only by egregious judicial and executive perversion of the so-called “rights regime”—aggrandizing the few rights actually guaranteed by the words of the Constitution—that education is now considered to be promised by federal “guarantors” in the first place. Critical analysis of government education qua “good” or “bad” misses this point. A false dichotomy is created by apprising types (good or bad) of governmental indoctrination. At the very most innocuous, federal governmental education must of its nature teach the young that the government is beneficent, a trust not concomitant with civic health in a republic. (Would an orthodox Catholic school teach otherwise than that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are correct?) And by its own admission, not to mention its operation, government education tempts the hearts of the young into reliance upon its enfeebling dominion.

This position is really constitutive of three general points (one of procedure, one of substance, and one of primacy) and eight specific ones.

Firstly, lest we forget (or forget that we’ve forgotten), the most important general point of Constitutional procedure is that none of the three branches of the federal government bear the Constitutional purview to educate. Plain and simple. The federal Constitution’s Article I, Section 8 situates seventeen functions or “fields” under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Congress. Education is not among them. Article II, Section 2 lists a scant number of functions for the President and his “public ministers and consuls.” Education is not among them, nor was it intended to be, even upon extension of the broader assumptions about the administrative function of the executive.

All other administrative functions were left by the Tenth Amendment “to the States or to the people.” We realize that the lack of nuance leaves the fastidious reader craving for caveats within distinctions; no such opportunity presents itself here. The federal government was just not intended as pedagogue, which means that its assumption of that role must be unconstitutional. The Department of Education, if it was to be created at all, had to be created ex nihilo and ex cathedra. Justification elides federal involvement, as it usually does (or is it the opposite?), which comports nicely with the historical narrative of the creation of the Department of Education in 1979.  Go figure. Inadequate as the following metric may be, it’s too delicious a morsel not to set before the eager advocates of federal education: test scores have stayed almost exactly the same (in science, lower!) after federal governmental involvement and spending have lurched from zero to the billions! (see graph, a.k.a. “the smackdown of federal involvement”).

But, once more, before reaching the merits of the federal government’s involvement in education, it is sufficient to know that such involvement is abjectly unconstitutional.

Secondly, the most important general point of substance is that the Fed will always seek to aggrandize its own power with its creatures, institutions, and employees. The Fed-in-tweed-and-elbow-patches will certainly do no better, as noted above. And it will carry out its agenda with exponentially heightened efficiency, of course, given nationwide access to young hearts and minds. This is why, for instance, the average high school graduate enters his maturity thinking spuriously that FDR “ended the Depression,” and thereby make-believing that FDR ranks among the “best American presidents.” (As imaginative conservatives well know, FDR emblemizes the opposition-stupefying dominion of the state, even if—especially if—each new generation of FDR-expositors cannot tell you why…which would be impossible! Once more, justification evades the federal modus operandi.)

Thirdly, Common Core represents a woeful exposition of C.S. Lewis’s doctrine of inverted “first and second things.” First things are permanent and enduring. They are the good, the true, the beautiful, the virtues, and the other appurtenances of the soul. Second things are temporary: expedience, money, goods, services, trades, grades, college- and career- readiness, and virtually all other desiderata of modern public education. The doctrine is an exercise in the exposition of the ills of consequentialism. C.S. Lewis explained that “when you put first things first and second things second, you get both first and second things; if you put second things first, you will lose both first and second things.”

An authentic education is, by definition, oriented towards first things. An authentic education tills the soil of the inner landscape using only the great and enduring works from the Great Western Tradition—where we uniquely find the “best that man has said and done.” On the other hand, the nakedly consequentialist nature of “Outcomes Based Education” exemplifies the disordered focus on second things. They begin with the fruit, and then “plan backwards” such as to contrive the methodology thereto. The permanent principles of learning are forgotten. And the fields of the inner landscape remain fallow.

Some of the more egregious, specific errors promoted by the Common Core and stated by Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Bradly are as follows:

1. “States are free to adopt or not adopt it.” Federal relief from so-called No Child Left Behind standards exerts a tremendous amount of upwards pressure on the states. The doctrine of the funded mandate hardly counts among the variant species of working and “free” federalism. More or less, states must accept most funded mandates, lest they be left behind by the other states who do so.

2. “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. There is even less freedom in Common Core than in its dreadful predecessor. This is to say: in 2014, the federal noose tightens around the neck of education (as it does around everything else).

3. The Common Core’s “ELA standards aim at literacy and generally require that students are able to read and understand texts.” It is arguable that, by the standards existent at the turn of the 19th or 20th Centuries, most teachers are formally illiterate. The public schools have been unable to produce literate students for generations, and what the Common Core promoters mean by “literacy” is utilitarian at best. To deem that a public school’s language arts program “aims at literacy” is to judge by appearances and not more. The crown of literacy is exegesis preceded by phraseology, literary devices, etymology and comprehension which is at the lower end of the grammatical hierarchy and yet remains beyond the present aims of the federal government’s new literacy ideal. The lowest rung on the ladder of grammar is prosody, a feeble specimen the public schools exalt and dissect like a frog in science lab to collect and catalog its miniscule constituent parts. The schools encourage unwitting students to glut themselves on a stew of pseudo-linguistics they falsely call a literary feast.

4. “The Common Core is not a curriculum.” The Common Core experts will tell you that the curriculum comprises the standards, plus assessments, plus a thing they call “rigor.” They’ll insist that what material they use doesn’t matter, as long as the “rigor” matches the involved standard and assessment. This is, in the last analysis, a distinction without a difference. The Common Core may not ennoble the spirit as true curricula are supposed to, but curriculum it is.

5. “Some conservatives complain about the lack of context provided to students when examining texts.” Promoters of the Common Core mean to isolate a passage of Shakespeare—without any historical context. More strikingly, they intend to do so without even the “superfluous” context provided by the rest of the play. As such, they intend to have students analyze the words based solely on the passage at hand, irrespective of the text’s arc. This flies in the face of the Western Tradition, which supposes that a text must always be read for its whole: “The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say.”[1] Among other grievances, Common Core will mistake the finitude of prose and the infinitude of poetry.  Each form—the poetic and the prosaic—will surely be lost in the boundless oblivion of progressive decontextualization.

6. Common Core evaluates “skills, not content.” Who cares? The “skills” taught through the Common Core are “empty skill sets” at best; moreover, they inform content of their own right. The proponents of the Common Core claim to entertain no interest in content beyond discerning its level of “rigor.” The strictures of Common Core render content a moot point. What good is Homer if you use your copy of The Odyssey to hammer in a nail?

7. “Literary exemplars.” The suggested exemplars lauded by Common Core advocates and cheered by charitable conservative onlookers like Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady, only give the appearance of a nod to the Great Western Tradition. Indeed, 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.

8. “Conservatives bemoan the standards’ alleged neglect of literature in favor of ‘informational texts to promote reasoning skills’.” The promoters of the Common Core have little or no interest in fine literature, because it “is not going to get you a job.” The Common Core harbors a frightening definition of “critical thinking skills” that bears no resemblance to the true critical thinking one would find in an authentic classical education.

In conclusion, Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady write:

“the fight over Common Core is ‘a dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other’s worst impulses.’ The debate has thus become clouded and slogans have replaced reason, especially on the right.”

All of the above constitute attempts at critical specificity (read: an approach attempting acutely not to mischaracterize). The actual “straw man” in the Common Core debate appears to the mischaracterization of its opposition as some sort of political fringe.

For another example, the position opposing Common Core finds itself impugned for its accidental agreement with the teachers’ unions on the matter, a less than scrupulous method of discerning rightness or wrongness. Rain is wetPizza is tasty. If the union thugs and teamsters happen to agree, please suffer that we shan’t reverse our position on either matter. The same goes for educative subsidiarity.

If one possesses a true understanding of education grounded in the virtues of the Christian anthropology, one sees clearly the dehumanizing totality of the secularist agenda underwriting the Common Core State Standards. Christ exhorts us: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” In the words of a saint: “No wickedness, no heresy, not even the Devil himself can deceive anyone without counterfeiting virtue.”[2] The Common Core is counterfeit education; the values it propagates are counterfeit virtues.

Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady propose a dreadful compromise: “It is time for conservatives either to oppose the Common Core on legitimate grounds or to drop their opposition and find ways to make the new standards serve their ends.” Conversely, we urge: reject Common Core; reject federal education!

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw eagerly imagined a panel which would require citizens to come before it and “justify their continued existence,” in terms of the amount of utilitarian “good” they rendered the collective. That is, they’d be killed if they couldn’t precisely articulate their economic value before the state. To the contrary, we’d love to see the statists and federal bureaucrats dragged before a tribunal of citizens, forced to justify the perpetuation not of their lives, but of their fruitless, expensive, and despotic programs, like the creatures of the Federal Department of Education. That is, the programs would be killed if their value was not readily demonstrable before the people. (Interesting that secular-progressives are always prepared to speak about other humans so liltingly, but never governmental overreach.) One is surprised to find disagreement on the political right as to what ought to be the fate of each one of those species of federally controlled, failing educative techniques: the guillotine. While genuine dialogue has proven impossible with the political left, we hope otherwise among our imaginative, conservative friends.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Tim Gordon is a “12-step recovering academic,” with degrees in continental philosophy, ecclesiastical philosophy, literature, history, and law. He is releasing a book in spring 2014 with Catholic Answers Press, entitled Why America Will Perish without Rome: Six Elements of Crypto-Catholicism in our Republic since the Declaration of Independence. Follow Tim on Twitter at @catoandbrutus, for one-lined musings on politics, philosophy, culture, and the NBA.


  1. G.K. Chesterton
  2. Dorotheos of Gaza
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Published: Feb 12, 2014
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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6 replies to this post
  1. I have a question on local curricular rule. In the authors’ view, in the public educational system, how local should this go? Do they see it as necessarily intrusive if a State has a curriculum it wants established statewide? What if that State has a distinctive history and culture that it wants promoted and understood? Isn’t that an argument for at least a portion of the curriculum required for graduation being at least at the state level?

    And, similarly, how local is local enough? Should every local school district adopt its own? Do small districts such as in Texas really have the capability to do that? Do their board members have the ability to do that?

    (I think as I write that I am inclined to say that board members should hire a superintendent who can make recommendations in this regard, and suggest resources…and then I suppose it is very easy to see what colleges are requiring and that could be an easily accessible benchmark to which the local school district could approximately aspire).

    I would appreciate some feedback on these questions. Thank you.

  2. Common Core is a great way to provide basic literacy and arithmetic without risking the development of critical thinking and creativity on the part of students. It will also ensure the termination of the pesky institution known as the idealistic teacher who wants to improve the souls of the young and serve their country rather than make lots of money. Common Core will also teach people to conform to broad, universal systems early on in life. It is the perfect educational blueprint for a multicultural society where people are primarily defined as consumers and workers, and where political rule is exercised over and for the people, but not by and of the people. The alternative would be to force everyone to learn a common language and history, not to mention pass on a shared cultural heritage. Worse still, it would mean that somewhere out there, teachers might abuse their power and make kids learn physics, biology and chemistry. To do so would risk educating citizens instead of consumers and workers, and that would mean America might risk restoring itself as a republic. If this happened, people around the world might stop hating America and start admiring it again because instead of ignorance and bombs, America would produce geniuses, innovation and great souled citizens. The consequences of all of this would be terrible for multinational corporations, not to mention administrative and technocratic managers the world over. I shudder to think what it would do to the entertainment industry: people might actually demand quality culture, stop listening to bad music and stop caring about celebrity gossip.

  3. Mr. Cole,

    Thank you for your good and thoughtful questions. We don’t see why education should be a government matter at all. The graph in our article shows how absurd any governmental involvement with education is: real education is as cheap as chalk, as hard as nails, effective at the grammar level mostly by rote and not by participation, and as enduring as a good vineyard.

    What is really at root here is the role and function of education- if it is meant to be a tool of the state to situate human capital to the best economic and social advantage as dictated by the social schemers that fancy themselves “educational experts,” then really who cares? The complexity of the issues and the entanglement of overreach render each successive opinion inaudible by sheer crescendo of a hellish din. If education ought to be focused on second things, than by all means the State should dictate its massive list of disparate and meaningless factoids to be funneled into the empty heads of unwitting students who will end with empty hearts, their children with empty heads, and their grandchildren with empty bellies. We are seeing such grand-children now.

    If you understand education to be that “leading out of darkness” or that “liberation from error” or a cultivation of the human virtues that lead to the “good life,” well then, the questions you ask ought to be clearly answered. The principle of subsidiarity calls for action to take place at the most local level of competence. Parents are a child’s first teacher; this is natural law- that is as local as it should be- but if we insist on help, take an adult holding a professional degree from an American university, are they qualified to make decisions about curriculum concerning their students? In their own classrooms? They ought to be- oughtn’t they? If they are not competent, can we not infer that we have a problem with our educational system? And if we have a problem with our educational system, which surely we do, then why on earth would we turn to them, hand over local control to the same entity that is responsible for the incompetence in the first place?

    What state has a distinctive history and culture that they might want promoted? As far as we know, the only history and culture being propagated through the public schools is the eradication of the Great Western Tradition through ideologically driven historical revisionism, and the culture they are promoting is “multiculturalism” which at its roots is racism.

    We well understand the laments concerning the dreadful output of the public school, but guys like E.D. Hirsh give a false hope, because while it is devoutly to be wished that our students leave our schools in possession of the knowledge he commits to his popular lists, and while it is true that an authentically educated person is likely to be in possession of the bulk of what he suggests, it is not true that by teaching that list, students will acquire its contents. Here is the rub, and the mistake of nearly all modern education- that of mixing up first and second things.

    Pedagogy and Methodology are huge problems concerning the public schools. What is taking place now is akin to throwing a bunch of fruit on a dirt field, marveling at its abundance, and then lamenting the fact that shortly it rots. We are enacting a massive project of futility and forgetfulness. All curriculum propagated by the feds, states, and even local school districts reflect this error, so at what level a flawed curriculum is imposed really makes little difference.

    We suggest a return to an authentic education, and Common Core is anything but.

  4. Of course removing the government from education is not at all on the public agenda. Understandably many opt not to voluntarily participate in public education in any capacity, but certainly it is a reasonable calling for imaginative conservatives to do the best they can in something so vast and important as public education and it is in that spirit that I set forth my questions.

    So the question is at hand, how do very small towns (for example in the Texas Panhandle) develop curriculum locally? And to what extent should they have a portion of that curriculum be the same as every other public school in the State of Texas? (Again, we are talking about the system as it is, not as we might wish it to be…). It seems to me that the superintendent should be the chief curriculum officer and to the extent that is not part of the superintendent educational track (I don’t know the answer to that), that is fairly easily rectified…the richness of the community and the school board members they elect will determine how involved they are in what the superintendent proposes. The sad reality is that most communities will punt to what the superintendent says, but at least in this way at least it is possible to have a locally developed curriculum.

    What states have a distinctive culture still today? Well….Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico…and that’s just in my neck of the woods. What states have a distinct history? In addition to those just mentioned, Oklahoma, Arizona…Again, that is just in my neighborhood. Certainly these distinct identities are worth remembering or in some cases resurrecting. It seems that as long as government is involved in education (which again is certainly not seriously up for debate today) it should at least try to be as local as possible (per your article) and that would seem to include promoting the identity of a State. There was a day when States were not merely regarded as administrative subunits of the federal behemoth. Perhaps that day will come again. But it won’t come again unless residents of States know something of their State’s identity and potential in that regard. Accordingly, a statewide curriculum element of something like Texas History and Identity Today would be appropriate in the State of Texas (I believe that Texas history is required in junior high…but I think a course like that would be more along the lines of high school).

    Certainly with regards to these matters a robust education outside the control of government is necessary and that seems to me the main thrust of your reply. Of course all imaginative conservatives support that and many of us opt for that when it comes to our own children.

    So with that dialogue…I believe my original questions have been answered…thank you again..

  5. This discussion is drawing our attention to what seems to me the heart of the matter, which itself has, shall we say, two valves:

    1. Who decides?
    2. How and what are children taught?

    On #1
    The principle of subsidiarity seems essential. There is simple no possibility that right decisions about multitudes of significantly different students could be made from a distance. But I don’t think Mr. Cole and Mr. Rummelsburg disagree on that point.

    What seems up for discussion is whether the “government” has a role. This is where, when I look at the details, I have to remember that God’s hand is not shortened that He cannot save. Because as things stand, I simply can’t see a solution to the corruption, through education, of many thousands and even millions of souls in our families, local communities, and states. Our “state” is among the most foolish in human history, if only because they have so many resources to act out their folly and then disguise or distribute blame for the effects. But it is oh so powerful and oh so intimidating.

    In his book The Logic of Liberty Michael Polanyi argued for the sheer mathematical impossibility of a person removed by X (I don’t remember the exact scale) from where a decision is implemented being able to
    A. make the right decision and
    B. implement the right decision on the fortuitous occasion when he guesses rightly.

    I’ve found his argument compelling.

    Another problem with the way we do things, and maybe the biggest, is that wisdom, which teachers and school leadership need more than anything else, is only gained through thinking and acting in pursuit of truth and justice (note to self: the fact that you are snickering and thinking of Superman only shows how little regard you have for these ideals – or at least that you have been manipulated by mass media into trivializing what you know perfectly well is all that matters).

    Practically, that means people have to make decisions in order to learn how to make decisions. When the federal government, or even the state government, makes decisions about governance, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, or community relationships, all of them suffer because the people who are directly involved are removed from the decision making process. So they never learn how to make decisions. They’re only good for implementing the will of another, never for figuring out what is actually right, fitting, appropriate, and wise in the actual circumstances for the actual students they are governing.

    Even if the state were correct, the effects would be nefarious because those who needed to gain wisdom had the opportunity taken away from them – rather like a child whose parent never lets him use a hammer or a gun.

    We are so afraid to make a mistake that might hurt the children that we abdicate our responsibilities for the children, first to the school, then to the local school board, then to the city, then to the state, then to the federal government, then …

    Once you are in the fox’s den I guess there is no need to abdicate any further.

    I would meekly propose, therefore, that the solution to our crisis is both already being enacted and in another sense unattainable. Parents must grab the authority with both hands, and, like the woman who broke the alabaster bottle of sweet perfume of Spikenard, “do what they can.”

    I’ve seen miracles take place in the home schooling and private school movements. The public system of Capernaum is designed to prevent miracles, so they don’t happen very often.

    I’m sorry to press on, but this seems important too: another distraction for people who want to see their children educated is the Infinitely Powerful College Admissions Officer – CAO PI for short (who only occasionally thinks about what education is, being retained to decide who gets to pay the schools bills). Fear of this Ogre cripples almost everybody who is responsible for high school students, which is a shame, because Lewis was right about this if nothing else: stop seeking first things and you lose both the first and the second.

    Augustine called it the ordo amoris – the order of loves.

    Our Lord put it somewhat more simply: seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.

    I’ve seen people do that, and I’ve seen God’s blessing. Humble, I submit that there is no other solution to America’s cultural, educational, political crisis.

  6. I have read both articles and I find this one a more accurate assessment of Common Core. To that, I have a few comments:
    First, to expand upon the “empty skill sets” – we need to ask ourselves why we acquire these skills. Reading comprehension and mathematical skills are the two most essential. Once they have been acquired, all future learning is possible. However, learning by force is far inferior to learning by desire. If we think back, to how we have learned over the years, I would guess that all of us have learned far more by the desire to learn than because we had too. My daughter has a passion and a talent for art and is very quickly developing her artistic skills on her own. Because of Common Core, her fine-art class is now more about reading and taking tests than actually learning and perfecting technique.

    My point is this: Common Core eliminates the passion for learning in the student and makes it into drudgery, like an assembly line, which is great if you want workers, but lousy if you want thinkers, innovators, entrepreneurs and real leaders.

    Second, for all of the talk about curriculum, nobody has mentioned the data collection and data mining that is being implemented. My son recently brought home a memo from the school encouraging me to sign up for a website so I could track his progress in math. He’s never had a problem in math and didn’t until Common Core came along. After looking at the privacy policy on this site, which I believe my local school officials had neglected to do, I was disturbed by the claim that the company running the website “owned” all the data they collected, strongly suggested that I give my occupation and place of employment, and flatly stated that they could collect data from children under the age of 13 without parental consent. I have also heard it being discussed to use various biometrics in the classroom to measure things like pulse, eye movement and brainwaves during teaching to measure the effect of the lesson.

    People from all across the political spectrum agree and unite on the principle that our children are not lab rats and data points for unaccountable third party corporations and distant bureaucracies to label, sort and classify. If this is implemented fully, I see teachers being relegated to little more than physical room monitors to make sure that each student stays at their terminal and finishes their computerized testing.

    Finally, I believe our whole model of education is upside down. We use a model, known as Prussian or Soviet, designed to create good workers and obedient citizens, not true critical thinkers. During the founding era and right up to the early 20th Century, the classical liberal arts was the model and it produced numerous Americans who we still look to for their achievements. Tell me how it is that the one-room schoolhouse produced so many excellent citizens while today’s schools, for all of the money and technology that we throw at them, can barely turn out young people who need remedial classes before beginning college?

    It’s not about the standards, it’s about the methods.

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