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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Headquarters

School Deform

How Common Core Promotes Cultural Engineering by Killing the Imagination

by Robin Phillips

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 31

This past August, when children throughout America returned to school, few were aware of the monumental shifts that had just occurred in their schools. You see, the 2014–2015 school year is when American public schools began implementation of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative—the controversial educational reforms introduced by President Obama.

Obama used $4.35 billion of stimulus money to effectively "pay" states to join Common Core, which imposes new standards on what students should know at the end of each grade for English language arts and mathematics. By controlling national testing standards, Common Core creates the infrastructure for federal control of school curricula.

From Lab Rats to Schoolchildren

The philosophy behind Common Core goes back to one of the most influential educational reformers of the twentieth century, the pragmatic psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). Skinner is famous for inventing the prototype of the Skinner Box, an operant conditioning chamber used to study animal behavior. But Skinner didn't stop at rats and mice: he wanted to take what he learned from rodents and apply it to the education of American children. (Skinner acknowledged no ultimate distinction between men and animals, having declared, "To man qua man we readily say good riddance.") He wanted, in his own words, to bring "the results of an experimental science . . . to bear upon the practical problems of education."

In his 1984 essay "The Shame of American Education," Skinner delightedly noted that "with teaching machines and programmed instruction one could teach what is now taught in American schools in half the time with half the effort." The same principles that applied to teaching children also applied to animals, leading Skinner to boast, "I could make a pigeon a high achiever by reinforcing it on a proper schedule."

Skinner removed all questions of ultimate meaning from his educational schema and applied himself only to the question, "What works?" He cared little about finding ways to foster human flourishing or to help draw the souls of students toward a love for the good, true, and beautiful. In fact, he did not believe that human nature or the soul even existed. Rather, what mattered was facilitating what he called "cultural engineering" by "programming" students to become the type of citizens that would help contribute to a better society, conceived in collectivist terms.

In his books Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Waldon Two, Skinner described what an ideal society would look like: it would be one in which all citizens, having recognized the terrible cost of freedom, voluntarily submitted to collectivist measures (including population control) for the greater good. Such a society could be produced with the right educational and environmental conditioning.

Remaking American Education

Before we can appreciate Skinner's influence on Common Core, we must consider the type of education Common Core presents and how it contrasts with education as traditionally understood.

The architects of Common Core have spoken candidly about what they see as the goal of education, and it is not education at all, but training. What they want from the next generation is not better people but better workers, and Common Core offers the environmental conditioning for producing them.

This differs greatly from traditional classical education. America's founders understood that a healthy democracy requires that citizens learn to think critically, to ask questions, and to develop well-ordered faculties of reason and imagination. Citizens who were inculcated in the ways of sound thinking would be able to preserve the riches of our cultural heritage. This was the same vision articulated by Plato, who argued in The Republic that the highest goal of all education is knowledge of the Good.

By contrast, when the architects of Common Core tried to describe the goal of education, they were unable to articulate anything higher than "college and career readiness" and "21st century literacy" for a "global economy." To them, students are little more than units pegged for a future workforce whose productivity will keep America competitive with emerging economies like China and India. As Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins warned on the Catholic Vote website, Common Core "is a workforce-development scheme that treats the individual as human capital, to be shepherded where needed in aid of a centralized, corporatist economy. Schools are factories where children are trained, and the teachers are their supervisors."

I suspect that Skinner would be pleased with this, given that he rejected the classical and Christian vision of enlarging human experience by pointing to higher realities. Skinner didn't believe in any higher realities to inspire our ethical endeavors. He was one of the signatories to the Humanist Manifesto II, which states that "moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction."

Preparing Children for the "Real World"

If someone had set out to design a curriculum specifically to stamp out the next generation's ability to imagine, he could hardly have done better than produce Common Core. When researching for his book The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core, Terrence Moore found that many great works of literature were being sidelined from schools throughout America to make room for technical reading. Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College in Rhode Island noticed the same thing:

What appals me most about the standards . . . is the cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. It is a sheer ignorance of the life of the imagination. We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women . . . to be human beings, honoring what is good and right and cherishing what is beautiful.

Common Core justifies its imagination-killing agenda by saying that "the standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers." The "real world" has little time for stories of dragons, fairies, and one-eyed monsters, except insofar as they will help a young reader acquire language skills—skills he could just as easily obtain by reading texts of equal "complexity" which do not stimulate creativity.

Imagination & Freedom

If the goal is to produce a society in which the elite can exercise the type of control over the citizenry that B. F. Skinner advocated, the first thing that must be killed is the imagination. To cultivate learning without cultivating the imagination is to create automatons, for it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences, and to see the infrastructures of meaning beneath the surface of things. The poetry of life, and the sense of wonder that keeps the imagination vivid, fresh, and restless, is anathema to prosaic utopians who aim to convince citizens that there is nothing beyond this life to live for. That is why the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of totalitarian regimes throughout history. In order for collectivist and totalitarian regimes to work, the first books to go must be those that have no obvious functional value in a work-based economy but that feed one's imagination and sense of wonder.

Significantly, Common Core is replacing great works of literature with texts that seem specifically designed to diminish the life of the imagination: texts like FedViews, put out by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and "Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management," published by the General Services Administration.

Although some literary works are retained in the curriculum, Terrence Moore has found that "when students do read some of the great works of literature, they tend to be excerpts rather than complete works, supplemented with modern commentary on the works."

Moore also notes that Common Core elevates "informational texts" and articles by journalists above literary works through a computerized process for determining "text complexity." Readings that are found to use technical jargon are rated higher in the complexity scale than works that use more simple language. Complexity thus becomes purely quantitative, without attention being paid to the quality of texts. As English teacher Claire Needall Hollander warned,

The writers of the Common Core had no intention of killing literature in the classroom. But the convenient fiction that yearly language learning can be precisely measured by various "metrics" is supplanting the importance of literary experience. The Common Core remains neutral on the question of whether my students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner's manual, so long as the text remains "complex."

In the minds of the utilitarian pragmatists behind Common Core, there is something frivolous about beauty in general, and beautiful literature in particular, since it has no obvious functional benefit. What is the point of reading about the adventures of Rat and Mole in The Wind in the Willows when you could be reading President Obama's Executive Order 13423 instead? After all, talking Rats and Moles don't exist in "the real world." Only those destined to major in English literature need trouble themselves with such stories.

Instrumentalizing the Liberal Arts

In the classical understanding of education, we acquire language skills so that we can read great texts, and we read great texts so that we can grow richer and deeper in our love for the good, true, and beautiful. By contrast, for Common Core, the purpose of reading texts is to acquire language skills, and the purpose of acquiring language skills is to better compete in the twenty-first-century global economy. The liberal arts have merely an instrumental value in helping students achieve these pragmatic goals. Accordingly, if it were possible to achieve these same goals without reading texts, then reading would become superfluous.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, one of the ideological spearheads behind Common Core, has even suggested that sometime in the future we may be able to dispense with reading, though for now we are stuck with it. She writes, "There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically, they must read lots of 'complex' texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought." This is an extraordinary admission, since the instrumentalizing of the liberal arts to ends outside themselves has been the great mistake of all utilitarians and pragmatists throughout the ages.

This move to instrumentalize the liberal arts is partially responsible for the slow death of art and music in the public schools. More seriously, it is an assault on what it means to be human, removing the freedom and dignity at the heart of human flourishing. Essentially, Common Core trains children to become laboratory rats who have little to live for beyond their next paycheck. 


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