Instrumentalizing the Liberal Arts (Common Core, Part 4)

This is the fourth and final article in my ongoing series on the problems with Common Core. To read the earlier installments click on the following links:

In this final article I want to suggest that the philosophy of reading behind the new Common Core Initiatives is fundamentally dehumanizing.

In the classical understanding of education, we acquire language skills so that we can read great texts, and we read great texts so that we can become richer and deeper people. By contrast, for Common Core the purpose of reading texts is to acquire language skills, and the purpose of language skills is to better compete in the 21st century global economy. As such, the value of the liberal arts is entirely instrumentalized to pragmatic ends. Accordingly, if it were possible to achieve these same goals independently of reading texts, then reading would become superfluous.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert who was one of the ideological spearheads behind the Common Core initiatives has suggested that the value of literary works is purely instrumental, as a means towards other ends. At some point in the future we may be able to transcend reading, but for now we are stuck with it. As Hiebert writes, “There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.”

This is a truly extraordinary admission, since the instrumentalizing of the liberal arts to ends outside themselves has been the great mistake of all utilitarians and pragmatists throughout the ages.

Music keeps us human precisely because it has no obvious pragmatic benefit.
Music helps to keep us human precisely because it has no obvious pragmatic benefit.

It is this move to instrumentalize liberal arts to pragmatic ends that is partially responsible for the slow death of art and music in the public schools. It is an assault on what it means to be human, removing the freedom and dignity at the heart of human flourishing. (To learn more about the dangers of instrumentalizing the liberal arts, see my Touchstone article ‘More Than Schooling.’) Essentially, Common Core trains children to become laboratory rats who have little to live for beyond their next pay check.

In the factory mindset of a pragmatists and utilitarians, the purpose of reading texts is to acquire language skills and useful knowledge for one’s career, whereas the older idea was that the purpose of acquiring language skills is so that we can read great texts. As the assumptions behind Common Core seep their way into the classrooms, however, we should expect to see great works of literature increasingly marginalized as a waste of time. This was a point that 130 Roman Catholic scholars made in a letter sent to all their bishops.

See Also

“Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.”

Further Reading


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