"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Common Core - An Intellectual Cream-Puff

A good friend emailed today to ask me my thoughts on Common Core, the initiative to create common standards for primary and secondary education across America.    Here was my response:
On the one hand, I don't think it is dangerous the way some conservatives think.   I think it is just a general continuation of the dumbing down of American education, not a new divergence into federal government mind-control.   When I read the standards, what I see is an almost completely content-free mishmash of bureaucratic groupthink.    
Here's an example from the standards you get if you click on "English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 11-12": 
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information. 
Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
None of that is per se objectionable… it's just absolutely vacuous.   It's like an intellectual cream puff… I don't object to cream puffs, I just don't think they have much nutritional value. 
On the other hand, what I see here is the exact opposite of what I would want to see in History or Social Studies standards.   I would want kids graduating from high school to actually know a common core of facts -- geography, chronology, historical figures, events, great books, great works of art, the substance of key intellectual movements, how revolutionary technologies actually worked and why they were revolutionary in their time, how key industries developed, etc.   I can tell you right now that [the Regular Son] has an A+ in AP European History AND NEVER CRACKS THE BOOK.   Why?   Because he knows chronology and geography and names.   And, because he knows that basic framework, he can actually THINK about history in concrete ways, rather than in the bland, feel-good, Oprah-fied, race/class/gender gobbledygook that kids mostly regurgitate. 
And he knows that stuff, not because his teachers taught him, but because I taught him at home and he taught himself.   A basic book of chronology and a globe and a house full of books and parents who read is about all you need. 
In other words, I wouldn't necessarily mind a common core of standards, even emanating from the federal level, if they were actually standards that I thought were worthwhile and had content.   In my judgment, these don't.

I'll give you a final example.   Here's a series of the type of questions I would want a high school graduate to be able to answer:

1. Who is Thomas Paine?
2. Who is Edmund Burke?
3. When did they live?
4. Name the titles of their most famous works.
5. Summarize the main points of their most famous works.
6. Explain which one you would agree with and why.

Or this:

7. Define National Socialism.
8. Define Stalinism.
9. Identify the key figures in each of these political movements.
10. Compare and contrast them.

Or this:

11. Identify three African countries that were colonized by Great Britain.
12. Identify three African countries that were colonized by other European powers.
13. Compare and contrast the development of those sets of countries since 1900.

Or this:

14.  Who is Jean Jacques Rousseau?
15.  Who is John Locke?
16. When did they live?
17. Name their most famous works.
18.  Summarize the main points of their philosophies.
19.  Explain which one you would agree with and why.

In other words, I would want high school kids to know stuff -- facts, dates, names, geography, philosophy, literature, political theory.   Unless they have that basic vocabulary of knowledge, asking them to "Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information"  will inevitably yield a steaming pile of B.S. rather than reasoned prose.

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