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Common Core and the American Republic

On September 9, 2013, a conference entitled “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core” was held at the University of Notre Dame.  I was invited to deliver an introductory set of remarks on the first panel of that conference. I post those comments here in full.

(Following the conference, a first-rate letter [1]opposing the adoption of the Common Core in Catholic schools, composed by ND Law Professor Gerard Bradley, was circulated widely to Catholic faculty. I was proud to sign this letter, which stresses especially the profound insufficiency the narrowly utilitarian aims of the Common Core curriculum).

The Purpose of Education in American Society

Remarks Delivered at the Common Core Conference

September 9, 2013

University of Notre Dame

I have been teaching a freshman seminar for about eight years that is entitled “The End of Education.” In the seminar we study about ten different authors, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Allan Bloom, all with an eye to exploring the questions “what is education for?” “What end does it seek to achieve?” The aim of the course is not necessarily to give my students the answer to that question but to make them aware of the intense debate that has taken place over the history of Western Civilization over the ends and purpose of education. As I begin my first class by explaining, if you want to know the commitments of a civilization, look at what it aims to teach its young. If one of the main marks of a civilization is its effort to perpetuate itself over successive generations, then its deepest and ultimate cares will be reflected in its educational commitments.

So I must acknowledge that at first glance the question that I’ve been asked to address for this session—“The Purpose of Education in America”—is exceedingly difficult, since there has been no national educational system in America, current efforts notwithstanding. This might be a sign or indication that America, as a civilization, has no civilizational commitments to its young, that it is a uniquely peculiar nation for not having long had a strong national curriculum like that of England or Germany or Japan. Many look at the patchwork, state- and local-controlled variety of education in America and conclude that it is time to standardize and modernize, time to adopt an American set of educational commitments.


I will have more to say about the longstanding local nature of the American educational system in my conclusion, but let me begin by suggesting that, in its historical commitment to state and local control of education, America has in fact embraced a set of civilizational commitments. Those commitments have historically been reflected in the belief that education—like many things, including civic voluntarism, military self-defense, and self-government itself—is best achieved locally, with the first-hand, immediate, and direct commitment of time, energy, and treasure by local people in their local communities. This practice was born of an explicit rejection of centralized and distant authority attempting to rule from afar in ways that took no cognizance of local circumstance and sought to replace the will of the people in their particular places with the will of a distant sovereign. The American “system” of education, for much of its history, consisted of local governance of educational institutions, high-levels of voluntarism by parents and members of local communities, and a rich diversity of public and private institutions that aimed to offer to families the kind of education that each saw fit for their children.

This “patchwork” reflected at once a trust and belief in the good judgment of republican citizens over their lives and destinies—and those of their children—and a corresponding mistrust of distant authorities as at the least unfamiliar with local circumstance, and at worst liable to be tempted by their position as dominant power to abuse that position and to act despotically. We have not only been willing to bear some local variety for the sake of avoiding tyranny; as the French author Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his penetrating work Democracy in America, based on his observations of American democracy in the 1830s, he viewed local self-governance in townships as the “schools of democracy,” the place where people practiced and exercised their citizenship—not simply because there was no one in the capital to do it but because it was at the very heart of republican self-government that a free people govern themselves in every respect, including the fundamental practice of education of their children.

Again, I’ll say more about this basic commitment—the basic “purpose” of the heretofore absence of a standardized “purpose” to American education—in my conclusion. But having stipulated that the American “purpose” of education—namely, republican self-rule—has been reflected in the absence of any uniform, top-down uniformity, let me turn to what I would see as a set of broadly-shared “purposes” that are, or ought to be, the purpose of education, and ones that have been largely embraced through much of American history.

I think we can point to five “ascending” aims in the education of the young (while I’m sure there are more, I want to limit myself to five main aims), beginning from a more basic to the more ascendant, and that each have a corresponding end, or purpose. They are:

  1. Education in basic facts or “figures” (math):  Education, at a minimum, needs to convey basic truths about the nature of our reality.  These include:  knowledge of the history (dates), math, scientific facts, the operations of language (and foreign language)
  2. A training in using these facts to more deeply understand things, especially provisional answers to questions that are not so easily achieved by simple memorization or “Scantron” answers. This skill is often called “critical-thinking”—we might also call it thoughtfulness, reflection, ability to manipulate and alter, the capacity to think capaciously and even to “change places” with another. This skill involves higher-level thinking like logic, Socratic questioning, scientific experimentation, and interpretation.
  3. Civic education. When we bring these building-blocks of basic knowledge skills together with others in a productive and cooperative way with other people, we are now acting civically. Civic education both explores how humans best learn and order these forms of cooperation—thus, is attentive to the study of political theories and organization—but it also seeks to instill practices of citizenship in and through the manner of learning.
  4. The cultivation of character. Closely related to the cultivation of our civic capacities is the cultivation of character, of which our role as citizens is one facet. Aristotle argued that every activity aims toward some end and that the final end for human beings is happiness, or flourishing. The flourishing human being is one, he wrote, is “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence, or virtue.” While good citizenship ought to be an expression of these virtues (assuming that one lives in a suitably decent regime), the cultivation of character is more comprehensive, touching on the entirety of the human person, in both its public and private capacities.
  5. The highest attainment of education is one that has no further end outside itself: not knowledge that we use toward some end, whether political or social or private, but simply the act of seeking knowledge for its own sake.  This reflects the highest, and perhaps unique, human attribute, the hunger to know. Plato wrote that “philosophy begins in wonder”—if an education does not at least ultimately seek to keep this sense of wonder intact, and even to encourage it, we can conclude that education of the young in all its facets is likely to fail, since all of these various “purposes” of education are most fully and completely achieved only when students are driven not from outside, but ultimately from within, from their innate desire to know. This is not to say that all people will attain the condition of being a philosopher (or a theologian, which is the effort to know God), but that the philosophic and theological human instinct must be encouraged, supported, or at the very least left intact.

While I don’t have time to explore these various purposes in any real depth or to delve into the ways in which our current educational forms (and the Common Core) does, or does not, aspire to or achieve these purposes, let me point out one germane fact about these purposes: the first two—the learning of various “facts and figures” and their manipulation through “critical thinking”—when divorced of the last three (civic education, education for character, and learning for the sake of learning) are highly prone to being employed toward only one end or purpose—instrumentalism, or utilitarianism aimed primarily toward baser ends of acquisition, material accumulation, the pursuit of pleasure or hedonism, the conquest of nature, and the accumulation of power. Divorced of any higher end, they become tools for the fulfillment of our physical nature without the cultivation of their use toward a higher end involving our role as citizens or the full-flourishing of the human being in virtue and as a creature that desires to know for its own sake.

It is unmistakably the case that the most dominant voices in education today insist that education is or ought be solely about the first two pursuits—the accumulation of facts and “critical thinking,” divorced from higher ends. A wholly utilitarian mindset now informs our basic approach to education. For example, consider the basic aims expressed in the ambitions of the proposed national standards, the Core Curriculum—for every student to achieve “career and college-readiness.” Given the pressures today on colleges to retool their curricula to similarly deemphasize the liberal arts in favor of career-readiness (recall that President Obama recently delivered a speech in which he proposed a set of national standards for rating college success, tying federal aid to such measures, and that among them was a measure for how much income was secured after graduation by the graduates of various institutions), we see clearly how a basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education’s purposes solely to the debased end of work.

Liberal education was conceived to be the education that was appropriate for a free people—not those whose horizons were defined by work—whereas today we see a panoply of national leaders seeking the wholesale redefinition of education to be linked solely to the end of labor, without regard for our lives as familial, social, political, and fully human persons. It ignores the capacious understanding of education that was expressed by Pope John Paul II in his declaration Ex Corde Ecclesiae (concerning especially Catholic higher education, but ultimately implicating all education) that education should be “consecrated without reservation to the cause of truth, … the whole truth about nature, man and God…  By means of a universal humanism, [such education] is dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection to the supreme truth, who is God.” We perceive no evidence of a “universal humanism” in increasingly nationalized standards based on a narrowly utilitarian understanding of the human person, but only a dessicated and debased conception of what a human being is.

I should conclude. I began by suggesting that it was in the very absence of any national standard for education, and the strong tradition of local control of education, that we could perceive, in fact, a pervasive historical commitment to the aspiration of republican self-government. Because humans in their social and political communities are various, it was understood by our Founders that the way that these educational purposes to be achieved would be various, and so the commitment to local control of education was not born of a resignation in the absence of a strong central government, but a positive embrace of variety and multiplicity. Because there is likely to be debate and disagreement in a pluralistic society over the nature of our civic ends and the nature of a good character, it was understood that only in more local circumstances could the highest aspirations of education be pursued, even if that would be various and multiple. In our modern insistence to standardize and equalize, we necessarily discard any higher aspiration of education’s end in an embrace of a widely-secured agreement about lower, debased ends: an education based upon a lowest common-denominator, “career-readiness.” Our civilization thus shows its ultimate commitments through how it educates its young—that we think them incapable of anything higher than being workers in a deracinated globalized economic system, neither citizens nor, in the fullest sense, humans.

At the same time, we condemn ourselves, betraying our ancient faith in our own ability to educate and cultivate our young, handing over our final and most basic liberty to a distant power. Contained in the very act of handing over the education of our young is the self-indictment of a decaying Republic, a future feared by, among others, Tocqueville, as a possible path that America might take, since it is one that all republics heretofore have taken, and is an inevitability once a people has lost the taste and the art of ruling themselves.

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#1 Comment By JP2 On November 20, 2013 @ 7:27 am

Although I agree with your critique of standardization, is it not mostly a response to the widespread failure of local control?

#2 Comment By Egypt Steve On November 20, 2013 @ 8:49 am

I dunno. I’m a professor of the humanities myself, in a completely useless discipline, and so I’m obviously sympathetic to claims that knowledge has value for its own sake. On the other hand, the description of universal humanism above seems predicated on the notion that we can be a nation of philosopher kings — that we can democratize the elitism of the Platonic Academy. Is that a coherent position?

The bottom line is, people do need to be able to acquire skills that will get them jobs, and these skills are complex, and they require advanced training, and learning to be a software engineer leaves little time to mastering ancient Greek. But while not everyone needs to pursue humanistic disciplines in depth, I agree wholeheartedly it should be possible for some to do so.

My opinion as a liberal? Tax-cut fetishism and the death of the commons that is promoted by conservatives and libertarians have left it increasingly impossible for high schools and universities to maintain money-losing humanities programs, and forced education administrators to justify their budgetary requests on narrow dollars-and-cents grounds.

It’s also true that education professionals are highly invested in promoting educational objectives that can be measured, which de-emphasizes “universal humanism.” But remember that these theories, though partly rooted in progressivism, have really taken off in a conservative cultural atmosphere, in which the solution to the problem with X is always “running X like a business.” This appeals greatly to the sorts of people — wealthy businessmen, mostly — who sit on university boards of trustees, or who get elected to state legislatures.

I think if you reverse those trends, things may change for the better. I don’t see how that happens, however.

#3 Comment By RJK On November 20, 2013 @ 10:58 am

Because there is likely to be debate and disagreement in a pluralistic society over the nature of our civic ends and the nature of a good character, it was understood that only in more local circumstances could the highest aspirations of education be pursued, even if that would be various and multiple.

Exactly, Professor Deneen.

I am wholeheartedly committed to the type of education you are describing, and homeschooling is the only avenue for my children. I would not think for a second of sending my child into the abyss of the public education system. The continuation of the dumbing down of education and secular utilitarian homoeconomicus mindset that underlies the entire system gives me every drop of reason to fully abstain. Unfortunately, I still am forced to owe them thousands in taxes for this nonsense where I am.

#4 Comment By Clint On November 20, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

Tea Party members,suburban moms, educators, superintendents and school board members are standing in opposition to Common Core.

#5 Comment By David Dickson On November 20, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

Dr. Deneen, I have to say that I think you missed the point when you lament the focus of Common Core on facts and critical thinking. It can be argued–and in fact is argued–that Common Core’s focus on the former two does nothing to preclude local emphasis on the latter three–civics, morality, and knowledge-seeking for its own sake.

In fact, conservatives can–and in my opinion should–embrace Common core for that very focus, since it is my understanding that conservatives would much more strenuously object to significant liberal government meddling in education geared toward the latter three than the former two. The most widely-heard fears of conservative parents across the nation concerning Common Core chiefly revolve around just that–that government would seek to impose standards concerning the teaching of civics, morals, and philosophy in the education of their children. That, in their opinion, would be real “tyranny”.

Since, by your own admission and emphasis, Common Core does nothing about these things, it goes to reason that it should be much more palatable to conservatives than the alternative.

#6 Comment By History Teacher On November 20, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

Thank you Professor Deneen for the excellent articles lately…”What Is an American Conservative?” and “Tocqueville on the Individualist Roots of Progressivism” and “Health, Education – and Welfare” were very thought-provoking.

I teach high school, AP World History and AP European History, in Texas. In stating that the purpose of education is “republican self-rule” are you not assuming a shared political philosophy where none currently exists? Does “republican self-rule” imply certain values and orientations toward both society and government, or is “republican self-rule” simply a means for local citizens to teach whatever they want? What if they don’t share your republican sentiments?

You argue that education “seeks to instill practices of citizenship in and through the manner of learning.” Shouldn’t students be taught the same practices of citizenship? Would a national social studies curriculum be incompatible with such a goal? I live in a state where the GOP party platform contained language discouraging the teaching of critical thinking because it challenges the beliefs that parents may have taught their children…

I wonder if the problem is not national standards as an idea, but simply the current national standards. I would eagerly support the universalization of a curriculum based on your Five Aims.

Is your concern that absent such a national curriculum that the ability of local community’s to reject the instrumental view of education becomes more important?

I think that a national social studies curriculum would help develop a common political culture. What we have now are social studies curriculum that differ by state, and in Texas by school district, on what America has been, is, and should be.

The student pulled out of the public school because it has a “liberal” or “secular” bias, which amounts to teaching that evolution, climate change, and separation of church and state are real, ends up with a distorted view of society and government. Just look at the Tea Party…that’s who desires to exercise “local control” in my town…luckily, I teach a national, college-board curriculum that forces their children to learn about other cultures and study political philosophies that may challenge what they hear at the dinner table.

As a professional educator, I fear “local control” if it means parents thinking they can tell me what to teach their kids…

#7 Comment By Susan Weston On November 20, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

It would have been lovely to see references to a few passages from the actual Common Core State Standards documents. The thoughtful and informed use of evidence is, to my mind, a necessary element of civic participation, good character, and the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.

#8 Comment By Jonny On November 20, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

This piece is a thoughtful articulation of valuable ideas. I much enjoyed the read and am grateful to the author. However, I do question a few points.

I would start with the overarching premise that decentralization is best because the Framers understood something. Many of the theories codified by our Framers were at that time new and relatively untested (they couldn’t have possibly known if the Constitution would work or how well). Certainly we know that decentralized, Federal systems bring advantages in many aspects of self-governance. But we also know that other facets of society work best when run by the central government– indeed, that’s why we have one. No scientist postulates a theory, collects a body of evidence (the past few centuries of education policy) and then ignores how that evidence may or may not change the theory. Perhaps decentralization is the best strategy in education. Perhaps Washington should become more proactive. Regardless, the theories of the Framers are not themselves good arguments if we do not also take into account how they have actually worked since 1789.

Next, while I totally agree that we must place high value on knowledge for its own sake, I do not accept that “jobs” is generally the main goal of policy simply because it seems so urgent *right now.* Given current economic conditions in the United States, it should seem likely that a democratically empowered society would demand more tangible returns on investment from their education policymakers.

It also seems important to note that the first two of your five items are likely the only goals a central government can reasonably achieve. Concepts like civic virtue and cultural values (certainly important) are much too varied across the various communities to be run by Washington (as you state in the piece). However, it would be a false dichotomy to suggest that Washington must do all or none of the five goals you mention in this post. If our society could be improved by Washington getting involved with points 1 and 2, then we should do what is beneficial and let them.

#9 Comment By Johann On November 20, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

@History Teacher. The only way most individuals have even a remote chance of direct participation in government is at the lowest local level. And we are a republic after all, not a pure democracy. It was a primary objective of the constitution to give people local control over themselves, and to limit the powers of the central government. The entire nation does not have to be uniform. If a local population wants you to teach what you consider to be incorrect, or will not allow you to teach what you believe they should be taught, then you and other teachers will have to convince them otherwise. You will have to do your missionary work. Well, that’s the way its supposed to work anyway. But our national government has exceeded their constitutional powers and is trending more to imposing one size fits all national values.

#10 Comment By Clint On November 20, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

A brown-skinned suburban mom responds to Common Core bigot Arne Duncan

Michelle Malkin.
“Over the last 10 months, Common Core has imploded under withering scrutiny from the tax-paying public, informed parents and educators, and more national media. States under both Republican and Democrat governors have adopted moratoria on the untested standards, withdrawn from the costly testing consortia, and retreated from partnerships with Common Core-promoting educational software data-miners like inBloom.”


#11 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 20, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

Our political landscape is the hostile (violently so, I opine) opponent to the virtues of citizenship. It vigorously suppresses the two key elements of civic virtue clearly stated by the founders if not explicitly described in the Constitution outside of the Preamble.

1. An informed electorate. Our republican form of government suggests that a virtuous citizenry will nominate and elect representatives who demonstrate a clear understanding of local (regional) concerns and promote them at the state and federal levels.

Not to put too fine a point to it, the clear goal of campaign rhetoric and marketing is to pursuade voters that a candidate is capable of doing their thinking for them, that the issues of the day are beyond their ken, and their only criterion is to feel good about their votes.

2. A commitment to the processes and outcomes of consensus. Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” is sufficient to drive that commitment. Consensus is not one side wins over all.

The politics of tribalism go hand in glove with the notion that our representatives will take on our obligation to be informed and vote rationally. Polarization is not a new thing by any stretch. What we are seeing are the symptoms of a society declining into violence as a first recourse, egregiously disrespecting our unique history of non-violent regime change.

On a personal note: the aristocracy never died, it just went into hibernation or found subtle ways to promote its goals. We’ve descended very close to the benchmarks of the old feudalism. They are simply biding their time until they can once again become the arbitrary rulers of their world. The demolishing of liberal education, the refusal to reward increased production with increased compensation, even the persuasion (and coercion) of the average consumer to see borrowed money in the same light as earned money can all find direct links to feudalism.

It was literacy that chased the aristocrats out of their palaces. It will be a form of illiteracy — knowledge for material gain and nothing else — that will restore them.

#12 Comment By History Teacher On November 20, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

@Johann. So you think that local parents should have the power to determine school curriculum? There should be some town hall meeting to decide what gets taught from College Board AP Curriculum? The minority of parents who show up convinced that the teaching of the spread of Islam and the teaching of the history of socialism/communism, if done in a way that does not demonize both is a tacit endorsement, get to decide which part of the curriculum I can teach their children? Our state had an entire database of social studies lesson plans that were created by teachers shut down because Tea Party parents argued that the lessons promoted Islam and Marxism…again, local control of education (assuming that the participation would look much like primary elections where the fringe shows up) is a scary prospect.

#13 Comment By Franklin Evans On November 20, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

History Teacher, the sad truth is that the entire AP curriculum, from content to scope, reflects the standards of post-secondary education. That’s how I see it from being an AP student in the early 70s. If we accept as inevitible that our colleges are politicized — and while I don’t agree that they must be, I see no way to avoid it — then that will be the view of AP curricula.

It’s ironical. 😉 Parents want their Precious to have the most advantages prior to entering the college jungle, but they want to dictate that preparation. They look to you, all teachers, to be their proxies — dare I rather say puppets — with their infinite wisdom (expressed as dollar signs) determining what constitutes an “effective” education.

#14 Comment By Johann On November 20, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

@History Teacher, there is much I would like to dictate from on high if I was the King that I firmly believe would make this country better. I’m not saying local people will choose the best paths in education or anything else. That doesn’t mean those decisions should be taken away from them by a higher level of government. I’m not even saying that it works out for the best every time that we have a republic vs a pure democracy. That is however what we have. If we want to change it, then we must amend the constitution. Let there be no doubt though, there are pros and cons to pure democracy as there is to a republic. My humble opinion is that the greatest dangers come from a powerful central government and that pure democracy is very foolish.

I believe virtually no one will argue with the importance of forcing reading and math skills as soon as possible on children and that without those skills, the child has little chance to learn. A whole universe of knowledge is opened up to those children, should they desire to learn. Arguing whether or not to cover politically charged “stuff” is counter productive. Kids with reading and math skills will be so beyond all that long before they leave their communities no matter what their parents would like to control.

#15 Comment By elixelx On November 21, 2013 @ 1:03 am

In 2002, in obedience to a diktat by New Labour
in Britain (“Progressive”)that all teachers have a teachers’ training certificate, I, a 30-year, all-over-the-world, ESOL-teaching-to-adults Veteran was required, under threat of losing my job, to attend a cutting-edge PGCE course (two years, all-day, Fridays)at Greenwich (2 hours travelling time, each way).
On the first day our “leader” asked the lambent question: What is the purpose of Education? and in a class of 30 in-service teachers did not get a solitary satisfactory suggestion.
Then he revealed the secret: The purpose of Education, he said, with nary a blush, is “TO CHANGE BEHAVIOUR”
Well, I asked, “From what, to what”? and who secides? And wasn’t behaviour-changing Education a favourite method of control used by Fascist and Communist Regimes?
Our “leader” then took it upon himself to warn me that such questions were disruptive of class goals, and that I would not get to the end of the course with such attitudes.
I replied that, if my attitudes to his propaganda were disruptive then perhaps he should re-examine his propaganda as I would my attitudes…
BOTTOM LINE: I lasted four weeks in the programme, which grew increasingly “progressive”, with all the jargon and cant that our “leader” and his cohorts could throw at us. There was not a single voice raised in protest by all the experienced teachers there, who simply wanted their piece of paper in order to keep their income and self-satisfied careers!
Me? I lost my job and found a better one in a foreign country where Education still has the purpose of transmitting what I know to one who knows less and wants to know more!

#16 Comment By spite On November 21, 2013 @ 6:33 am

Egypt Steve
I am also sympathetic to claims that knowledge has value for its own sake, but that is not exactly what you are advocating here.

You want money for your department, yet at the same time you are trying to argue that money should not be factored in the decision making, one cannot sympathize with that, instead it generates contempt.Well paid pampered professors are not actually required for those who SINCERELY want to study ancient Greek or Plato in this day and age.

#17 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On November 21, 2013 @ 10:22 am

Coming to you live, straight out of the Ivory Tower.

As someone who went to an Ivy League school and thus arguably received a first-rate higher education in liberal arts (in my case in Government), I can honestly say that the sort of education being lauded by the author is not suitable for everyone. Moreover, that sort of education is about education for its own sake. While this is noble in a philosophical sense, in a world where two thirds of the population seeks some form of higher education and where a college degree has become a virtual necessity in order to compete in our economy, clearly in the real world education is not about education for its own sake. Higher education has already become utilitarian in application if not in actual practice. Most people get college degrees because they have to in order to make a decent living, not merely because they enjoy being educated.

That being the case, I would argue that higher education in particular should actually be more utilitarian, not less, and secondary education should prepare students accordingly. Since we’ve effectively made a college degree a prerequisite for participation in the economy, and foolishly done so without actually considering whether our existing higher education system is actually all that well suited to preparing students for participation in said economy, shouldn’t we do more to ensure that a college education (and secondary education before it) does in fact adequately prepare participants for the job market?

I can tell you that my Ivy League education, while philosophically enlightening, did very little to prepare me for a career. In fact, after I graduated I felt completely adrift with no direction and no idea of where to go or what to do. I now (after a couple years of experimentation) have a successful career in software, which my extremely expensive education did next to nothing to prepare me for. The fact that my employer looks for applicants with college degrees therefore seems laughable to me, since I would have been as successful as an employee whether I went to college or not. Most of the skills I use day in and day out were either innate or learned on the job.

There is a place for the sort of education the author is promoting, but only for those who seek it honestly, for its own sake. For the vast majority that simply want to secure their futures and obtain a ticket to making a decent living in the real world, we ought to be considering how they can be better served, and it’s possible that the Common Core can help to get us there.

#18 Comment By Richard W. Bray On November 21, 2013 @ 11:34 am


I would love to see Patrick J. Deneen and Diane Ravitch debate Arne Duncan and Bill Gates on what constitutes a good education. (Bill Gates thinks he’s an expert on education because he had his sister crunch the numbers.)

#19 Comment By CatherineNY On November 21, 2013 @ 11:40 am

I’m surprised to find myself agreeing with the commenters who defend the Common Core. My children’s Catholic school has gone all in for the CC, and I’ve been trying to learn more about it. One of the teachers told us that the math curriculum is very close to the approach taken in Singapore math, which can only be good. And I don’t see that having basic standards in English and math, and giving some thought to students’ eventual need to make a living, is such a bad thing. Our school still gives time during the day for excellent music instruction, and encourages theater and art as well. And the religious aspect of the school does not seem to have been compromised in the slightest by the adoption of the CC.

#20 Comment By Mike On November 21, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

Having been in high school classrooms filled with lower performing students, I’d say that the need for vocational technical training is huge. About half the students express little interest in reading, or writing, yet the majority take classes that end with CP. Ultimately, if you don’t like to read or write, you aren’t going to succeed in college, much less gain acceptance. A large number of kids waste their high school years retaking failed courses, or passing barely. They could be learning how to work as a plumber, HVAC installer, cosmetologist, etc. Upon graduation, they’d be able to get what they see as important, a good job.

#21 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 22, 2013 @ 4:14 am

As a humanities professor, I sympathize with the critique of instrumentalist education here. I have no love at all for the current national movements aimed at “Scantronizing” and cost-benefit-analyzing everything in education. But overall, despite its gestures to history (the Founders, etc.), what we have in this speech, it seems to me, is a highly ahistorical account of what actually went down. Like much that happens in actual history, the educational system in the US grew up higgledy-piggledy as people made do with what they had and seized what opportunities they could. You can retrospectively explain it based on some theory of republicanism and anti-centralism like the one here, but that’s a justification after the fact.

More importantly, a historical account would acknowledge that local control has, in practice, often meant local majorities (or even [3]) putting the screws to local minorities. The elephant in the room in that regard is, of course, racial segregation, which was the clear and emphatic choice of many, many American localities until the “distant power” of the central government finally declared it illegal (and backed this up by deploying troops). What’s the localist’s answer to that? Also, what happens when some localities decide that they like “narrowly utilitarian” education, that they’re eager to prepare their children for places in the deracinated, globalized economic system, and that they don’t understand all this airy-fairy jabber about humanism and the higher citizenship? And so they set their local education policies accordingly? What, you just let the children in those localities languish, condemned to exactly the kind of education so sharply critiqued here? “Tough break, kid, you should have picked your parents better” — is that your best answer?

In sum, this speech/article seems to reflect what I find frustrating about otherwise intelligent and clear-thinking American conservatives: they just seem blithely unaware or unconcerned with the actual history of oppression of actual people, a history that greatly complicates the simplistic formula of centralism=bad / localism=good.

#22 Comment By Greg On November 22, 2013 @ 10:32 am

The debate over the application of education seems to argue on the one hand that the learning will produce a skill or craft useful enough to society to employ the person who holds those talents and on the other hand there seems an idea that learning may produce an apprehension of the world around us sufficient to living life more richly. I suppose both can be true and both will be a more or less proposition owing to the differences in native intelligence, individual initiative, encouragement and instruction at home, the companionship of better educated peers, etc. But beyond those considerations there is an imperative that only an informed people are capable of self government. The ignorant will always be ruled by the wise, clever or ambitious. One need not own much beyond the rudimentary understanding of the human experience and the human condition to conclude that learning ought be a life long pursuit to glean as much from this stay on earth to fulfill the greater part of our potential, whatever it may be.

#23 Comment By mrscracker On November 22, 2013 @ 11:36 am

I might be the only one here who attended a one room schoolhouse.
I think education problems have been compounded by consolidation, factory-sized schools, a lack of discipline & respect for authority, both in school & at home.
The larger the school & the further from home, the less parental involvement, the less connection to the community & community values.
Curriculum is secondary if classrooms & home environments are chaotic.
Common Core may very well suck, but I don’t think that’s the main problem at hand.

#24 Comment By Treedman On November 22, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

“By their fruits you will know them.” Public education is a systemic disaster and no amount of money or central control will cure it. The reason to educate is so that human beings can come to know their Creator and what He has revealed to man and then take the necessary actions in life to end up with the Creator after this life ends. Any education that does not address this, and certainly any that thwarts it, cannot be beneficial to individuals, and thus to society.

#25 Comment By safiyah On November 23, 2013 @ 8:14 am

There is nothing wrong with requiring that our students become competitive with the rest of the other industrialized nations so that our students score high on entrance exams, or find a place with their top ranking peers from India or other eastern educated nations who have become the smartest students on earth these days. We are at the lowest rankings in math and science and isn’t it time to get this part of our education to shine? The common core does not limit what the author is referring to in civics or philosophy, although he is trying to make a case that it does. I say give Common Core a chance to raise basic skills, which will automatically allow students to have greater thinking skills because they will be able to read and understand the majority of all of these glorious writers who have contributed to this blog.

#26 Comment By vincent joy On November 23, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

The biggest reasons for the failure of government schools are: 1) Government monopoly control [90% of K thru 12 kids have to go to government schools, primarily because governments have stolen so much of the Private citizens resources through onerous & confiscatory taxation]., 2) Allowing the unionization of teachers. If teachers truly considered themselves ‘professionals’ they would never have allowed their vocation to be grabbed by, what really are organized crime groups – albeit ‘legalized’ by government – which is essentially what unions are: legalized extortion rings. So, many teachers have given up any degree of ‘professionalism’ in exchange for higher wages and benefits – at taxpayer expense – through the extortionary power of unionization. I just look at most teachers as not much more than gang members. So, if you want to restore education in America you’ve got to get BOTH government and unions OUT OF IT!

#27 Comment By Michael Umphrey On November 24, 2013 @ 1:36 am

I’ve spent quite a lot time studying CCSS and working on curriculum that fits it, and I’ve read an astonishing array of authoritative statements about what it is and what it will do.

Curriculum directors, administrators, teachers, special interest groups, professors all say it is different things. Whatever it is in fact is what is happening in classrooms all across the country. I am certain that there is almost no uniformity.

Mostly what I see is all the people recycling their usual educational wares, with a bit of tweaking to put them in the context of CCSS. To a great degree, nothing has changed.

Except now we have managed to get standards set for the whole nation by a small group of unelected experts.

Once the tests begin getting reported, we’ll have a better sense of what the authorities are actually measuring, which will give lots of people some idea of what they need to do to please the authorities.

But at this point, CCSS is mostly noise–all sorts of people making speeches (the ones they usually make) and everyone getting used to the idea that the education agenda is handed down from on high, whether anyone makes sense of it or not.

#28 Comment By robert fuller On November 26, 2013 @ 7:58 am


What you fail to understand is that some of the colleges with students who have the greatest understanding of philosophy and history are ones which are not in any way tax dependent. Hillsdale college, for example. What you also fail to understand is that many tax dollars for education does not go to a deeper understanding of the history of Christian scholarship in the west, or how western civilization came into existence, or western history in general.

If tax dollars go to education of that sort, it is usually devoted to decrying the wests achievements, or the evil of Christianity, or moral relativism of one sort or another. The tax payer dollars go to project the views of the professors, which you yourself most likely espouse, given your slant about conservatives and libertarians. To get a lecture like this from a liberal, when many liberals have been saying that much of what is the history of Christianity, or the great thinkers of Greece or Rome, or the great lessons of that history, or of the history of England or western Europe in general, is to the liberal just of bunch of stuffy old white men, and you would prefer to teach them about contemporary literature focused on very select aspects of history, such as oppressed women, or the history of minorities, or the history of America’s racist past, or how egalitarians changed everything for the better, or, and this is your favorite, how horrible and oppressive the western world was when we still believed in a transcendent order.

People knew more about our culture and history before large state involvement in education, so lack of tax dollars hardly explains it. Parochial schools, private schools and religious schools all have students with a better understanding of these subjects, and many others for that matter, and they don’t rely on government largesse. In truth, the growth of the state has lead to such education being devalued because it does not serve the interests of the state, but glorifying the values and norms which helps to justify it’s existence (such as your own), certainly does justify it, and giving people skills to them will keep them from learning about all those pesky ideas about the importance of tradition or why the government isn’t all that important. Of course, Obama’s claim of giving them necessary skill only works if you have an economy where there are any jobs in the first place.

In any case, the social and political underpinnings of many educational institutions today is why such education as has been discussed in undervalued. Not because you don’t get to take enough of other people’s money, as people have learned much more about our history and traditions at different times and in other institutions without such money. But nice intellectually lazy attempt on your part to try and blame the decline in knowledge of western history or our Christian legacy on conservatism.

The fact that you are a professor kind of proves my point about the mindless liberal obsessions of the professoriate. Hopefully, if we have less professors like you someday in the future (when we actually care about intellectual rigor and academic standards again) then the problem will correct itself. Maybe if you actually expected yourself or the apathetic youth of today to actually know anything, and we all actually held ourselves to a standard, then we would know more and be more complete as human beings spiritually and intellectually.

Of course, that would require dismissing such idiotic notions as “Republicans took away our tax dollars so I can’t teach people about history”. All you need to teach history are knowledge, some books, and a mind. You don’t need to waste tax payer dollars. Abraham Lincoln lived in a dirt floor cabin and he could quote more from history and the bible in one day than you could in your whole miserable lifetime. Money is not the issue. People’s attitude, motivation, what they value, and what they’re taught (or more importantly what YOU’RE TEACHING THEM) are the real issues.

#29 Comment By Park On November 26, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

posts like robert fuller’s and vincent joy’s are why I am slowly moving from being a liberal to a stalinist (yes, there is a difference).

#30 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 26, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

@robert fuller:

“People knew more about our culture and history before large state involvement in education, so lack of tax dollars hardly explains it. …people have learned much more about our history and traditions at different times and in other institutions without such money.”

I’m sorry, but this is absurd. Before “large state involvement,” only a very small percentage of the population got any education at all. The state was filling a vacuum, not displacing some kind of private effort that was already producing great results on a mass scale. Anyone who demands that we understand our history and traditions could start by learning basic facts like that himself.

Also, citing Abraham Lincoln as an example is like saying that because Michael Jordan was a world-class athlete, anyone can be a world-class athlete if he’s sufficiently motivated. Abraham Lincoln and Michael Jordan were rare and extraordinary talents. An education system for a large and diverse democracy needs to produce decent results for tens of millions of people who aren’t. No society in history has ever approached that goal, or even tried to, without “large state involvement.”

#31 Comment By robert fuller On November 26, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

Then why is it that children perform better at schools without such involvement? I think it’s fair to say that if reading and literature and a more general reverence for the values our civilization were taught, that might solve a few things. Yours is the progressive anointed vision that says we can’t accomplish anything without state power and control.

Watch George H. Smith on state schooling. The project was hardly undertaken to better the downtrodden masses. It’s interesting how one of you says that if I make demands, I should know basic facts. Well, here’s one, literacy among people at the time of our founding was actually quite high. One of the reason a non state sponsored education system is not more affordable is because of the monopoly which the state system has.

Many options have emerged to combat the state monopoly in some very unlikely places. California, for instance. Not that such proposals will save California. Nothing can do that now. Where alternatives to the state schooling have been tried, without interference from teachers unions and the monopoly, they have had overwhelming success, much more often than not. But you’re thesis of “if not for the state” ignores a fairly glaring reality. Books are inexpensive, and the surest way of educating oneself is to read many books.

As for the expense of going to a public university, much of that tuition goes back into things which have nothing to do with educating kids. Try reading Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson. In that book, he effectively demonstrates that tuition costs go to pay things that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with the politics of collegiate education. Moreover, it isn’t as though education in this country spends an undue amount of time on western or Christian history of the importance of the traditions to which we owe our society, which was my original point anyway.

Bottom line, reading books to better oneself is not expensive, and to what extent education is overpriced, it has little to do with to much conservatism in colleges. Moreover, people generally know less than they used to, before such involvement. Read a letter written by an average person 2 or more generations ago and compare it to now. Is more education working? I’d say quality rather than quantity should be what we’re after. Apparently that means I’m an ignoramus. Is that your argument?

#32 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 27, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

“Read a letter written by an average person 2 or more generations ago and compare it to now. Is more education working? I’d say quality rather than quantity should be what we’re after. Apparently that means I’m an ignoramus. Is that your argument?”

You’re clearly not an ignoramus, but I don’t think you use words very carefully. The fine writing you admire from people two or three generations ago was in most cases the product of their public, tax-supported educations. In other words, we were already dealing with “large state involvement” by then, unless by “large state involvement” you mean something other than large state involvement.

As to your bile toward teachers’ unions, do you suppose there might be a reason that so many teachers — including the many superb teachers I myself was lucky to have over the years — belonged to and believed in unions? Is it just that they hate schoolchildren? Or might it be that before unions, teaching was egregiously under-rewarded? It’s still not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme, but is it possible that teachers, like any workforce, find that they’re treated better when they have bargaining power, which they gain by uniting?

Anyway, it’s a pointless argument. The American public is not going to abolish its public-school system. And as long as it has a public-school system, that system will need to hire teachers — which in turn will make teachers a constituency or stakeholder group that has to be dealt with (and dealt with more or less fairly, in the long run, if we’re going to have labor peace). So your fantasy of some sort of colonial-era or premodern-style homeschooling, with every man an Abe Lincoln teaching himself by firelight, is DOA in an advanced society.

#33 Comment By Jim Houghton On November 27, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

If only education could exist so that young people could sit around talking about literature, philosophy and the meaning of life, that would be wonderful. But making them employable is reason enough for a core education.

#34 Comment By mrscracker On December 3, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

Eamus Catuli

” …So your fantasy of some sort of colonial-era or premodern-style homeschooling, with every man an Abe Lincoln teaching himself by firelight, is DOA in an advanced society.”
I’m responding late to this, but actually the modern variant is “every man an Abe Lincoln teaching himself” by the light of the computer screen.Technology brings it all right back into the home again-or local learning center.We don’t need teachers’ unions to accomplish that.

#35 Pingback By What Breaking Bad Reveals about Teaching Virtue | Exiles from Eden On January 22, 2014 @ 10:43 am

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