Peonage for the Twenty-First Century

 
 

The Common Core exists only because we have forgotten that parents have a right to educate their children. The state has no educational authority of its own apart from what parents delegate to it.

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A young man and woman arrive at the office of the town clerk to procure a marriage license. They're all smiles, until the secretary hands them a document to sign, wherein they read this remarkable sentence: “The State, conceding to the parents the making of their children's bodies, asserts its primacy in the making of their minds.”

So bald a proclamation of totalitarian power might cost the party that made it a percentage point or two at the polls. Thus, it will never actually grace a marriage license. Yet there is no need to make that proclamation when the arrogation of that power is an accomplished fact. An underling who does not realize his subservient position is more tractable than one who does.

I've lately been involved in the fight against the latest move to nationalize public education, this one called the Common Core. It is a bag of rotten old ideas doused with disinfectant; its assumptions are hostile to classical and Christian approaches to education; it is starkly utilitarian; its self-promotion is sludged up with edu-lingo, thick with verbiage and thin in thought; its drafters have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is to be a child.

But my point here is not that the Common Core is dreadful. It is this: that there should even be a Common Core proves how far we have fallen into peonage to the State.

I have said many hard things about the poor preparation of many of our public school teachers, about English teachers who do not know grammar and who cannot write, about history teachers who settle down into current events, requiring no broad reading or knowledge, about math teachers who have no facility with numbers, and about foreign language teachers who hold their students in bonds for four years and yet do not manage to teach them how to read a newspaper, much less Don Quixote or Les Miserables. 

In a farming village or a small town in 1889—I am choosing the year advisedly—the most learned person in the congregation on a Sunday was the parson, and the second most, the lawyer, the doctor, or the schoolteacher. That is no longer the case.

Critics of the public schools since James Koerner's The Miseducation of American Teachers (1963) have noticed that the willingness to submit oneself to an empty bachelor's degree in education is nearly a negative intelligence test. The best students do not put up with it. It is why private schools succeed best when they hire teachers from outside the accrediting apparatus of the state. A private school can hire me to teach poetry to seniors, as I have been teaching poetry for almost three decades to their slightly older siblings in college. A public school cannot.

Yet long before the advent of departments of education, the Christian progressive William Chauncy Langdon, defending the family against the encroachment of the state, wrote in The Century (November 1889) that education “is not, certainly in its earlier stages, any part of the immediate responsibility of the political community,” for the totalitarian “Sparta presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” That is because “real education is the development of distinct personalities,” and therefore cannot “be effected by contract or in the aggregate.”

Whoever actually imparts the education, said Langdon, even if it is, partially, the State, “can be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.” The family delegates some of its educational task to the schoolteacher, who is, as it were, a general governess or tutor hired by the parents through the intermediary of the town or county. The school is a deputy of the family, or, in the case of the death or debility of the parents, a substitute. It has no authority of its own apart from what the employers, the parents, delegate to it.

Let's pause to think about that. A rich man hires a tutor to instruct his son in arts and letters. The father has the classics in mind; he wants his son to read Virgil, to converse with Matthew Arnold, and to sit at the feet of Pascal and Kierkegaard. But the tutor has other things in mind. He has the boy read Toni Morrison, “graphic novels,” and op-ed pieces from contemporary newspapers. That shine you see on the seat of the tutor's trousers has been imparted, successively, by the father's boot and the three concrete stairs down which the worthy teacher bounced on his way out of the manor.

Now why should parents who are not so wealthy not exercise, in common, the same authority? Especially now, when the teachers are, as a group, no great beacons of either intellectual or moral virtue?

Yet the promoters of the Common Core do not consider that the parents are their employers. The parents have had and are to have nothing to say about it. They are “good” if they submit, and “problematic” if they don't. No one has asked them their opinions about a decent education. No one ever does. Imagine if the leaders of our public schools were to say, “We will no longer be instructing your children in sex.” A few parents would complain, mainly on account of other and (supposedly) irresponsible people, but in the main we would hear great sighs of relief. Imagine if the same principals were to say,

We will assign readings to your children based upon high literary merit, proved by the test of time. We will cease our mercurial experimentation upon your children. We will depend upon things that have worked for generations, across many cultures. We will teach geography again. We will teach grammar again. We will teach history, not current events. We will keep partisan politics out of the building. We will cease our hostilities against all things religious. We will abjure the foolish pride that led us to believe that we were the progenitors of a new world or a new nation or a new anything. We are your delegates, and we welcome your direction.

Parents might well glance to the skies to see whether the sun had darkened and the moon turned as red as blood, with hosts of angels descending to herald the world's last day.

It would be unfair, though, to suppose that all teachers welcome the Common Core. There are brush fires kindling all over the country in opposition to the edicts from above. I assume that good teachers—and there are many good teachers scattered across the plains—are wise enough to know who they are and who they are not. Such teachers are likely not to tailor their instruction to meet the demands of a standardized test. They don't want their textbooks dictated to them by the state. They don't want to reduce history to current events. They don't want to replace Milton with Miley Cyrus, or Homer with The Hunger Games.

These teachers too have been bypassed. No one has asked their opinions about the Common Core, either. They can protest all they want about grindingly dull methods of instruction—for example, teaching “text” divorced from all human considerations, so that students look at the Gettysburg Address but are not supposed to think either of the Civil War or of any memorial celebration. They can protest all they want about intrusive “assessments” that have involved, in some schools, not just the standardized exam, but cameras and recorders. Welcome to the land of the peons, o teachers. Know that your erstwhile employers, the parents, were here before you.

I can sum it up this way. Any land in which parents, singly or in groups, do not have first and last authority over what and how their children learn is not free. The fact that we might countenance national authority over the mind of a child shows our abjection. It is as if we were to accept educational instructions from managers in Brussels, or from a federation of experts hailing from Alpha Centauri, and then were to comfort ourselves with the assurance that we were still free, because we could exercise one vote in a hundred million, or three billion, or seventeen trillion, or whatever number you like that reduces our actual influence to that of a speck of dust on an anvil, a proton against a planet, or one parent's cry against the massive deafness of money, power, and arrogance.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy.

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