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Common Standards and the Right Reads

Paul Mirengoff draws attention to resistance to the Common Core Standards developed by a national committee and voluntarily adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. He focuses on one of the most controversial elements of the standards: a recommendation that states add nonfiction texts to the English curriculum. Many English teachers worry that students will end up reading blog posts and instructional manuals rather than Shakespeare. Mirengoff fears that they’ll be fed an intellectual diet of “government propaganda”, such as President Bush’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” or an article on healthcare by Atul Gawande.

Mirengoff’s worry about “indoctrination” is exaggerated. In the first place, neither of the texts he mentions are “propaganda”, that is, the promotion of a predetermined line in the guise of reporting fact. The executive order is a official statement of policy. Gawande’s essay is a political argument developed in his own name on the basis of his own research. The conclusions they develop may be right or wrong. But neither makes the cynical claim to neutrality that distinguishes propaganda.

Apart from their content, it’s useful for students to read documents like these in order to identify and compare the genres to which they belong. One of the most powerful obstacles to propaganda is the awareness that words are written or printed to achieve specific purposes–and that these purposes are not always the same. In any case, the texts Mirengoff cites are only two of many suggestions. Among the other “informational texts” recommended to 11th and 12th graders are the Declaration of Independence, Common Sense, and Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. All of those texts are appropriate companion reading to an executive order.

But that doesn’t mean the standards are a good idea. In the first place, it’s not clear why they’re necessary. Politicians like to describe education as a national crisis. But national averages of achievement on national and international tests are misleading. In fact, public schools in some states are excellent; those in other states are miserable.

Massachusetts, to mention only the extremes, doesn’t need the new standards. Its students are the highest-achieving in the country, and compare favorably around the world. West Virginia, on the other hand, is in serious trouble. But that’s a challenge for West Virginia rather than a national crisis.

The Common Core Standards are a bad idea in general, then, because they offer a national solution to state and regional problems. As I’ve argued before, federalist approaches that reflect the needs and resources of the several states are preferable.

Beyond this general criticism, there really is a problem with the standards’ promotion of “informational” texts. It’s not that those texts are biased, but that they’re being pushed in the wrong classes. Government documents and political essays belong in history and social studies rather than English.

In other words, we shouldn’t reduce the time devoted to classics of fiction and poetry. We should replace those awful textbooks, which succeed only in convincing students that the past is boring, with serious narrative history and primary sources. If students can read Shakespeare, however slowly and painfully, they should be able to handle Gibbon. And wouldn’t a curriculum that included The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire be a treat for conservatives?

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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