Dumbing-down the Nation’s Classrooms

A few months ago, I was having a debate with a former Georgia state school superintendent who, along with a state senator (both Republicans), had made a pitch for the Common Core by invoking high educational “standards” and “preparing students for the twenty-first-century global economy.”

During our conversation, I complained that Common Core devalues literature.

“Believe me,” he replied, “I’m a lover of literature.  I love to read.”

Then I mentioned how Common Core greatly reduces the amount of time spent on literature; high school upper classmen spend 70 percent of English/Language Arts class time on “informational texts,” like EPA directives or insulation standards.

He knew this was true, so he replied, “Well, how many times is someone going to use Beowulf anyway?”

Where to begin with such a statement?

Where to begin with any similar questioning of Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens, Plato, O’Connor, Twain, Jefferson, Lincoln?

Hillsdale College history professor Terrence O. Moore has the reply in his book, The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core.

Every concerned parent, grandparent, and citizen should read this, for Moore cuts through the obfuscation to reveal Common Core as “a complete consolidation and nationalization of a public education in America.” It’s the final step in a 50-year process of the progressive takeover of education.

Moore zeroes in on the strategies of Common Core salesmen who seek to “effect illiberal ends” by “killing the great stories of our tradition.”  The great stories are “first the works of literature that have long been considered great by any standard of literary judgment and, second, what we might call the Great American Story of people longing to be free and happy under their own self-government.” The former, of course, are the literary classics; the latter are the stories from history.

In a lively style, Moore exposes the methods used: “neglect, amputation, misinterpretation, subtle and not-so-subtle criticism, and a further dumbing-down of the nation’s classrooms.” As the statement of my interlocutor confirmed, Common Core is “a program that directs people to be preoccupied with only the functional aspects of human existence and to have almost no interest in the higher aims of life.” Moore, rightly, believes that all students, college-bound and not, should be acquainted with these higher aims of life.

Common Core proponents, like Georgia State Senator Fran Millar who at a debate said, “You have to be realistic. Kids don’t even know how to dress for a job interview,” believe some citizens should keep their sights low—on “job readiness.” Moore undercuts such specious utilitarian arguments by reminding us that good writing skills come from reading Addison, a good work ethic emerges from reading philosophy, and emotional intelligence is nurtured by reading great tragedies.

Moore also exposes the chop-shop method (my term) of teaching the Great Works of Western Civilization. Many, especially those who deal with religious issues, like Milton and Augustine, are omitted. But of the original works, only small, selective passages are presented to students. These are then juxtaposed to lengthier contemporary polemical writings that distort the original meanings. One example comes from the Prentice Hall Literature textbook, The American Experience, Volume I, Common Core Edition. (Prentice Hall is part of Pearson Publishing, a multinational textbook company that has a huge financial stake in Common Core.) Moore exposes the historical inaccuracies presented in the book, such as conflating the Pilgrims with the Puritans . He shows how the significant figures from our history are trivialized (Thomas Paine is presented as a coffee shop blogger in a cartoon) and how history is distorted with polemical commentary by radical academics. The intent is to stack the deck against the Founders. One egregious case of distortion by selective quotation occurs with an isolated and prominently displayed sentence by Benjamin Franklin: “’I confess, that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present . . . .’”

“Here is a case where context is everything,” writes Moore. The historian presents his candidate for a more representative quotation of Franklin’s opinion on the Constitution: “‘It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does.’” The shady use of such isolated quotations allows progressives to misrepresent the Founding Fathers, as being in favor of a “living” Constitution. The fact that many of the historical texts are taught by English teachers and not history teachers means that there will be even more opportunity for such historical distortion to remain.

This misrepresentation of Franklin occurs in the chapter, “A Nation Is Born,” which dedicates as many pages to perennial, multicultural favorite Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, who specializes in “race, class, and gender.”

Pre-empting the critics who would cry intolerance and censorship, Moore entertainingly asks

Ms. Cisneros may be an engaging, interesting person. The photo provided shows her to be a lovely, thoughtful woman, with stylish cowboy boots and an impressive arm tattoo. The real question is whether she should be in an American literature textbook assigned to tens, or hundreds, of thousands of students whose teachers know they must teach this reading or risk sending their students into a standardized exam unprepared. . . .

Cisneros is presented to students as having as much importance as the men who pledged their lives and “sacred honor.”   The editors offer her autobiographical account, “Straw into Gold,” in which she compares the “difficulty of making tortillas to writing a critical essay for her MFA degree”— while living in an artists’ colony in the south of France on an NEA grant!

Cisneros’s name also appears in Appendix B of the Common Core standards, supposedly containing exemplary and suggested, and not prescriptive, texts.  That, however, does not change what will be in the textbooks, like those published by the widely popular Prentice Hall.  In practice, as Moore reminds us also, it is highly unlikely that school bureaucrats will deviate from federally “recommended” texts, especially if their students are taking federally designed tests.  Appendix B recommends for grades six through eight Cisneros’s “Eleven” taken from her Woman Hollering Creek, a book that, like many now taught to teens and pre-teens, assails romantic love.

As ready response to the bureaucrats who ask if we would in place of the Common Core go back to previous (usually poor) standards, Moore proffers a detailed course of study for grades 9 through 12; it follows that of the Founders, one that goes back to the ancients.  (It’s a study of the Founders’ main preoccupation, “ambition”— and one that educrats could use themselves, I might add).

As the Common Core legislative showdowns begin this month, please purchase a copy of Professor Moore’s book, The Story Killers.  I only wish the margins had been bigger for the annotations to accompany all the good points that can be given in response to the specious questions offered by salesmen of Common Core.

Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.