Of Wolves and the Common Core

This evening at the Helena School Board meeting, in a discussion about the adoption of English Language Arts curriculum, a local frequent critic of the Common Core and all things rational urged the Board to vote no, raising the dangerous specter of young people thinking for themselves, developing their own opinions, and questioning the wisdom of those older than themselves.

Among the most perplexing criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is the idea that children are too young to learn critical thinking skills or that it’s too dangerous to teach them to read texts critically. Given their entirely unwarranted fears about “government schools” indoctrinating our children to become mindless socialists bent on destroying “American traditional values” and our constitution, not to mention global capitalism, it seems astonishing that conservative critics of the Common Core seem bent on criticizing a tool by which students can criticize government, business, and all the other powerful institutions that seem at times to dominate our lives.

These critics simply can’t have it both ways: we can’t both hope to have informed citizens capable of offering criticism of a federal government that, at times, overreaches, and schools that refuse to teach our foundational documents, principles, promises, and and shortcomings with a critical eye. My students, armed with critical eyes, would surely note that critics of the Common Core seek to undermine the very tools students will need to criticize programs like it in the future.

A detail that I mentioned to the Board this evening was a brief anecdote about my Debate class. An entirely unique course, it offers students from the age of 14-19 (on occasion) a space to research, debate, and discuss issues ranging from nuclear proliferation in India to wolf habitat in Montana. In the course of those debates, I’ve been astonished by the depth of knowledge students demonstrate and their ability to critically evaluate evidence. To those who suggest students are incapable of incisive, constructive, and original thought, a visit to my classroom is in order. You’re more likely to see an excellent debate there than among adults who run to be our leaders—and I categorically reject the idea that students aren’t capable of having these discussions.

In some ways, I am a traditionalist. I often describe my classroom as a Socratic seminar with a fancy web site. I think students need to learn foundational texts, classical and modern history, and the ancient philosophical precepts that still shape the modern world. I teach as much of that content as I can, because I believe learning about them is invaluable.

Content does matter—but so does teaching students that content must come with a critical eye, not blind acceptance, and that real intelligence, as Socrates noted, comes not from the answer, but the question. If we really want our students to understand, appreciate, and yes, even love, our foundational documents, we must provide them a forum in which we discuss them, not a lecture hall in which students receive them.

To imagine that students will absorb rote knowledge for thirteen years and emerge as critical thinkers capable of understanding and transforming their world is misguided at best, dangerous at worst. If you want to make our teachers agents of propaganda, the best way to do it is to mandate that they present a singular view of texts rather than encouraging wide-ranging discussion about them.

One of the texts I love teaching my students is Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur. Crevecoeur, a naturalized American citizen, knew in 1775 that what separated the emerging values of the US was a commitment to rethinking old truths and articulating new ideas. He wrote:

The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions.

Sounds like an excellent description (sexist language aside) of a great classroom to me.

Cross-posted at my political blog, Intelligent Discontent