by Oliver DeMille

Can You Like…

think read 1“But, I thought you liked classics,” she asked me with obvious frustration. “And Common Core is full of classics—for the children of the whole nation to read! In your lecture, you called classics one of the 7 Keys of Great Teaching. Now you’re saying classics are a terrible idea? I don’t understand.”

She shook her head and took off her glasses. “Do you like classics or not?”

“You raise a good question,” I responded. “We need a lot more classics in our learning, in public, private and homeschools. Also in charter schools and universities, and adult reading. And, yes, Common Core has some classics.”

She was nodding her head.

“But here’s another question. Is it possible to like classics and not like Common Core?”

I paused. Then waited…

“I…guess so,” she replied, not very convinced. “But why? Do you object to some of the books on the list?”

“Yes. And to the lack of some very important ones as well. But that’s not my point. My objection to Common Core goes much deeper.”

The Important W

I could tell that she didn’t like the idea that anyone would object to Common Core, for any reason, and she was shaking her head again. I rubbed my chin and said slowly, “My concerns with Common Core are John Dewey’s concerns with it…”

Again, I waited. I could see the battle churning in her head. “Dewey…?” she finally asked, obviously confused.

“Yes, Dewey. Of course, he wasn’t alive when Common Core came out, so we don’t know exactly how he would have felt about it.” Laughter from the audience didn’t distract her. She was focused on every word.

I continued. “But one of Dewey’s most profound teachings was that what we teach students, the curriculum, the content, isn’t nearly as important as the way we teach them, the environment of learning. Montessori taught the same thing.”

She stopped shaking her head. She cocked it slightly, unclear where I was headed.

“And the way Common Core is promoted is all wrong. First, it’s a government program. Why not make it a private program, a list of great classics and materials everyone can learn from or use as a resource guide? Second, it’s ultimately a federal program. Why not leave it to parents to select from the list? Or, for parents who want the schools to do it, why not leave it to local school boards?

“Teaching Common Core as a top-down, government-controlled program from Washington DC or even the state government sends all the wrong messages. It teaches students, parents, teachers, and administrators the wrong lesson: ‘The government knows best. Now sit down, be quiet, and obey us. Right now.’

What to Be

“That’s the Dewey-lesson. And it’s a bad one. Think about it! This is a terrible lesson to teach the youth in a democratic republic. It’s the opposite of teaching them how to genuinely think. Why would we do it this way?

“Third, it’s a forced list. Just make it a resource tool. If a parent hates a certain book on the list, he or she should be able to just ignore it and choose something better. Forced education is the opposite of great learning.

“Fourth, why do we call it Common Core? Who wants to be common? We might as well call it Mediocre Core, or Lower-Middle-Class Core. I get that there are other meanings to the word, but “common” can reinforce the wrong lesson. Dewey was right about this. Call it the Genius Core, and just see how many parents leap to share it with their kids—as long as it’s not forced by Washington.

“Or, better still, let’s beef up the list, get rid of the government mandates, and call it the Classic Core. Or get Harvard or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to sponsor it and call it the Harvard Core or the Billionaire’s Core…. Parents, schools and teachers will flock to use it.

“But keep it a resource guide, not a forced list, and get government out of it. Or, at most, leave it or local school boards.”

The Real Goal

The room was excited now, with cheers punctuating some of the ideas. The woman was taking notes, not entirely convinced, I think, but interested.

“What’s our real goal, after all? Is it schooling, or learning? Government programs, or great education? We need to get clear on this. Then, once the focus is clearly on great learning, we’ll be more likely to provide the best Great Learning Core list and recommend it to more people. Or get educational supporters like Peter Thiel or Khan Academy to give cash prizes to schools and scholarships to students and parents who excel using the ‘Genius Core’ list or the ‘Harvard Core’ list.”

“Make these few changes that I’ve suggested, and Common Core won’t just be another bad policy like No Child Left Behind that promotes more aggressive rote testing, more rigid thinking, and teachers who focus more on paperwork rather than their students. In fact, like I’ve said, get rid of Common Core and go find your own Classics Core. That’s the way to emphasize the classics.”

I paused to take a breath.

“Yes, I absolutely believe our learning environments at all levels need a lot more classics. A lot more! And a lot more often! But not the way Common Core does it. That’s the opposite of what we should do….”

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