Out of Many One

States and the federal government should abandon any mandated common educational core: even common cores I like.

I am the sort of person who might be expected to support federal or statewide “common core” standards: I am the founder of a “great works” program and the chief academic officer of HBU: the school with the strongest Western core for the most diverse student body in the United States.

But the very liberty that makes HBU possible makes me skeptical of a common core, just as I opposed the No Child Left Behind educational reforms of a President from my own party.

A common core mandated by Austin or by Washington is bound to combine the worst elements of both parties managing to be reactionary without being conservative, progressive without being humane. Even Rhode Island is too big and the state government too distant to design a curriculum.

mandated common core is a bad idea educational and politically.

A common core insists rightly that there is a canon of great works, but takes the decision about what works to read out of the hand of educators. A high school student in an English speaking country should read some Shakespeare, but which Shakespeare? When? How can it best be introduced in the particular community? A good teacher needs the liberty to make a call based on a particular group of students.

Good administrators hardly can make judgments in their own schools, how can someone from a legislature?

Imposing a common core from a distance breeds “check box” teaching and is often premised on a distrust of teachers.  Bad teachers can check off any box given to them by a state legislature: good teachers will be frustrated with a lack of liberty.

Bad teachers cannot be cured by good curriculum: making Professor Marx teach the Declaration of Independence will not make Marx’s views any less noxious or harmful to the student. A common core taught by teachers who do not like it can be twisted unrecognizably with the teacher gaining the added benefit of appearing the rebel with a cause.

A mandated common core prevents the open competition of ideas.

If parents want a school without a strong common core, they can pick one of HBU’s competitors. If they want genuine education, they can come to HBU. If a community chooses high schools with bad curriculum, they will get what they have chosen. A republic gives people the right to choose foolishly, after all. In years of teaching, I have seen no evidence that making a student “cover” a topic in the hands of lifeless teachers produces good results.

Of course, part of the problem is the corruption of state and federal money in local education. If you use Microsoft software, don’t be surprised when Redmond reaches into your computer in ways you do not like. In the same way, state subsidies always come with strings, like a common core, that do not let the real reasons districts fail become evident. Bad town and city government can destroy the tax infrastructure need for good schools and then blame the state for a lack of money for schools. Good towns and cities balance policies that encourage education and the tax revenue that will support it.

Even if it was workable, a government mandated common core would be wrong.

There are two kinds of unity: homogeneity and the voluntary confederacy based on shared values. Free people don’t really share values if they are forced by a distant government to teach what they do not believe. If we cannot trust a community to teach republican values, then that community has deep problems that cannot be fixed by any government imposed curriculum.

Can a nation impose patriotism? Forced patriotism does violence to true love of country.

The man who does not demand his child’s school teach the Constitution will not make sure his son or daughter values that Constitution in daily life. If the community does not naturally choose a common core, then imposing it will breed nothing but surly compliance at best and rebellion at worst.

Homogeneity in a people group is a bloodless word for tyranny. Instead, Americans have chosen to preserve diversity in unity. There is a reason the American eagle grasps arrows and not a spear in one claw. For English people the bow was the weapon of free men and the lance of lords: we are best symbolized as arrows in a quiver drawn at need by republicans. A common core might reduce us to a spear tip in the hands of our masters in Washington.

Finally, the common core may make us one without protecting our diversity. Who is so arrogant that he would impose a curriculum on an entire state? Here at HBU we chose our common core after hours of work, reflection on our values, and input from every part of the community. When we finally put a core together, those who dissented could easily opt out and go someplace else.

No law pursued them to their new haven.

The politician who believes he knows what millions must learn is dangerous. At most, government might suggest a common core, but it should not mandate one. I am happy to recommend the HBU core, but I would never impose it on UT, SMU, or Texas AM: they lack the expertise, capacity, or professors with the will to teach it.

And yet, let me be clear: a free man or woman should choose a school with a strong common core and press their local school to adopt one. One reason I support “school choice” is so that more Americans can make educational decisions for themselves sooner. Free men and women should pay their teachers well, but demand good teachers who support their values.

HBU and the high school programs that work with our Academy program have nothing to fear with liberty, but I do fear a government telling us what to teach. Today’s politicians may favor morality, tomorrows immorality.

The moral majority must always recall that in some areas it might be the moral minority.

Choose a common core, but choose it like a republican: locally and because you are  patriot.

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About John Mark N. Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. He is a follower of Jesus and a student of Socrates. He is also an owner of the Green Bay Packers.