Philosophy tells us who we are

While I have not read widely on the subject of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation, I have read enough to see what appears to be a common core of arguments.

  1. We need national standards to be competitive in the global economy; vs. we need local control to assure our national character and integrity.

  2. We need the content and levels, specified in the CCSS, to assure quality in education across the whole country; vs. we need to honor choice, and regional and local values that are nurtured through our education system.

And my favorite:

  1. We need to be able to compare schools on a consistent scale; vs. we need to support every child in every school to maximize every individual’s innate potential.

Put another way, these might line up as:

  1. Globalism v. parochialism

  2. Uniformity v. individuality

  3. Free-market competition v. Marxist socialism

This analysis is based on a cursory examination of the commentary, to be sure. I would say “the literature,” but that would suggest a higher level of academic study on the part of the commenters. After all, implementing a nation-wide formula for education based on presumed outcomes is implementing a strictly probability-based inductive rationale. It’s a bit unrealistic for anyone to speak with grounded authority on the outcomes, though many might assume such a posture.

Something that I see in my analysis is a similarity to other arguments afoot across the world. All these argued positions are similar to positions taken in economics and corresponding social structures. And while this might be a loose relationship, it bears some consideration, because it invites the question, “What underlies the discourse on the Common Core State Standards?” In other words, why are we having these debates in education, economics, ethnic identities, and religious beliefs? Isn’t what’s best for the most over the longest time the goal? Apparently not.

I would say we spend far too much energy arguing the road to take and far too little energy trying to discover a goal upon which we can share consensus. In the CCSS debate, little seems to be said about what we agree on as the goal of a public education system: assimilation of diverse peoples into a single national identity? (1890-1910) The development of the human psyche as a spiritual being? (1920’s) The creation of a core of technical elite to direct and manage cadres of practical crafts and labor? (1920-1940) To establish an informed electorate to form a true democracy? (1940-1960) All right, these are rough, broad strokes, but they certainly represent raison d’État in public and, concordantly, private education in the U.S. in the last 150 years or so. And how unlike the gymnasia of Athens 2,500 years ago.

Thirty years ago, I puzzled over what was really expected of me in the classroom. Think for a moment about all the voices, many quite demanding and even threatening, If education is anything, I think, it is the institutionalized effort to acculturate and socialize emerging generations—to bring the rising population into the culture and society of a people. If that’s the case, then the problem seems pretty clear; The United States, by its design and history, is not a single people. At least not in the 21st century. We don’t have a common culture or a common society.

The debate, it seems to me, that we need to resolve is where we want to be on several spectrums. Where do we want to be, for instance, between absolute conformity – very efficacious, e.g. the Nazi war machine – or total individuality – apocalyptic anarchy where feudal war lords rise and fall trampling the masses. Please don’t be naïve; there are a few who would happily embrace the extremes. But there are deeper questions that we avoid even mentioning in practical arenas such as education. What is success? What is the balance between reality and fairness? What should determine what is right and what is wrong? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean that we can even ask such questions?

Philosophical (and religious) questions have plagued, entertained and elevated human beings throughout recorded history. Only physical conflict can compete for longevity, but cannot be said to elevate humanity; although it has elevated science and engineering. While STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) might suggest preparation in the field of conflict, though certainly very many other more humane fields as well, there seems to be little in the CCSS to promote the idea of questioning—the mean by which we clarify and understand—the philosophical puzzles. The world of science tells us what we are, but the world of philosophy tells us who we are. It is the philosophical that raises humans above the rest of the physical world, and leads us to ask “Why?” – the little child’s question that seems hardwired into humans.

So here’s what’s going to happen with the CCSS. It will be implemented poorly and unevenly and even incompletely across the states over the next five or six years, and will be overtaken by the next reform effort. During that time, it will spawn a sea of books, articles, research efforts and college programs—in their own reformed shapes—that will become an exhausted source of profit in the end. The new reform debate will generate a new wave of the same sorts of profitable sources in its turn. Cycles happen. The linden tree has a heart shaped leaf and, when viewed from a little distance, has a heart shaped profile as well. Patterns result from underlying, often mysterious, causes. Education reform cycles, and repetitions, I imagine, are in the underlying gene structure of society.

I gave up listening to all the voices (not in my head as it happens) telling me what education should be doing. Now that my career in the classroom is over, I feel satisfied that as the years passed, I was more and more able to get my students to ask why, in effect,  returning one starfish at a time to its home in the sea. I put my energy into starfish these days. I don’t see much point in trying to STEM the tide.

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