Killing the Imagination (Common Core, Part 3)

In the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first.” Frederick Winslow Taylor

This August children throughout America returned to school. Few of these students were aware of the monumental shifts that had just occurred in their schools. You see, the 2014-15 school year is when American public schools began implementation of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative – the controversial educational reforms introduced by President Obama.

President Obama used $4.35 billion of stimulus money to effectively “pay” states to join Common Core, which imposes new standards on what students should know at the end of each grade for English language arts and mathematics. By controlling national testing standards, Common Core creates the infrastructure for federal control of school curriculum.

In my earlier posts in this series on Common Core,I suggested that the ideological underpinings of Common Core can be found, in part, by being attentive to the hyper-pragmatism of men like Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). In this post I will be continuing that discussion by showing how the purely pragmatic principles of Common Core kill the imagination of our children.

If someone had designed a curriculum specifically to stamp out the next generation’s ability to imagine, it is hard to conceive something much different than Common Core. When researching for his book The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case Against the Common Core, Terrence Moore found that many great works of literature were being sidelined from schools throughout America to make room for technical reading.

Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College in Rhode Island echoed these concerns when he wrote that “What appals me most about the standards … is the cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. It is a sheer ignorance of the life of the imagination. We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women… to be human beings, honoring what is good and right and cherishing what is beautiful.” (Cited in Crisis Magazine)

Odysseus fights the cyclops
Odysseus fights the cyclops

Common Core justifies its imagination-killing agenda by saying that “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…” The “real world” has little time for dragons, fairies and one-eyed monsters, except in so far as reading these stories help with the acquisition of language skills – skills that can be obtained just as easily from reading texts of equal “complexity” which do not stimulate the imagination.

girl reading
In cultivating the imagination, great literature helps to keep us free.

Those of us inclined to let our minds drift towards sinister conspiracy theories have ample space to do so when considering the objectives of Common Core. In order for a future society to exercise the type of control over its citizens that B.F. Skinner advocated, the first thing that must be killed is the imagination. To cultivate learning without cultivating the imagination is to create automatons. That is why the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, for it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. The poetry of life, and the sense of wonder that keeps the imagination vivid, fresh and restless, remains the constant enemy in the prosaic utopias that aim to convince citizens that there is nothing beyond this life to live for. Accordingly, for collectivist and totalitarian regimes to truly work, the first books to go must be those that have no obvious functional value in a work-based economy but which feed the imagination, and enable us to see the world in a fresh and wonder-filled light.

The Common Core curriculum is replacing great works of literature with text that seem designed to stamp out the life of the imagination: texts like FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and ‘Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,’ published by the General Services Administration. Other recommended readings include and the California Invasive Plant Council’s Invasive Plant Inventory.

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Although some great works of literature are retained in the curriculum, Terrence Moore has found that “When students do read some of the great works of literature, they tend to be excerpts rather than complete works, supplemented with modern commentary on the works. The great works of literature are also being replaced by ‘informational texts’ and recent articles written by journalists.”

Moore explained that one of the ways that the Common Core elevates modern articles from journalists above great works of literature is through a computerized process for determining “text complexity.” Readings that are found to use technical jargon are rated higher in the complexity scale than works that use more simple language. Complexity thus becomes purely quantitative without attention to the quality of texts. As English teacher Claire Needall Hollander warned, “The writers of the Common Core had no intention of killing literature in the classroom. But the convenient fiction that yearly language learning can be precisely measured by various “metrics” is supplanting the importance of literary experience. The Common Core remains neutral on the question of whether my students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner’s manual, so long as the text remains ‘complex.’”

Beware the Jabberwock my son
Beware the Jabberwock my son

I am proud to say that I have never read FedViews and even prouder to announce that I never will. But I’ll grant my opponents in Obama’s Education Department one thing: texts like this are completely in keeping with the utilitarianism of Frederick Taylor. To the factory mindset, there is something incredibly frivolous about beauty in general, and beautiful literature in particular, since it has no obvious functional benefit. What is the point of reading about the adventures of Rat and Mole in The Wind in the Willows when you could be reading President Obama’s Executive Order 13423 instead? After all, talking Rats and Moles don’t exist in the real world, so how is this preparation for the 21st century global economy? Or again, why have to memorize Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem Jabberwocky when you could be spending the same amount of time reading something “useful” like FedViews? In the utilitarian and pragmatic mindset behind Common Core, only those destined to major in English literature need trouble themselves with such stories.

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