Education endures as one of the common themes discussed in American politics and life. Controversy regarding the Common Core curriculum constitutes the discussion’s current manifestation. Unfortunately, too many neglect realizing the greater issue at hand with Common Core. Greater perspective shows that while Common Core possesses flaws, these issues are no more than small illustrations of greater problems within the American educational system.

But what is this “Common Core” cited by the media and pundits? Many declared its fundamental problems by pointing out observations such as that, under Common Core, three times four equals eleven. The Washington Post debunks what it sees as several “myths” regarding Common Core. Some of these include Common Core bringing, among other things, better testing, better handling of No Child Left Behind’s defects, and savings to taxpayers. Though we could dredge up thousands of articles from the media decrying Common Core’s inefficiencies and seemingly illogical mathematic lessons, there exist better places to go when examining matters like these. In finding out more about Common Core, we’ll go directly to the program itself.

The Common Core website declares, “the Common Core standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education.” Standards, though necessary in education, must lead to some sort of testing. In this national sense, the standards logically mean the kind of national standardized tests plaguing contemporary education. Rather than promoting acquiring true knowledge and requiring students to grapple with difficult and complex ideas, such tests only value which bubble the student filled in. Consequently, these tests only cover certain topics that can be tested in such a manner. In these subjects, answers are clear (mathematics, science, grammar, etc.). This isn’t to say that these subjects aren’t important, but they neglect ideas and thinking over calculations and clear rules. These tests prefer students concerning their intellectual energy over memorizing formulas and test-taking strategies, rather than develop their own mental powers in dealing with ideas from philosophy, literature, and other fields.

This educational conflict actually shows us other issues with the Common Core: education’s purpose. Looking at some of Common Core’s goals, we see that some of them include ensuring that a student in high school’s upper levels grasped the highly complex ideas of literary irony and satire, along with climbing the Himalayas of textual summary and finding themes. In the realm of “history/social sciences,” Common Core demands students “integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media,” and understand how context changes the language used in a piece. Again, we don’t see education as a means to develop students’ thinking. Then what is its role, then? The explanation requires a bit of history.

The previous century brought innumerable changes to the United States and the world. One of these changes involved changing the dominant educational philosophy. Progressive education replaced the old models. Progressive education’s patron saint, John Dewey, brought a collective, community focus to education. The teachers left the libraries of books and ideas for the sunny park of feelings and emotions. Progressive education fundamentally transformed schools in America. Many of our problems tie back to this change.

The solution stems back to a different focus, but an instinctive jump back to pre-Progressive days isn’t necessarily warranted (though years of playing the opposition trained this reaction in many people). We do not need to integrate corporal punishment into schools. We should also mind the radical advocates for classical education. Yes, contemporary education often neglects the classical tradition and languages, but we must be careful not to make education into ancestor worship. Rather, education’s focus must be drilling critical thought into students by exposing them to the challenging ideas present in philosophy, literature, theology, and other fields. Naturally, the next obstacle stands as what the students find themselves thinking after years of rigorous thinking, accompanied by equally grueling writing challenges. Here we find the dark reality of government education.

Starting at Progressive education’s roots, we find John Dewey’s concern as, essentially, the school functioning as a facet of the community and society. With public education increasing to eventually become the dominant force in American education, along with compulsory attendance laws and Dewey’s influence, the reality we find ourselves in no longer surprises us. In short, the Dewey-model public educational system produces cogs for the societal machine rather than thoughtful and capable individuals. (That is not to say this is the case for every student in public schools.)

Common Core, then, with its emphasis on pitiful, nationalized standards does nothing to change this situation. Such national standards merely exist as a good “achievement” for touting politicians and perpetuate one of American education’s base problems. The other problem is the government.

Discussions about whether local governments should take more power are necessary, but at no level should the government involve itself in education. It presents both moral and political issues. With the latter, politics, simply no basis for public schooling exists. The former, morality, relates more to the now thoroughly discussed problem of focus. Assuming that government schools will produce true critical thinkers is absurd. If we lived in the world as it should ideally be, this might be the case. But, if we lived in this ideal world, the state also wouldn’t be an entity that employs violence and pillage. Only in a free and privatized environment might we expect a different focus (whether found in homeschooling or in other methods). In such a place, there would be true freedom of choice regarding educational style, environment, and philosophy.

Sometimes, the truth is uncomfortable. I admit that an educational philosophy realizing its role and impact relies heavily on students is undesirable for many. Education is about developing the individual so that he continues thinking, reading, and writing beyond school days. His ultimate intellectual destination doesn’t matter—provided, hopefully, his journey exhibits good reasoning. Ultimately, the individual finds it up to himself alone. The preferential, ideal reality of control might present itself as a reachable goal, but it isn’t the “world as it is.” Intellectually, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with considering such theories and ideas. But continually applying them against the “is” of reality, standing firmer than anything else, presents grave problems for the individual to work out.

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Christian Lopac | Wabash College | @CLopac