“Therefore, we ought to follow what is common”.
Thus exhorted the philosopher Heraclitus in the seventh century B.C., and in our own time the governors and education commissioners of 45 states, as well as over 100 Catholic diocesan school systems have seemingly hearkened to his exhortation. How? By embracing the Common Core State Standards.
For those who have worked to promote classical education at the primary and secondary level, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have a prima facie appeal. If there is such a thing as one human nature shared in common, then, says the classical educator, there must be an education which is common to all. For the classical educator, liberal education is for everyone. As Robert M. Hutchins, the former president of The University of Chicago, said,
“The best education for the best, is the best education for all.”
And so the two words common core make the heart of the classical educator beat a little more quickly. By “common” the classical educator immediately thinks of all those things which are true, just and lovely that the apostle Paul speaks about. The wisdom of the ancients, the patrimony of beautiful art and music, the examples of heroism and greatness bequeathed by history, these are all to be shared. These are all a common inheritance. These things are meant to enrich the lives of all.
Euclid, the father of Geometry, begins his Elements with “common notions” or axioms, the foundations of all science and learning.
Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero used the word “common” to speak about the good that politicians should consider when they enact laws. Echoing this in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that every law must be ordered to the common good.
Eighteenth century political thinkers asserted that there are still other things that are common- even metaphysical realities- the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are rights reserved not just for the privileged few but are rights held in common, and are the basis of a just society.
In short, things that are common transcend the narrow interests of this or that person. Things that are common transcend current fashions and customs, they transcend fleeting passions; they transcend the specific circumstances of time and place.
The proponents of the CCSS have a different view about the common. According to their mission statement,
“The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
Perhaps it is a question of semantics, but have the proponents of the CCSS correctly identified what is common? Or have they followed the myriad educators since time immemorial who, in disagreement with Heraclitus, propose that the education for all is that which concerns itself with the mundane mastery and manipulation of the changing material conditions of time and place in which each of us lives?
It is quite clear that the emphasis of the CCSS is pragmatic. They appear to be
“a recipe for standardized workforce preparation”
as University of Notre Dame Professor of Law Gerard V. Bradley said in a letter addressed to each of the nation’s Catholic bishops and cosigned by 132 Catholic scholars.
Whatever else the intent of the Common Core Standards may be, it is certainly clear that its authors stand with the witty Thracian handmaid that Socrates describes in his Theaetetus. She jeered at Thales
“when he fell into a well as he was looking up at the stars. She said, that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet.”
The Common Core State Standards propose that students consider only what is at their feet.
Should our youth be educated in a way that treats them fundamentally as a means to an end, an end such as a successful global economy? Should we focus on making students “career ready” at a time in their lives when most in fact have no clear conception about what career they would like to pursue?
Ironically, even supposing that the purpose of the education of the young was to make them successful competitors in the global economy, it is precisely classical education that accomplishes this end. Robert Maynard Hutchins asserts,
“The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any held and can see and use the light that it sheds upon his own. The liberally educated man is at home in the world of ideas and in the world of practical affairs, too, because he understands the relation of the two…He may even derive from his liberal education some conception of the difference between a bad world and a good one and some notion of the ways in which one might be turned into the other.”
In other words, it is Thales who has the last laugh when it comes to competing successfully in the global economy. Aristotle relates in his Politics that it was Thales who obtained the first monopoly.
“Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.”
In contrast, those who aim to train themselves to handle the specific challenges of the moment and the here and now, find themselves out-moded and obsolete once those circumstances change.
Classical educators have always proposed a common core. They propose that the education that belongs to everyone by right of their human nature will consist of something as unchanging as human nature. And such an education has the nature of a core because a core is by definition something relatively firm, stable and unchanging.
And what do proponents of a classical education propose instead? In answer, Hutchins writes,
“Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.”
And in an essay entitled The Tradition of The West Hutchins says,
“The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.”
Classical educators assume that every student has the right to a liberal education. They propose that the development of the human mind is worth treating as an end, and not merely as a means. The classical educator proposes a common core that is exceedingly common and, ironically, although it directs the minds of students towards the stars, it nonetheless is the best preparation for those who wish to consider things at their feet.