common core

by Timothy Gordon and Stephen Jonathan Rummelsburg

Mr. Stephen Klugewicz and Mr. Kevin Brady surprised us in their Imaginative Conservative article last week by affixing the epithet “straw men” to arguments against the Common Core’s increasingly centralized approach to education. Precisely speaking, arguments for or against the Common Core doubtless employ at least a few straw men, as most every polemic does. Natural bias notwithstanding, one remains confident in christening the Common Core a straw house—insufficient shelter for the young, as against the seasons of life.

Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady fail to connect the roundly conceded educative catastrophe in America with the newest and most aggressive attack on educative subsidiarity—that pole star of conservative bona fides. Of course the catastrophe antedates the new Common Core push, by many generations. But selfsame reasoning belies each: a rejection of local curricular rule.

As to the ostensible shock and handwringing over education’s failure, one wonders: how is it surprising (or unrelated) that a thing which contradicted its first principle turned out badly? “Localness,” after all, is the very principle by which one teaches, an epistemic movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Conversely, a citizen educated by bureaucratic dicta emanating from a nerve center 3,000 miles away, will surely, on account of the anti-subsidiarian administration of his education, misunderstand the central principle of civics: subsidiarity. As importantly, he will also look past and fail to grasp the central principle of quality control: subsidiarity.  Neither of these constitutes a “negligible” moment in the edification of any student.

Of still greater importance, the quality of his education will consequently be poor. The American student of public education knows this morality tale only too well, even if he cannot tell you what a morality tale is.

It is only by egregious judicial and executive perversion of the so-called “rights regime”—aggrandizing the few rights actually guaranteed by the words of the Constitution—that education is now considered to be promised by federal “guarantors” in the first place. Critical analysis of government education qua “good” or “bad” misses this point. A false dichotomy is created by apprising types (good or bad) of governmental indoctrination. At the very most innocuous, federal governmental education must of its nature teach the young that the government is beneficent, a trust not concomitant with civic health in a republic. (Would an orthodox Catholic school teach otherwise than that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are correct?) And by its own admission, not to mention its operation, government education tempts the hearts of the young into reliance upon its enfeebling dominion.

This position is really constitutive of three general points (one of procedure, one of substance, and one of primacy) and eight specific ones.

Firstly, lest we forget (or forget that we’ve forgotten), the most important general point of Constitutional procedure is that none of the three branches of the federal government bear the Constitutional purview to educate. Plain and simple. The federal Constitution’s Article I, Section 8 situates seventeen functions or “fields” under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Congress. Education is not among them. Article II, Section 2 lists a scant number of functions for the President and his “public ministers and consuls.” Education is not among them, nor was it intended to be, even upon extension of the broader assumptions about the administrative function of the executive.

All other administrative functions were left by the Tenth Amendment “to the States or to the people.” We realize that the lack of nuance leaves the fastidious reader craving for caveats within distinctions; no such opportunity presents itself here. The federal government was just not intended as pedagogue, which means that its assumption of that role must be unconstitutional. The Department of Education, if it was to be created at all, had to be created ex nihilo and ex cathedra. Justification elides federal involvement, as it usually does (or is it the opposite?), which comports nicely with the historical narrative of the creation of the Department of Education in 1979.  Go figure. Inadequate as the following metric may be, it’s too delicious a morsel not to set before the eager advocates of federal education: test scores have stayed almost exactly the same (in science, lower!) after federal governmental involvement and spending have lurched from zero to the billions! (see graph, a.k.a. “the smackdown of federal involvement”).

But, once more, before reaching the merits of the federal government’s involvement in education, it is sufficient to know that such involvement is abjectly unconstitutional.

Secondly, the most important general point of substance is that the Fed will always seek to aggrandize its own power with its creatures, institutions, and employees. The Fed-in-tweed-and-elbow-patches will certainly do no better, as noted above. And it will carry out its agenda with exponentially heightened efficiency, of course, given nationwide access to young hearts and minds. This is why, for instance, the average high school graduate enters his maturity thinking spuriously that FDR “ended the Depression,” and thereby make-believing that FDR ranks among the “best American presidents.” (As imaginative conservatives well know, FDR emblemizes the opposition-stupefying dominion of the state, even if—especially if—each new generation of FDR-expositors cannot tell you why…which would be impossible! Once more, justification evades the federal modus operandi.)

Thirdly, Common Core represents a woeful exposition of C.S. Lewis’s doctrine of inverted “first and second things.” First things are permanent and enduring. They are the good, the true, the beautiful, the virtues, and the other appurtenances of the soul. Second things are temporary: expedience, money, goods, services, trades, grades, college- and career- readiness, and virtually all other desiderata of modern public education. The doctrine is an exercise in the exposition of the ills of consequentialism. C.S. Lewis explained that “when you put first things first and second things second, you get both first and second things; if you put second things first, you will lose both first and second things.”

An authentic education is, by definition, oriented towards first things. An authentic education tills the soil of the inner landscape using only the great and enduring works from the Great Western Tradition—where we uniquely find the “best that man has said and done.” On the other hand, the nakedly consequentialist nature of “Outcomes Based Education” exemplifies the disordered focus on second things. They begin with the fruit, and then “plan backwards” such as to contrive the methodology thereto. The permanent principles of learning are forgotten. And the fields of the inner landscape remain fallow.

Some of the more egregious, specific errors promoted by the Common Core and stated by Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Bradly are as follows:

1. “States are free to adopt or not adopt it.” Federal relief from so-called No Child Left Behind standards exerts a tremendous amount of upwards pressure on the states. The doctrine of the funded mandate hardly counts among the variant species of working and “free” federalism. More or less, states must accept most funded mandates, lest they be left behind by the other states who do so.

2. “Teachers are free to choose content.” This is illusory; they employ the language of freedom to pave the way—all the way—to a state-sanctioned Stockholm syndrome. There is even less freedom in Common Core than in its dreadful predecessor. This is to say: in 2014, the federal noose tightens around the neck of education (as it does around everything else).

3. The Common Core’s “ELA standards aim at literacy and generally require that students are able to read and understand texts.” It is arguable that, by the standards existent at the turn of the 19th or 20th Centuries, most teachers are formally illiterate. The public schools have been unable to produce literate students for generations, and what the Common Core promoters mean by “literacy” is utilitarian at best. To deem that a public school’s language arts program “aims at literacy” is to judge by appearances and not more. The crown of literacy is exegesis preceded by phraseology, literary devices, etymology and comprehension which is at the lower end of the grammatical hierarchy and yet remains beyond the present aims of the federal government’s new literacy ideal. The lowest rung on the ladder of grammar is prosody, a feeble specimen the public schools exalt and dissect like a frog in science lab to collect and catalog its miniscule constituent parts. The schools encourage unwitting students to glut themselves on a stew of pseudo-linguistics they falsely call a literary feast.

4. “The Common Core is not a curriculum.” The Common Core experts will tell you that the curriculum comprises the standards, plus assessments, plus a thing they call “rigor.” They’ll insist that what material they use doesn’t matter, as long as the “rigor” matches the involved standard and assessment. This is, in the last analysis, a distinction without a difference. The Common Core may not ennoble the spirit as true curricula are supposed to, but curriculum it is.

5. “Some conservatives complain about the lack of context provided to students when examining texts.” Promoters of the Common Core mean to isolate a passage of Shakespeare—without any historical context. More strikingly, they intend to do so without even the “superfluous” context provided by the rest of the play. As such, they intend to have students analyze the words based solely on the passage at hand, irrespective of the text’s arc. This flies in the face of the Western Tradition, which supposes that a text must always be read for its whole: “The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say.”[1] Among other grievances, Common Core will mistake the finitude of prose and the infinitude of poetry.  Each form—the poetic and the prosaic—will surely be lost in the boundless oblivion of progressive decontextualization.

6. Common Core evaluates “skills, not content.” Who cares? The “skills” taught through the Common Core are “empty skill sets” at best; moreover, they inform content of their own right. The proponents of the Common Core claim to entertain no interest in content beyond discerning its level of “rigor.” The strictures of Common Core render content a moot point. What good is Homer if you use your copy of The Odyssey to hammer in a nail?

7. “Literary exemplars.” The suggested exemplars lauded by Common Core advocates and cheered by charitable conservative onlookers like Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady, only give the appearance of a nod to the Great Western Tradition. Indeed, the public schools steeped in multiculturalism have long held the great books in contempt and without a change of heart, will likely continue to do so.

8. “Conservatives bemoan the standards’ alleged neglect of literature in favor of ‘informational texts to promote reasoning skills’.” The promoters of the Common Core have little or no interest in fine literature, because it “is not going to get you a job.” The Common Core harbors a frightening definition of “critical thinking skills” that bears no resemblance to the true critical thinking one would find in an authentic classical education.

In conclusion, Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady write:

“the fight over Common Core is ‘a dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other’s worst impulses.’ The debate has thus become clouded and slogans have replaced reason, especially on the right.”

All of the above constitute attempts at critical specificity (read: an approach attempting acutely not to mischaracterize). The actual “straw man” in the Common Core debate appears to the mischaracterization of its opposition as some sort of political fringe.

For another example, the position opposing Common Core finds itself impugned for its accidental agreement with the teachers’ unions on the matter, a less than scrupulous method of discerning rightness or wrongness. Rain is wetPizza is tasty. If the union thugs and teamsters happen to agree, please suffer that we shan’t reverse our position on either matter. The same goes for educative subsidiarity.

If one possesses a true understanding of education grounded in the virtues of the Christian anthropology, one sees clearly the dehumanizing totality of the secularist agenda underwriting the Common Core State Standards. Christ exhorts us: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” In the words of a saint: “No wickedness, no heresy, not even the Devil himself can deceive anyone without counterfeiting virtue.”[2] The Common Core is counterfeit education; the values it propagates are counterfeit virtues.

Mr. Klugewicz and Mr. Brady propose a dreadful compromise: “It is time for conservatives either to oppose the Common Core on legitimate grounds or to drop their opposition and find ways to make the new standards serve their ends.” Conversely, we urge: reject Common Core; reject federal education!

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw eagerly imagined a panel which would require citizens to come before it and “justify their continued existence,” in terms of the amount of utilitarian “good” they rendered the collective. That is, they’d be killed if they couldn’t precisely articulate their economic value before the state. To the contrary, we’d love to see the statists and federal bureaucrats dragged before a tribunal of citizens, forced to justify the perpetuation not of their lives, but of their fruitless, expensive, and despotic programs, like the creatures of the Federal Department of Education. That is, the programs would be killed if their value was not readily demonstrable before the people. (Interesting that secular-progressives are always prepared to speak about other humans so liltingly, but never governmental overreach.) One is surprised to find disagreement on the political right as to what ought to be the fate of each one of those species of federally controlled, failing educative techniques: the guillotine. While genuine dialogue has proven impossible with the political left, we hope otherwise among our imaginative, conservative friends.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Tim Gordon is a “12-step recovering academic,” with degrees in continental philosophy, ecclesiastical philosophy, literature, history, and law. He is releasing a book in spring 2014 with Catholic Answers Press, entitled Why America Will Perish without Rome: Six Elements of Crypto-Catholicism in our Republic since the Declaration of Independence. Follow Tim on Twitter at @catoandbrutus, for one-lined musings on politics, philosophy, culture, and the NBA.


  1. G.K. Chesterton
  2. Dorotheos of Gaza

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email