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Aptly named Common Core hollows out learning

Michigan’s adoption of the so-called Common Core has generated resistance among educators and parents. They worry about the incessant testing, the data mining, and the arcane and age-inappropriate ways of teaching subjects. All worthy concerns, but the Common Core is not a revolution in education. Rather, it’s an extension of long-term trends toward quantification and utilitarianism, and the idea that the energies of all ought to be subordinate to the interests of the state.

The term Common Core is itself a misnomer. A core curriculum refers to a body of knowledge that all students are expected to know. The directors of the Common Core are quick to point out that it’s not a curriculum but rather a set of benchmarks. Granted, there is reason to assume a curriculum is being smuggled in under the guise of attainable benchmarks, but doing so is less than honest.

Education has more than its share of jabberwocky, and few things glaze the eyes of attentive readers more quickly than talk of “benchmarks” or “measurable outcomes.” When educators talk of measurable outcomes, the only outcomes you will have will be those that can be measured.

In the world of the classroom, however, as in life, the most significant things can’t be measured. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” isn’t resolved by filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. Even in the rhapsodic fulsomeness of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, the reader senses her striving to say what she knows can’t be said, or at least not completely, and is drawn to fill in the remainder of her sentiments with his or her own experience. In short, one is engaged.

Not under the reading instruction that takes place in the Common Core. Here is emphasized the soul-deadening and servile “evidence-based” reading of “informational texts” with the intention of making students effective relayers of information, with proficiency in technology and digital media. The Core’s assumption about the instrumentality of reason and its utilitarian view of education ultimately undercut what learning is about. Students who don’t read for pleasure are students who don’t read. One doesn’t read to learn concepts and rhetorical strategies; one learns concepts and strategies in order to read, to enter the author’s world imaginatively, and to exit somehow transformed.

Education is most nearly itself when it has no end beyond itself; it is a cultivation, a turning-over of the soil of one’s self so that reality, with all its truth, may plant its seed. The Common Core, instead, emphasizes that education is a means to a determined end: to make students career or college-ready. This is a vaporous, indeterminate standard.

“To make students career or college-ready” sounds like it would be a good idea, but it mainly reveals the utilitarian interests of the shills behind adoption of the standards: Business leaders, who are intent on subordinating our educational “system” to the needs of a specialized and technically skilled labor market, and have done so with the enthusiastic support of the government. If anyone still doubts we live in a plutocracy, this should provide further evidence.

The Common Core is largely driven by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which contends – surprise! – all students should be able to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy, and have advanced technological skills, such as those required to run Windows 8. Gates and other defenders of the Core are quick to point out that one of its goals is to correct for the contingencies of birth by providing national uniformity in education, all with an eye toward maintaining America’s economic standing and competitiveness in global markets – which is the summum bonum of the Common Core.

Critics can take solace in knowledge of its inevitable failure. Every seven years, or so it seems, we are presented with another panacea for our educational ills. The problem is that all these reforms are wrong in their major premises: the onus of education rests not upon the schools but upon the student. You can’t teach unmotivated kids, and you don’t motivate them by positing benchmarks business leaders need for profitability and government needs to maintain its tax base. The idea of one-sized-fits-all education is mistaken, and universal benchmarks do not befit a free people whose souls ultimately thirst for the infinite - a reality which, by definition, can’t be measured.

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