Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Homer teaches us, something every school child used to know. Beware of politicians and expert educators bearing standards, the last seventy years or more of Progressive education should have taught us. But we are slow to learn.
We have been given almost a month to digest the hundreds of pages of the new National Governors Association’s Common Core State Standards that could well become national standards pressed in some way upon every child who attends a public school in America. So we had better read, write, and think fast. Pundits and educationists, even some stalwarts of education reform, are beginning to praise these new standards as being more comprehensive than any before, far better than what the diverse and unreliable states are providing. Schools will now be held accountable to “higher standards”; teachers will know what they are responsible for teaching; students will be swept up in “the vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century,” which, we must surmise, is very different from what it meant to be literate in, say, the eighteenth century, when the likes of Thomas Jefferson read Latin and Greek for fun. It all sounds wonderful. At least it does until sensible people realize that these standards, which are only the best of the worst of the existing state standards, have absolutely nothing to do with sound education. It will be a mistake to get bogged down in a discussion of whether these standards are better than the various state standards since the whole enterprise is just a diversion hiding what truly ails public schools. The reason is obvious to anyone who has ever listened to some of these so-called experts drone on about standards without ever making a literary reference or drawing a lesson from history or even talking about a book.
Let us imagine an author at his craft, say, Herman Melville while writing Moby Dick, or Jane Austen working on Pride and Prejudice. Now assuredly what these literary artists hoped above all else was that a century or two from their own time students in high schools would be using their great works not better to understand love or honor or revenge or nobility or happiness, but to “analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build on, and, in some cases, conflict with one another”; as well as to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).” We know that this sort of innocuous thing is what the authors had in mind because that is what our teachers told us in school. We remember the drill: the plot graphs–rising action, climax, falling action (or denouement)–the cast lists of main characters and outlines of “main ideas,” the possible literary techniques–foreshadowing, alliteration, onomatopoeia. What we do not remember is one dad-gum thing about these stories: what insight they gave us into the human condition, what they portray as heroism, villainy, love, or self-deception. We do not remember any of these life-ennobling themes because those matters never came up in our English (what are now called our “Language Arts”) classes.
As a college professor I teach freshman every year, not those from the inner cities, where we admit schools are failing, but from the suburbs of our major cities as well as small towns. The students from public schools (unlike most of those who attend classical or Christian schools or are home-schooled; i.e. not bound by state-mandated standards) know virtually nothing. Public-school students know no facts or events from history. They have been impressed by no work of literature. Yet they have all taken standardized state tests. They have all taken SAT’s or ACT’s. Nonetheless, they are embarrassed when they get to college and realize how little they know, just as I was embarrassed on graduating from a public school and learned in college that straight A’s in high school for doing nothing meant nothing.
The fact is that the newly proposed national standards, like all state standards before them, are written in a specious pseudo-scientific educationese that talks around the texts of our Western and American tradition but does not resemble in any way their depth of insight into how human beings think, believe, hope, and act. And this very obfuscation occurs for a very good reason. The people who are in charge of our schools, from the assistant principals to the state superintendents, and most of the teachers in them, do not themselves know what the books mean that they are supposed to teach. A false language of “standards” is created to cover their tracks. Those who are in charge of our schools are really not learned men and women. They do not love the great stories of literature or the drama that is history; as a result, they know less about life, and certainly less about real education. Yet their job puts them in charge of literature and history and other subjects. So they have to fake it. Skeptical? Ask your child’s principal or the teachers–or even the curriculum coordinator–whether Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty had any merit, or what the principal disputes of Washington’s administration were, or whether Milton’s Satan is actually the most compelling character in Paradise Lost, or simply why Jack went up the beanstalk the third time. You will receive a long pause and then be told either that that bit of “information” is not in the state standards or it assuredly will be “covered” if it is in the state standards. What you will not have is a conversation.
I ran a K-12 classical charter school for seven years. Not once did I or any of the teachers look at a state standard in reading or writing (math is something of a different case). The students did no test prep. When our students took the state exams, all they did was complain about how easy and worthless they were and how they wanted to get back to real learning. Every year the high school ranked in the top three in the state, twice coming out first. The secret was breathtakingly simple. The way to teach literacy for the twenty-first century turns out to be the same way it has been done in the last thirty centuries of civilization: to hire the brightest and best-educated teachers (usually not those coming out of a school of education considered “certified”), to put in their hands the best works of literature and history and philosophy, to invite young people to have a conversation about what it means to be a human being, and to require those students to work hard and demonstrate good character while doing so. When all the Mickey-Mouse language of plot graphs and “standards” is abandoned, it’s just you and some students talking about love, hate, war, peace, liberty, slavery, happiness, life, and death. And the students know when you’re faking it.
Oh, and it helps to throw in a little Latin.