Conservatives: Shut Up and Love the Common Core

What are conservatives to make of the Common Core State Standards?  As we’ve seen, some conservatives hate them.  Some don’t mind them.  Today we see a plea for conservatives to embrace the new standards as the best hope to fulfill long-held conservative school dreams.

In the Burkean pages of The Imaginative Conservative, Kevin T. Brady and Stephen M. Klugewicz argue that the new standards hold promise.   Forget threats that the new standards are a new federal power grab.  Forget worries that the new standards will water down our cultural heritage.  Forget predictions that school children will be forced to memorize Maoist proverbs.

Take a closer look, Brady and Klugewicz write, and conservatives will see plenty to like about the new standards.  The suggested readings include conservative favorites such as TS Eliot, Patrick Henry, GK Chesterton, and none other than Ronald Reagan.

Though some on the political Right have created a “straw man” out of the new standards, Brady and Klugewicz argue that the standards will actually serve to weaken the power of the political Left.  After all, the authors say, “teachers and educational bureaucracies already tend to lean Left.”  Too many teachers are woefully ignorant of true history and traditional literature.  The new standards will force such ideologically slanted teachers to explore the real cultural heritage of Euro-American civilization.

For instance, in order for a teacher to teach students Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” teachers will need to connect with their heritage.  “In order for [teachers] to understand what King is writing about,” the authors contend,

teachers need to know who the 8thcentury B.C. Hebrew prophets were. They need to know a little about Paul of Tarsus, the Macedonian call, Socrates, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Roman persecutions, the Boston Tea Party, Hungarian freedom fighters, Jesus, Elijah Muhammad, Amos, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Lincoln, Jefferson, and T.S. Eliot to understand King’s meaning. King spoke to an audience of clergymen and to many others who shared a common educated culture. If teachers do not know these references, they cannot teach this landmark document accurately. Moreover, teachers in Catholic schools are free to ignore the exemplars entirely and use Christian/Catholic texts: Thomas á Kempis, Thomas More, even papal encyclicals. Such a text-based approach ought to please conservatives, who have complained about the trend of “deconstructing” texts and promoting the idea that it is how the student “feels” about a text that is important, not what the text actually says.

We must note that one of the authors seems to have more than academic interest in the success of the new standards.  Kevin Brady owns a company that sells Common-Core aligned materials to schools.  The success of the Common Core will help his own wallet.  That said, the notion that all of America’s schoolchildren should learn a common core of knowledge does have long roots among American conservative educational thinkers.  Long before ED Hirsch, prominent conservative reformers such as Max Rafferty insisted that the way to fix American education is to give every student and every teacher a healthy dose of a common core of cultural knowledge.  And a generation before Rafferty’s leadership, curmudgeonly conservative Albert Jay Nock insisted that real learning should include the “Great Tradition” of learning first and foremost.

For almost a century, then, conservative thinkers and activists have yearned for a common core for America’s school children.  Is the Common Core the fulfillment of these conservative dreams?


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  1. I think the fear is not so much uniform standards, as who gets to decide what goes in the uniform standards. I personally have a similar qualm when it comes to social welfare programs: It’s not that I don’t think government should play a role in social welfare per se, it’s that I don’t necessarily trust our government in particular to do things that are actually good for people.

    With this mindset it’s natural for people to prefer local control over education. Deep down I don’t think this is a preference for local control per se, but a matter of having more trust in their own more conservative local population base than in the national government, who they feel are liable to impose unwanted liberal ideas and policies. If the national government were reliably conservative, there would be much less opposition to national standards — that is, among conservatives. Perhaps you would then have liberals clamoring for local control.

    • Agellius, Great point. The fear among some conservative activists might be a fear of the people in charge of any sort of central office. Let me share one parent’s plea from the 1974 school controversy in West Virginia. This appeared as a letter to the editor from “Agonized Parent” in the Charleston Daily Mail:
      “ ‘Trust us,’ they said when the sight reading program became the fad. We trusted and were given a generation of children who couldn’t read. ‘Trust us,’ they said when new math became the innovative, rpgressive [sic] craze. Once again, we trusted, and once again we were given a generation of children who couldn’t make change or balance a simple check book. Now, once again, we hear, ‘parents, trust us!’ This time the radical program is brazen enough to ridicule and undermine God and our beloved America, tampering with the values which have made our Judeo-Christian society the greatest in the history of world civilization. ‘Trust us,’ while we turn your precious heirs into animals, reduced to the basest nature, with no convictions of their own, who will be unable to make individual value judgments, relying upon group thinking and decision making.”
      I also note in my upcoming book that it was not always this way. In the 1920s, leading conservative educational activists such as Hiram Evans campaigned for MORE centralization of education and MORE federal control, not less. Evans signed on to the National Education Association’s wartime plan to fund a new cabinet-level department of education in order to “Americanize” new immigrants. I believe, speaking broad-brush-edly, conservatives’ experiences with the Scopes Trial, the New Deal and the rise of progressive education in elite schools such as Teachers College Columbia and the University of Chicago tipped the scales the other way.

  2. I’m late to this party, but when the letter writer mentioned the “New Math” it brought back horrible memories. I was completely unable to understand basic mathematical principles by the time I got to high school. I’m nearly 60, and still can’t grasp Algebra, which really bothers me. My daughter is a math whiz who got a full scholarship to Temple University, where she got both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She is constantly trying to show me simple ideas, which I cannot understand. I’d love to understand Algebra before I die.

  3. Steven

     /  February 11, 2014

    Brother Adam, decent post, good comments. No real conservative with an understanding of the true nature of an education would agree with Klugewicz and Brady- they have propagated almost complete error- Hirsh got it wrong too, but Nock was advocating more for standards of what would pass for objects of study, certainly not a core of standards such as the common core- You can’t go wrong with the Great Western Tradition unless you subject them to common core standards, then you ruin them. Anyway, interesting stuff.

    I hope you are well!

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