Uncommonly Common Core Misses the Point

When I teach T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” my students invariably hate it. The poem is difficult, no doubt. Filled with allusions to texts and ideas they’ve never heard of, foreign language passages, and references to myths long since dead to them, they consistently tell me something like “it was so hard, I didn’t even understand the footnotes.”

Eliot, I tell them, would argue your lack of understanding is evidence his poem matters. Our lost communal myths have created a sterile, empty, and fragmented world. Eliot, in the poem, argues for a return to shared stories. When we have consistent cultural narratives, I tell them, artists’ poetry would make sense to everyone.

Lest we imagine such a trend is new, I tell my students, it’s worth noting that we might read Homer’s The Odyssey as a conservative cautionary tale. The suitors try to re-define the myth of power in the kingdom, rejecting the rule of law and the gods. The price they pay is slaughter in the mead hall. The epic poem ends with a pretty strong call for maintaining the shared myths of the past.

Of course, later in the semester we call into question how narratives are constructed and we discuss the politics and power associated with myth.

But a part of me sympathizes with Eliot. There are days when I’m teaching and realize my students have virtually no shared narratives. We exist in a world so overloaded with information that it resists cultural narratives. People have become islands of individualized data, music, television, and culture. Individual choice has superseded communal bonds.

Educationally, we are trending the same direction. Computer analytics allow students not only to target academic areas where they might struggle, we are slowly developing ways to self-select examples targeted to our preferred learning styles.  On one hand this makes sense. We know that most kids are educationally equal until sometime around the 3rd-4th grade. We begin losing the economically disadvantaged students as the course materials change and becomes less relevant to their daily lives. Individualizing education offers us the opportunity to create assignments and lessons that are relevant, timely, and worth studying for students. The potential to engage students and encourage persistence to high school graduate is exciting.

As we create the bubbles of individual understanding, however, we will continue to lose those shared stories that bind us on emotional and communal levels. If every student in a class is reading a different story or studying a different math problem, we are learning in a bubble of isolation. Certainly, we can come back together and discuss higher learning skills, but we are losing something along the way.

Like Eliot, I have this sense that we need a base level of knowledge that helps us remain culturally connected. I have, in many ways, sympathy for the standardized test movement, believing that at the heart of standardized testing is rooted in this desire for some shared knowledge.

In many ways, there is wisdom in requiring that everyone progressing through a school has a base level of knowledge and we can claim they know certain things. These bits of knowledge, facts, and ideas help us come together. We might not like all the facts, but sometimes learning isn’t about individual goals but the communal good. We all benefit, for instance, if everyone understands basic math and core citizenship rules.

In a perfect world, of course, we might come to some agreement about that shared narrative.

Anyone who has participated in (or even read about) textbook adoption meetings, though, knows no such agreement exists. There’s a reason Odysseus finally just killed all the suitors. That’s old school veto power.

In the absences of shared agreement about narratives (or even factual knowledge), the federal government has pushed a Common Core upon our states. On the surface, one might imagine these are good things. We will, as a nation, decide what an “educated” person knows and we will incentivize states to meet these minimum goals. Diane Ravitch notes her lack of support centers around both the process and the lack of serious research into the standards: “They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”

Well, at least we’ll be united in failure if they don’t work. Maybe that’s our shared narrative.

Certainly, these are major issues with regard to the Common Core.

But like so many other things, including standardized tests, a Common Core misses the point. The problem with education isn’t that we don’t have goals. Lord knows anyone teaching today is assessed, outcomed, and evaluated half to death. We also don’t have disparate goals as educators: reading, writing, and arithmetic. At a base level, we all want these three things.

Our problem is that the path to a common core of knowledge is fragmented into shards of personalized knowledge. We might know how to read, but we never read the same thing. Periodically, I’ll catch a news story about newly minted American citizens. They stand proudly: a community of learners who studied the same text, memorized the same laws, and conquered shared ideas.

I wonder, as I watch them, if we haven’t over-complicated the core. Perhaps Eliot was on to something–what we need is a return to simple stories, myths, and narratives that we all share.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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