Common Standards Alarm

August 23, 2010

by Tammy Drennan

The Common Standards outlines for math and English/language arts have a professor of education up in arms. Professor William G. Wraga, of the University of Georgia, Athens, says there’s a big hole in the standards — they fail to address the interdisciplinary purpose of educating students for democracy.

“…the standards, in effect, envision a single purpose for schooling: education to serve economic interests,” he writes.

“Why is this blind spot so dangerous?” he continues. “Historically, centralized control of school curriculum has served as a political tool of totalitarian states. Clearly, these common standards are intended to increasingly centralize and standardize curriculum in the United States.”

He grants that the standards were not fashioned for intentional anti-democratic purposes, but he stands by his assertion that they will result in said dénouement and that the real original intention of American schooling – training as democratic citizens – is indeed, at dire risk.

Mr. Wraga again: “Arguably, education for democratic citizenship is the historic national goal of education in the United States. Thomas Jefferson asserted: ‘Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.’” He also calls on George Washington, then concludes:

“Preparation for citizenship in a democracy must be a substantive, expressly signified component of the common core for all students in the United States.”

Okay, where to begin… Professor Wraga is right about two things: Historically, public schools have been a major tool of tyrants, and our founders did believe that a good general education was important for the preservation of the type of government they envisioned and fashioned.

But – what our founders were thinking about in the way of education in no way resembles what Horace Mann, et al, gave us. If you have your doubts, take a look at what their own educations consisted of – surely they had in mind something at least resembling this (there were some blatant exceptions, like Benjamin Rush).

The reality we ended up with was and is meant to do exactly what the tyrants that so concern Mr. Wraga have always used it for – educate citizens for the state.

Here’s Horace Mann himself – great father of public schooling — on the claim he feels the state has on children:

After a child has arrived at the legal age for attending school, whether he be the child of noble or of peasant, the only two absolute grounds of exemption from attendance are sickness and death. The German language has a word for which we have no equivalent either in language or in idea. The word is used in reference to children, and signifies due to the school; that is, when the legal age for going to school arrives, the right of the school to the child’s attendance attaches, just as, with us, the right of a creditor to the payment of a note or bond attaches on the day of its maturity. — Life and Works of Horace Mann: Vol. III (Boston: Life and Shepard Publishers, 1891)

The Germany to which Mann refers is the same country that bowed to Adolf Hitler just forty years after Mann’s glowing recommendation of its school policies. Germany’s schools turned out to be easy prey for Hitler, who quickly turned them into temples to himself and Nazi theory.

So, is the peril of common standards that citizens will not be educated for democracy? No. The failure to educate children to protect their own liberties has been going on in American schools for a very long time and is demonstrably a key function of them.

If common standards add any more danger to U.S. education than already exists, it will be the fact that they move schools even further from the possibility of the innovation it would take to make any true difference and yet closer to the standardization and uniformity that suffocate excellence.

The people who wield power over schooling in our country are slowly annihilating anything that remotely resembles education. I won’t judge their motives, but motives don’t really matter. As author and political philosopher Isabel Paterson wrote:

Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends. – The God of the Machine

Good motives or bad, the results are the same when they are applied via the police power of the state.

Finally, not that anyone trying to reform American education today cares what someone like John Stuart Mill had to say, but let’s hear him out anyway:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body. – From On Liberty

The danger is in choosing the state as the primary means to equip our children for life. It’s a danger that grows with the practice of it and is remedied not by reform but by abandonment – the self-defining act of walking away and doing something better.