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One of the most objectionable things about the Common Core that has been adopted by 45 states in the nation is its name. The Common Core is simply not a “common core.”
Before 2010, everyone in the world of true school reform and most liberally educated people knew what a common core was. The term had been around for a while. A common core refers to a prescribed set of courses—and, further, books within those courses—that are studied in common; that is, by everyone attending an educational institution.
At the University of Chicago, where I attended as an undergraduate, the Common Core (often affectionately referred to as the Common Chore) required all freshmen to take a course called “Soc” (pronounced sōsh), short for the social sciences, and a course called “Hum” (pronounce hume), referring to the humanities.
The first book everyone read in “Soc” was Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Since every freshman at the college read the book at the same time—and everyone else on campus had already read the book—the university essentially invited all the students to take part in a common conversation about Adam Smith and free markets. Since we all read Marx as the very next author, the students could then get into an argument about who was right: Smith or Marx. Had one-fifth of the entering class read Smith, one-fifth read Marx without Smith, one-fifth read a modern Keynesian economist but no Smith or Marx, one-fifth taken Soc without reading any “econ” at all, and one-fifth not even taken Soc, no common conversation would have been possible. Even if the institution had called its battery of required courses by that name, it would not have been a common core in the true sense of the term.
A common core, then, is exactly what its name implies. Certain things are read and studied in common. And those things are the most important—the core—the heart of the matter.
Presumably, a genuine common core in American schools would be a set of books and other readings that everyone must know in order to participate in a common conversation about what it means to be an American and a human being. Presumably, those books would be the best books: the classics. With a limited amount of time, who would want to spend much time on mediocre books?
A common core, then, is a remedy for the communication breakdown portrayed in the story of the Tower of Babel and that confounds the public discourse of this nation even in our much vaunted Information Age. (When is the last time you remember a politician—or Arne Duncan—quoting a line from Shakespeare or Twain?). To overcome that breakdown, we cannot say that we should all read books of similar difficulty. We must all read and discuss a certain number of great books in common.
The new Common Core English Standards do not constitute a common core. They do not prescribe any single book or set of books. The authors of the Common Core make no claims that certain books simply have to be read in order to consider oneself an educated person and a culturally literate American. That is simply not the aim or language of the Common Core (and we shall see why in due course).
Had the authors of the Common Core offered a common core, we as a nation could be having a much more interesting and productive discussion right now about school reform. Had the Common Core authors said that all students in high school, whatever else they might study, should read a certain eight books—only two per year, though they could read other things—that everyone in his right mind considers classics, then we could all be reading those books and trying to understand them. We could be having a nationwide discussion about how literature ought to be taught with real books in mind, rather than paying homage to amorphous “standards” that have never done more than butcher great literature.
Had the Common Core recommended a few great books, college professors could at last know what their incoming students had actually read. In short, if the Common Core had advocated not a set of confusing and often silly standards but instead a canon of great books, this nation that has in many ways lost its ability to read (due in large part to progressive education) could be reading and discussing great literature again. And that reading would not be confined to schools. Presumably, if these books are important, not only children should be reading them. Sadly, none of this is happening. As it stands, everyone in the nation right now is equally in the dark as to what students will be taught in conformity to the Common Core.
What the authors of the Common Core did instead was give us a number of dubious reasons for educating students; pages of so-called standards that are in no way different from the current standards in all the states that have done nothing to improve our schools; a tedious, jargon-ridden explanation of why “complex” books and “informational” texts should be read; three criteria for selecting these texts, two of which are not explained; a long list of possible readings; and an unenforceable promise that they will never, never interfere in the schools’ curricula. And they called this hodgepodge the Common Core.
No one has any idea what the Common Core is or what it might turn into. No one in the state legislatures can tell us what the Common Core is. No one in the state education bureaucracies can tell us what the Common Core is. The authors of the Common Core themselves reveal as little as possible about what these supposed standards, once the experts and the textbook merchants start interpreting them, might one day become. Yet they do tell us that their creation is a living document and will change over time. Thus, it could become anything.
The question is, why? Why is there so little common sense in the Common Core? Why is the Common Core not really a common core at all?
There are several possible, though not equally plausible, answers. The easiest is that the authors of the Common Core simply do not know what a real common core is. They accidently stole a brand name. They innocently fell into a pit of false advertising, and now it is too late to get out of it.
A more likely answer is that they have no real commitment to the literary works that are casually recommended, but by no means required, in their standards. It is one thing to say that every American ought to read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (which the Common Core does not do; in fact, none of Franklin’s works is recommended). It is quite another to say that students ought to read “complex” texts, including autobiographies, such as those by Benjamin Franklin, Maya Angelou (who is a recommended author), et alia. The latter is what the Common Core does.
Part and parcel of this explanation, the arch-testers may not regard education as reading and knowing and indeed loving certain wonderful books that constitute our cultural heritage. Rather, they may instead regard education as simply a process. What a student reads is not nearly as important as how one reads or the supposed ability one has in reading, according to this view. Looking for any rhyme or reason in the Common Core, then, is a fool’s errand.
I think there is a more likely reason that the Common Core is not a common core, and that reason is ultimately political. If the authors of the Common Core were to say that the children of this nation ought to read certain books that are unquestionably great, books that help them understand themselves as Americans and as human beings, then the nation would have to have a serious conversation about what it means to be an American and a human being. It also means that a lot of post-modern literature that has been coming into the schools for a long time would have to be looked at with scrutiny.
If the arch-testers can get away with just saying, “schools need to read certain complex texts such as . . .”, then they can make it look like they are not requiring any particular literature when in fact they are. He who controls the testing and the textbook industry controls the schools. And the authors of the Common Core love post-modern literature as well as dubious “informational texts” (often advocating a contemporary political position) that do not belong in an English class at all.
Let’s put a finer point on it. If a true common core were to be adopted for American high schools, which of the two following works would have to be taught: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? The latter is an “exemplar text” in the Common Core English Standards. The former, Huck Finn, does not appear. Ergo, the Common Core is not a common core. It does, however, bear the title Common Core, which confuses most people who have typically looked at a common core, a core curriculum, Core Knowledge, and so on, as the way to improve the schools of this country. Thus the arch-testers of the Common Core have hijacked the language of traditional education in order to foster radical aims. I am pretty sure that sort of thing has happened before. Does anyone remember what the word liberal originally meant?