How Common Core Devalues Great Literature

Roosevelt

Many years ago, a prominent man wrote to one of his favorite authors about his latest book.  This man had been a soldier, a hunter, an athlete, an historian, and a social reformer, and was now employed in a post of some significant responsibility.  He had many children, and was by all accounts a bluff and hearty father.

“My dear Mr. Grahame,” he wrote,

My mind moves in ruts, as I suppose most minds do, and at first I could not reconcile myself to the change from the ever-delightful Harold and his associates, and so for some time I could not accept the toad, the mole, the water-rat, and the badger as substitutes.  But after a while [my wife] and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind Among the Willows [sic] and took such delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgment.  Then [she] read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then.  Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends; and I am almost more fond of it than your previous books.  Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the sea-faring rat did when he almost made the water-rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering!

I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we had all enjoyed your book.

And he closes with all good wishes, “Sincerely yours, Theodore Roosevelt.”

Now that’s a letter from a different world.

It makes my gorge rise, after that breath of fresh air with the tang of the river in it, to have to utter the words “Common Core Curriculum,” and its relentless, contemptible, soul-cramping, story-killing, pseudo-sophisticated, utilitarian focus not on the beauty and truth and goodness that good art reveals, not on the imaginative worlds that good books can open up to someone simply willing to receive them as gifts on their own terms and enter into them with gratitude, but upon scrambling up supposed skills in suspicion, superficial criticism, and dissection.

Yet I have to do it.  I hate the task, just as I’d hate to have to pull on rubber galoshes to clear out a clogged cesspool.  But someone has to do it.

Let’s look at that letter again.  It is written by the Theodore Roosevelt, who, whatever may be one’s opinion of his policies, was not only an immensely learned man.  He was an immensely imaginative man; it comes across in all of his words and deeds.  And he, President of the United States at that time (1904), did not write to praise Kenneth Grahame for helping his brood of children to “actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews.”  I can imagine Teddy taking the birch switches down from the wall to give a thrashing to someone who could write such a dimwit sentence.  For we do not read The Wind in the Willows in order to build knowledge about talking rats, or to broaden worldviews, whatever that term from political sloganeering is supposed to mean.  We read The Wind in the Willows to enter the world of The Wind in the Willows, and maybe learn something about ourselves in the process.  But the aim of reading the work is simply the joy and the wonder of it; it is a good book, because it tells us good and true things in an artful way.

Teddy did not praise Kenneth Grahame for helping the Roosevelt children to learn how to analyze what the CCC calls, with revealing ugliness and reductiveness, “text,” so that he would “reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic,” as if the noblest task of mankind was to listen to a political advertisement or to cast a vote.  Teddy praised the man for giving him new friends: Toad of Toad-Hall, the Rat, the Mole, and the Badger.  If you are not reading novels to make new friends, or to wander across the fields, or to sail the sea, then you should not read them at all.

And that, as it happens, is one of the very things you learn from The Wind in the Willows itself.  When the story begins, the shy and pleasant Mole is invited to join the Rat in a boat.  The Mole, being a Mole, hasn’t ever been in a boat before, and he finds it really quite nice, as he leans back and feels the swell of the water beneath him.

“Nice?  It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke.  “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.  Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats.”

Is it too much to ask that teachers of young children remember, hidden somewhere underneath their encrustations of sin, false learning, ambition, treadmill-pumping, work for work’s sake, and jaded familiarity with the surfaces of things—underneath the calluses of adulthood—that the Rat is right, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats?  I mean this.  Is it too much to ask that teachers of young children remember that works of the imagination are for the soul?  That our first response to them should be one of wonder and gratitude?  And our second response, and our third?

The Common Corers get things exactly backwards. You do not read The Wind in the Willows so that you can gain some utilitarian skill for handling “text.”  If anything, we want our children to gain a little bit of linguistic maturity so that they can read The Wind in the WillowsThat is the aim.  I want my college students to read Milton so that they can enter the world that Milton holds forth for us.  I show them some of his techniques as an artist, since they’re mature enough to appreciate them, but not so that they can reduce the poem to an exercise in rhetoric.  I show them those techniques so that they may understand and cherish the poem all the more.  I want them to become “friends” with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  I want them to climb with Dante and Virgil the glorious mountain of Purgatory.  I want them to stand heart to heart with the Geats as they watch the flames devour the body of their deceased king Beowulf.

Those are the important things, the permanent things.  If you are not reading The Wind in the Willows as Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and their children were reading it, then you should not read it at all.  If you are turning Tom Sawyer into a linguistic exercise with a veneer of intellectual sophistication, then you should not read Tom Sawyer—in fact, you cannot have understood a blessed thing about Tom Sawyer.  If you are reading The Jungle Book for any other reason than to enter the jungle with Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, then you had best stay out of the world of art, keep to your little cubbyhole, cram yourself with pointless exercises preparatory for the SAT, a job at Microsoft, creature comforts, old age, and death.

But what baffles me most about this latest and hugely expensive exercise in inhumanity is that it has never been cheaper or easier (were it not for distractions and the insanity and moral squalor around us) to give children a splendid education in arts and letters.  Back in 1904, books were still relatively expensive for most families. There were no paperbacks. You couldn’t order five or six used novels by Dickens for the price of a couple of pizzas. You couldn’t go to library book sales—dumping classics among the trash—and pick up a copy of The Wind in the Willows for the price of a candy bar.

There’s no excuse for us. Any school librarian with a free hand and a very modest amount of money can quickly put together a set of a thousand or two thousand classic novels and books of poetry fit for children, that would have been far beyond the means of almost anyone a hundred years ago. And what about the teachers?  Let us not fall for educational patois and the unspoken assumption that it requires experts with special knowledge and secret recipes of twenty five herbs and spices to make children learn against their will.  For the most important thing that any teacher of reading can do for children is to read good and great books with them and for them, with imagination and love. It is not like designing a rocket to go to the moon.  It is at once far easier and far more profound than that. It is like silence, and play, and prayer. It is like messing around in boats.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010) and, most recently, Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). Professor Esolen has also translated Dante.

  • John Albertson

    The composers of the Common Core curriculum also seem to have an unfortunate affinity for split infinitives. The curriculum was imposed on the schools of the Archdiocese of New York by fiat. Pastor and parents were not consulted. This will only increase the downward spiral of that declining school system.

    • Adam__Baum

      In too many Catholic schools, the only products of note are the basket or football teams.

      • tom

        Father couldn’t pass up those 30 pieces of silver.

        • Adam__Baum

          They aren’t all the revenue generators ND is- I don’t like showy athletic programs, saw enough that when the USSR and East Germany rang up the medal counts in the Olympics.

      • DDV

        I went to Notre Dame and while we do have a national football team, I can also tell you that the students and alumni are very dedicated to serving their communities both during their time at Notre Dame and afterwards as alumni. It was a completely different world than my graduate school experience at an Ivy League School where all the students cared about was making money. Please get to know the Notre Dame community before you accuse us of having only two products, because you are missing a huge piece of what makes Notre Dame students and alumni so unique.

        • DE-173

          I’ve met ND graduates, I’ve met Ivy graduates. Virtually indistinguishable.

  • thebigdog

    Step 1: Common Core
    Step 2: Commune Core
    Step 3: Commune Corps

  • Ciarán Ó Coigligh

    Dear Professor Esolen, Thank you for this fine piece. More and more, those in school or college, at all levels in Ireland, are being restricted to a diet of ‘texts’, reflective of a secular agenda which pretends to promote equality, diversity and inclusion but which carefully excludes the Christian perspective and the literary heritage of Irish (Gaelic) civilization and indeed the literary heritage of Western civilization.

    Congratulations on having translated Dante. I have edited a Gaelic Irish version of the Divine Comedy, entitled An Choiméide Dhiaga, and therefore I have some appreciation of the enormity of the task you have performed.

    Every good wish and God’s blessing to you and yours.
    Ciarán Ó Coigligh

    • Tony

      Dear Ciaran — congratulations to you, also, for your own herculean work!
      But I am deeply puzzled. I had thought that the Irish, of all people, treasured their literary and musical heritage. Why did they bother to pry themselves free of the British, if they were only going to cave in to bureaucrats from Brussels?
      Last year I learned Welsh, and have been cherishing a hope that the Welsh still love their language and their heritage, even though four out of five do not actually speak it — I am hoping that far more than twenty percent know how to read it, and do read it. When a man dies, it’s a solemn thing; when a culture dies, it’s a devastating thing — it is like laying waste forever to a place where human beings once dwelt…

      • Ciarán Ó Coigligh

        Dear Tony
        Thank you for your kind remarks and interesting perspectives on Welsh and the death of a culture. To address your puzzlement in relation to Irish heritage: Unfortunately there is a huge difference between ‘the Irish people’ and the education and political elites (in Dublin, Belfast, and Brussels), the media and the entertainment industry (including those in the USA). These latter groupings initiate, promote and implement policies often unknown to the public and even more often with contemptuous disregard for the views and opinions of the general public. The Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy has been cowed by the media exploitation of the outrageous clerical abuse which occurred in Ireland as elsewhere and unfortunately their is no Catholic or even Christian intellectual tradition in Ireland to speak of as there are no denominational universities. The ‘people of Ireland’ are rarely exposed to the expression of views that affirm their own largely positive and Christian-based attitudes and lifestyles. On the contrary such views and lifestyles are the subject of continuous denigration by those who control or have access to the print and electronic media, especially radio and television.

  • Beth

    Thank you!

  • Steven Jonathan

    Bravo Dr. Esolen!
    Do your words fall on deaf ears? So sophisticated are the semantic distortions employed by the blunt makers of the Common Core that even some good folks are fooled- we see it on Crisis where too often someone will defend the indefensible because it does appear good on its surface- The Common Core is rotten through and through, there is no baby to throw out with the bath water- In the pubic schools they have a subject they call “Language Arts” and it is artful, but not concerning language.

  • Richard Norman

    My friend, it is even easier than that to read many classics! You can download the Amazon Kindle app (among others) for free for most any computer or tablet or phone and many classics can be downloaded for free as they are now in the public domain and no one receives royalties.

    • Adam__Baum

      I understand your point, but I won’t give Bezos another dime for his to advocate SSM.

      • anonymouse

        That’s why I use a Sony eReader, and I get all my books from either gutenberg.org or feedbooks.com.

        If you want to read on a laptop, Calibre is a good eReader app for Windows or Macintosh

        If you want to read on an Android tablet, Aldiko is a good eReader app.

        There’s no need to send any money to Amazon.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        I prefer nook anyway. Or better yet, Project Gutenberg.

    • Vincent

      What if you don’t have anything to download it to. NO BOOKS FOR YOU!
      Mr. Esolen’s last paragraph says it best – “There’s no excuse for us.” His suggestions allow all children the opportunity to read.

      • Adam__Baum

        You can get a functional 8 inch tablet for less than $100.

        • MDK66

          You can get a book for free at the library.

  • Adam__Baum

    Common core devalues the human being. Can’t all be Alphas and Betas, you know.

    • Vinnie

      Nor Alpha and Omega.

  • poetcomic1

    Teddy Roosevelt said:

    “It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful businessman … or farmer, or a successful lawyer, or doctor, or a writer, or a president, or a ranchman … or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”

    Good books and good families go together like plowed fields and spring rain.

  • Vinnie

    Whenever I read any of Mr. Esolen’s essays I realize how unlearned I am. I’ve tried to read some of the works he mentions but get stuck on the (“old-fashoned”) writing style or unfamiliar words or use of those words. Then I quit and continue reading religious and political essays. I suppose I have some redemption in that when I do read a novel, which has become much less and less over time, I read it to get lost in it, for the experience. I have to say my favorites, not that anyone cares, were most of Jack London’s stories. I myself desperately need to mess around in a boat. And our children do need the same experience.

    • TS

      I may have a solution for you. Pick an old book that you want to read. Then listen to it as an audiobook (Audible.com is reasonably priced, and many, many books are free at librivox.org). Don’t try too hard to “understand” everything. Just listen to the story. Then watch the movie version if there is one. Then listen to the story again.

      After doing that, you will be much more familiar with the old phrasing and old fashioned words. You will become more comfortable, I swear. Before you know it, you will find them quite easy and pleasant to read. It just takes some time immersing yourself in the old language usage. And hearing someone use the words makes it so much easier to understand.

      If I may, I suggest “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. It is simultaneously funny, tragic, and triumphant. Everything that a good story should be. There is also a reasonable movie version starring a very young Daniel Radcliff (Harry Potter).

      Good luck!

      • Vinnie

        Thanks. That’s appreciated.

        • Diddian

          Another suggestion is “Beowulf.” My daughter and I read it in our homeschool this year and very much enjoyed it. We listened to an abridged version read aloud by Seamus Heaney and followed along from an unabridged and illustrated version published by Norton (2008, ed. by John D. Niles). Whenever Heaney skipped a portion, we stopped and read what he skipped before continuing the audio. We also marked kennings (epic similes in compound-word form) as we came across them in the text and later practiced using that form of description ourselves.

          Norton’s illustrated book provides photographs, drawings, and other artwork – a full page illustration on every other page – to give the reader a sense of the setting, weaponry and armory, jeweled ornaments, and characters one would have encountered living in that heroic Scandinavian world. The book also provides family trees that are helpful in remembering who is who and simple margin notes that assist in understanding what is happening in the text.

          The audio version is available in two parts on YouTube. I recommend buying it, so you have your own copy. I think mine cost less than $20 on Amazon. Here’s a link to the first part:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaB0trCztM0

          We loved it.

    • msmischief

      Reading back from the most recent to the earliest helps. You pick up the vocabulary on the way.

      Children’s books also help.

      • Vinnie

        Thanks also. That may work.

  • grzybowskib

    Oh my goodness, that third to last paragraph from the end was devastating. In a good way. :)

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I hope you never encounter the “Emergent postmodern evangelicals”, who pointedly will tell you they are not a denomination. They are to Catholicism what common core is to literacy.

    • Adam__Baum

      Oh goody. Sola Scriptura has a thorny new branch with bright and poisonous fruit.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Yep- though of course they’ll claim to be “deconstructing” scripture.

        • John200

          DCon is rat poison.

    • John200

      These unfortunates exist to be evangelized. I reckon we had better get busy on the work.

  • hombre111

    I think you got your wrath across, but I would have loved some precise examples from Common Core to help me understand what all the fuss is about.

    • Beth

      I think Evagrius above did a nice job. Check out his post and then maybe you’ll ‘get’ all the fuss.

    • Tim

      More detailed “textual analysis” was required for the article to become in any way compelling. The need for more rigorous standards has been exemplified.

    • WhatKidsAreReading

      Inspired by Dr. Esolen’s article, I did a even more research that I had previously done on the CCS. Here are some specific shortcomings with the implementation with the standards. http://whatkidsarereading.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/why-we-read-to-children-and-how-common-core-doesnt-get-it/

  • Evagrius

    The Common Core is being steamrolled into Catholic Schools through the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative (“CCCII”) by the National Catholic Educational
    Association (“NCEA”). The CCCII is the Catholic ‘brand’ of Common Core
    developed by a group of NCEA partners under the leadership of Dr. Loraine Ozar
    Director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University of Chicago, along with the Sisters of the Presentation of Dubuque, IA, Boston College, and St. John’s University (NY), AdvancED, Inc., Catapult Learning, Mindstreams, Riverside Publishing, Rowland Reading, and William H. Sadlier, Inc.. Ozar and the NCEA have been promoting objectives-based education (of which Common Core is merely the latest iteration) since at least early 1990s. The CCCII authors claim that they have infused the Common Core with Catholic values. Here are some examples of their version of ‘Catholic” values: In the CCCII Unit Plan for Our World of Communities Grade 1, the “suggested books for the teacher to read aloud” include “The Family Book (Parr).” The Family Book, however, teaches students that “some families have two moms or two dads.” In the CCCII Unit Design Guidelines, the CCCII authors urge Catholic educators to use “Go Ask Alice” (Beatrice Sparks 1971) to teach Catholic values. Go Ask Alice, however, is the fictional diary of an amoral teenage drug addict who kills herself at the end of the book. Here is a just a small excerpt: “Another day, another bl*w job. If I don’t give Big A** a bl*w, he’ll cut off my supply. God**** Big A** makes me do it before he gives me the load.” There are many more examples of such faux Catholic values from the so-called National Catholic Education Association.

    • ColdStanding

      All those abbreviations make me think of Roman legions.

      • Evagrius

        If only the were. Preferably the Christian legions of Theodosius or Justinian!

      • Adam__Baum

        I’m guessing that’s because CC is designed to create new legions.

    • zcastaux

      Thank you for enumerating this valuable research. It is interesting to see how many institutions are involved. The so-called ‘diary’ is even more vile than the “Color Purple” passages (won’t bother to mention them here) or the other gross scenes which have long been ‘required reading’ in curricula in so many countries. Voyeurism and incest are only two of the ‘required perversions’ in this stuff. There are too many to list here. BUT I am very worried indeed by some of Prof. Esalen’s comments. WHY? He seems to be so enthusiastic about ‘pure lit.’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ (as the cliche goes) that he fails COMPLETELY to recognize 2 vital points. ONE of these is, the profound lessons learned very deeply from childhood fiction: the simplest example being, in fairy tales, NOT to open the door to wolves or foxes, even if they ‘soften’ their voices with chalk, and put gloves on their hairy feet. Listening carefully to Mother’s wise advice was another important lesson! Another is the PERSEVERANCE of the hare and the tortoise… Who wins? So the Jungle Book is not SIMPLY ABOUT GOING MENTALLY INTO A JUNGLE OF ANIMALS AND TREES… There really is more, in the story of Mowgli. Among other things, a sensitive boy who is rejected by a small-minded village. It’s not a utilitarian disorder, if we think so. And SECOND: the ‘pure imagination’ argument can equally well be used, and IS used, to justify witchcraft lessons, spells etc in children’s lit. Not all ‘imagination’ is healthy; Prof. Esalen pokes a hard criticism at schoolteachers, but may have forgotten this basic point. AND a third issue here: Esalen does not mention the sheer beauty of SOUND in the various languages of the world: there is a lament among some that poetry in the Afrikaans language, for example (not simply in Welsh Gaelic!) is being lost. Poetry as lyricism or lament (Beowulf is an ancient poetic chronicle) has not appeared at all. That is very sad.

      • Tony

        Dear Z: But I did say that we love these works because they can teach us things that are true and good. I did say that. I have been doing what you say for many years … And I assure you that I try to help my students fall in love with the music of great poetry, and with the fineness of this language or that. Welsh, for example…

  • sibyl

    You’re right, there are no excuses. The only REASON that children cannot be thoroughly educated in the very best of Western literature and thought is that parents and teachers do not know what to offer or how to read themselves.

    It is much like eating, you know? If you are running a school full of people who don’t have any idea about nutritious food, or where to buy it, or how to prepare it, and if your school is gigantic, and your teachers are themselves unaware of anything more than rudimentary microwaving, then of course you will think that the best course is to teach the four-ingredient casserole bound together with cream of mushroom soup out of a can.

    Side note: I did not read Wind in the Willows until I was teaching it to 7th graders at a tiny independent school here in the midwest. The school’s method was to have the teacher read the book aloud, one chapter a day, in class. The students just sat and listened. And laughed, eyes sparkling, as they began to enter that charming world. I’ve never forgotten the pure joy of reading that book for the first time with a bunch of 13 year old girls.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “parents and teachers do not know what to offer ”

      The great advantage of the old form of classical education was that the surviving body of Greek and Latin literature (if you leave out the Fathers and the Jurists) is small enough to allow students to study the whole of it. Once the languages have been mastered, it can be done easily enough, in about four years.

      Porson was right, when he said the burning of the Alexandrian library had made classical scholarship possible.

  • MacBeth Derham

    Delightful, as always, Dr. Esolen.

    You wrote: ” Any school librarian with a free hand and a very modest amount of money can quickly put together a set of a thousand or two thousand classic novels and books of poetry fit for children, that would have been far beyond the means of almost anyone a hundred years ago. ”

    This reminded me of this article (linked below) I read today in the online School Library Journal newsletter. Thick with educationese, it seems to be a Common Core nightmare version of your suggestion. Is there any idea that they cannot twist to their purposes?

    http://www.slj.com/2014/02/opinion/consider-the-source/text-sets-your-chance-to-lead-the-common-core-consider-the-source/

    • Tony Esolen

      Good gracious, that was horrible!

      No one who loves literature — or history, or geography, or English, for that matter — could have written that article; and we see in it also that CC standards will force teachers to organize their classes around “themes” that will be chosen for political reasons. One of the great things about teaching in the old-fashioned way is that it kept you honest; you can’t indulge yourself in an entire year of riding your little hobbyhorse, because the sheer variety of the literature wouldn’t allow for it, nor would the demands of the course itself.

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  • WhatKidsAreReading

    Yes! That is why I homeschooled my children for many years – simply to “read great books to them with imagination and love.” Now they are in public school. Unfortunately finding time and space to keep reading is tricky. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  • WRBaker

    Charged with revamping our middle school Religion classes, I was given
    carte blanche by the principal to make it interesting, challenging and to
    increase the 8th grade ACRE test scores.

    In addition to junking the textbook and acquiring one on Church history for
    the 8th graders, starting basic Latin, altar serving, and what I believe are
    “Church basics” (Deadly Sins, Marks of the Church, the works of our great
    Catholic philosophers, etc), we had a classroom Catholic novel (Cronin’s,
    Keys of the Kingdom). Difficult at first (taking place in Scotland and China),
    it was necessary to guide them through it, at first. After a few chapters, a
    change took place (one in which my Korean students also became more interested
    in and were able to locate the novel in a nearby Korean bookstore and on-line)
    as we each read a page apiece – they became genuinely interested. They were
    required to take notes (no one had taught them before, so it became another
    classroom instruction period) and they watched the movie (with Gregory Peck)
    after we finished the book. The test was became short essays and a choice of
    one, two-page response. It also became a Religion and an English grade.

    It had never been done before, but it was a success (about half of the
    parents read also it). Until the change in “management” (who didn’t like the
    idea), it was one of the topics that younger students knew about and
    anticipated.

    In another vein, students were required to have a Bible, it usually was the
    NAB. What I enjoyed doing, and the students had never been exposed to, was to
    take a passage from their Bible and then use my Douay-Rheims to compare the
    differences in language. After a few examples, the students caught on to the
    beauty of the language that has been almost lost, which led to questions of why
    this was done, etc.

    Test scores had risen dramatically in Religion and most of the students
    looked forward to it, as did I. It looks as if Common Core would have
    prohibited it anyway, if the narrowness of vision and the diocesan “script”
    hadn’t already done so

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Bl John Henry Newman has an excellent passage on the life-long gains of studying great literature:

    “Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival. Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician; his single words and phrases, his pathetic half lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.”

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  • Stanley Anderson

    My wife and I homeschooled our son. She took on most of the work being at home during the day, but when the high school years came, I, being a math and science person (she was lit and history), took on the math and science teaching that was beginning to get beyond her. I am one of those odd people who soak in their love for mathematics and I had always intended, even before my high school years, to teach it, but after college got caught up, at the time, in the better salaries of the aerospace industry.

    But in teaching my son, I realized how much I had missed. Most parents will probably recognize that there is a certain dynamic between parent and child that is separate from the teacher/student relationship that can add a lot of extra “strain”, shall we say, to the teaching process. No matter. I found that despite knowing I would likely get into irritating arguments and angry control issues, I so looked forward to teaching the subject, thinking about how best to present the ideas clearly and in a way that made sense to him (I had at least done various tutoring over the years and recognized the need to tailor explanations and methods to the different ways that different people think), that the prospect of anger and argument paled in comparison to the pure delight of teaching the subject.

    I only mention this because your column, Mr. Esolen, even though it was about the sort of things the student should be encouraged to experience, struck me as also applying to the process of teaching itself. I think the “immersion” in the delight of teaching the things you talk about (and I can recognize those things even in a supposedly “dry” subject as mathematics and science and even computer skills, believe it or not) can only be good not only for the spirit of the teacher but for the students also. It strikes me from your descriptions that CC would seem to do the same sorts of damage to the teacher and the teaching process as it would do to the students themselves — an unfortunate and ugly downward spiral indeed.

  • Tim

    Many of us Catholic parents appreciate the new and more rigorous standards. In math, the kids are now required to really understand what they are doing and why and to explain why they chose one method over another. It’s an improvement over memorizing methods without understanding them, which was more typical in the past. This article doesn’t speak for all or even the majority of Catholic parents. Nobody at my kids’ Catholic school is discouraging students from reading Wind in the Willows. It’s on a suggested reading list that our school passed out. Please don’t try to take a positive development away from our children on some incoherent ideological grounds.

    • Evagrius

      “More rigorous”? James Milgram doesn’t agree.
      (http://pioneerinstitute.org/news/lowering-the-bar-how-common-core-math-fails-to-prepare-students-for-stem/). Who is James Milgram? Milgram is professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University. He was the only mathematician on the Common Core standards validation committee. He declined to sign-off on the Common Core standards, because they weren’t, not to put too fine a point on it, rigorous. In fact, the exact word that he used to describe the standards is “fraud.” As for requiring younger children to “explain” basic arithmetic, please see child psychologist Dr. Megan Koschnick’s presentation on the Common Core delivered on September 9, 2013 at the University of Notre Dame http://americanprinciplesproject.org/preserve-innocence/2013/early-childhood-standards-of-common-core-are-developmentally-inappropriate/. Many thoughtful Catholic parents may well appreciate the standards. I suspect, however, that few of the appreciators have made the effort to look beyond the slick marketing produced by the NCEA with the grant they received from the Gates Foundation. As for ideology, I would urge you to explore the origins of the standards-based / objectives-based education movement (of which Common Core is merely the latest expression). Most of the original (and incidentally the most persuasive) criticism is from what one would typically consider to be a leftist perspective, see e.g. the work of Lawrence Stenhouse.

      • Tony

        Evagrius — one of these days I will have to write an article that exposes the strategy that educational “innovators” and centralizers have used since Dewey. It depends upon slandering the past. I’ve heard all my life long that kids in the bad old days when my parents were students were never taught “why” certain operations worked in arithmetic; they were just taught to do the operations, and that was that. But if that were true, then those same people would have been entirely flummoxed as soon as they encountered a problem that was a little bit different from those in their practice books. Yet that is not what we actually find, is it? Those people turned out to be perfectly capable of handling all kinds of practical arithmetical problems … and our students are NOT capable of doing the same. Evidently, whether or not the initial emphasis in their instruction was on WHY the operation worked, they did acquire a sense of number, they did certainly know WHY they did what they did, and they were able to apply what they learned to problems they had not yet encountered. I am guessing that a fair appraisal of old arithmetic textbooks would explode the notion that those kids were instructed as if they were robots and not human beings.

      • Tim

        Actually, Evagrius, James Milgram does agree. He is quoted as saying that 45 states have weaker standards than Common Core. He simply felt that Common Core needs to be even more rigorous than it currently is to compete with international standards (which, by the way, usually reserve precalc for university bound students and calc for students likely to go into math related fields, not for all students.) Milgram’s main beef was that the standards end with Algebra 2 and don’t include precalc. Not everyone agrees with Milgram. Nearly all schools offer AP math. Many kids take it in 10th or 11th grade (some earlier) and do more advanced university level math through community college or EPGY for the rest of their high school careers. Nobody is stopping kids from going above and beyond the standards (which are a minimum and not a maximum requirement.) There are more balanced and analytical articles on the subject at http://www.golocalworcester.com/news/steiny-common-core-redefines-college-ready-math-in-a-good-way/ and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/common-core-questions_n_4378643.html

        • Evagrius

          Tim, there is no need to paraphrase James Milgram. Let him speak for himself. Here is the quote: “At this time we can conclude only that a gigantic fraud has been perpetrated on this country, in particular on parents in this country, by those developing, promoting, or endorsing Common Core’s standard.” Now, one can read this sentence forwards, backwards, or upside down without being able to tease an endorsement of the common core standards out of it. To be precise, Milgram’s point is actually that the Common Core standards are not what their developers say they are and don’t do what their promoters say they do. The developers say that the standards reflect “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Milgram shows that they don’t and that the promoters know perfectly well that they don’t. You don’t refute that by showing that students can nevertheless acquire the skills they need by going outside the standards; in fact, by doing so you merely reinforce Milgram’s criticism. Milgram shows that the exit standard were set too low. Dr. Megan Koschnick shows that these exit standards were cascaded from 12th grade down to kindergarten, without any consideration of whether the lower standards were developmentally appropriate for those grade levels. Incidentally, there weren’t any child development psychologists (or even early educators) on the common core development committees. The end result is that young children who do not yet reason abstractly are nevertheless required by the common core standards to “explain,” “justify” and “apply” abstract mathematical principles. This is not only a prescription for frustration and demotivation, but will also impair these children’s acquisition of basic math facts, which they would otherwise be perfectly capably of acquiring within a developmentally appropriate (i.e. non common core) curriculum.

          • Tim

            None of which, Evagrius, detracts from the fact that James Milgram DOES agree that common core standards are better than 90% of current state standards. One of his paragraphs, in the very essay you quote from, is even headlined: “VI. So what if ‘Common Core’ is better than 90% of the State Standards.” That essay, by the way, was not written by Milgram alone, but by both James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky. I suggest you read Jason Zimba’s rebuttal of these and similar claims at http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/2013/critics-math-doesnt-add-up.html
            He makes the points that the new standards received a perfect score for content and rigor at Fordham Institute’s 2010 review, and that a leading expert on international math found agreement to be high between Common Core and math standards in high performing countries. Again, Milgram’s main complaint is that the standards stop at Algebra 2 and don’t go on to precalc and calc. One would think this would please the anti-CC brigade, but apparently it doesn’t. Milgram, as Zimba points out, wants students “STEM” ready rather than college ready.
            There are a number of incoherent myths making the rounds on the Internet, chief of which is that Common Core is some sort of quasi-legal conspiracy pushed by Obama and the Gates Foundation. I’ve read all sorts of nonsense about the standards. As a parent who has seen them in practice, I am very happy. My 8th grade son, along with a quarter of his classmates, is getting an exceptional education in Geometry. He is being taught much more rigorously than his older brother at the same age. My younger kids are doing fine too. As for the standards “devaluing great literature”, what nonsense! Someone forgot to tell my kids, who read great literature enthusiastically.

            • Evagrius

              Tim, beginning a sentence with the words “SO WHAT IF” usually signals that what follows is beside the point. Ergo, the sentence “So what if ‘Common Core’ is better than 90% of the State Standards” functions not as an endorsement of Common Core but rather as an indictment of the common failings of both common core and the state standards. Both fail to prepare children for college, and “so what if” the common core fails marginally less spectacularly than the states. College admissions is one of those binary decisions (admitted or rejected) where there is no material difference between
              being 20% or 30% below the admissions threshold. This is devastating, because college readiness happens to be the sole intelligible criteria on which the Common Core was developed and is the chief marketing claim of its sponsors. Milgram/Stotsky’s article demonstrates that the common core math standards’ concept of “college ready” is intentionally misleading, and actually means, at most, readiness for
              “non-selective colleges” (e.g. two-year community colleges).
              Both the state standards and common core fail to prepare students for selective colleges. As Common Core has been sold to the states, parents, and educators as preparing students for “college,” Common Core is, in Milgram’s (and Stotsky’s) opinion, a “fraud.” But let’s not stop there. Saying that the Common Core math standards are marginally less bad, on a single metric — ‘college readiness,’ than 45 other bad standards, does not make the Common Core math standards good. More importantly, it says nothing about how the common core standards compare with those 45 other standards across a wide range of other metrics that parents and educators
              should care about. For example, which standards are developmentally appropriate? Let’ return to Dr. Megan Koschnick’s criticism, which suggests that for the early grades Common Core is much worse than the state standards. She’s not alone, but is joined by over 500 other early educators who signed a joint statement expressing the same criticism. (I notice that you don’t seem to have answer to that criticism).
              Finally, the fact that your children read great literature
              enthusiastically says much more about the quality of their parents than the quality of the common core. More importantly, it doesn’t begin to address Tony Esolen’s argument or Sandra Stotsky’s argument, and it strongly suggests that you actually haven’t taken the time to read the standards or the standards’ supporting materials. The Common Core standards don’t direct educators to teach “great literature.” The Common Core standards don’t even have a concept of literature, qua literature (great or otherwise). Instead, the Common Core ELA has a concept of “texts,” and the standards generally assume that all “texts” are expository prose. You seem to like detail, so let’s
              drill down and see how the Common Core ELA standards are applied in practice. Let’s take one from the 7th grade
              ELA standards. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.3: “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.” Let’s apply that to Water Rat’s ‘argument': “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.” How would a seventh grader meet that standard? How would you? There’s no answer, because neither Water Rat nor Kenneth Grahame is marshaling evidence to support a ‘claim’ as one would do in a legal brief or a clinical trial study. Now let’s go a step further and see how that same standard is actually applied in a Catholic education setting. “Objective” 10 from the Common Core Catholic Identity ELA Unit Plan “Friendship” (Grade 7) is: “Read and analyze select Scripture and engage in a discussion highlighting the theme of friendship.” This “objective” is “linked” to Common Core standard SL.7.3 (i.e. same one quoted above). How would you, Tim, meet that standard in connection with Scripture? The evangelists and prophets often wrote poetically (think of the Song of Songs — “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.”). Our Lord spoke in parables. How exactly would a creature “evaluate the soundness of [the living God’s] reasoning” or the “relevance and sufficiency of [our Lord’s] evidence”?

              • Stefano Hatari

                Why do you pretend that there are no common core standards for literature, in a discussion of the relevance of common core to literature? You only cite speaking and listening standards. I suspect that Tim simply lost patience with you, and no wonder. So many words, and so little sense.

  • Steve

    I work in an elementary school operating with Common Core standards, in a Common Core state. No crisis here. Great literature gets taught, read, listened to, enjoyed at all grade levels. Don’t assume that “Informational texts” are dry and soulless. Such texts, depending on grade level, can include the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Augustine’s Confessions, etc. Common Core is not curriculum, as many respondents assume. Compare Common Core with your previous state standards, which are probably just as dry and bureaucratic and soul-sucking. The sky didn’t fall when your previous state standards were adopted, and it won’t fall with Common Core. Go volunteer in your local elementary school. I think think that what you see will warm your curmudgeonly heart.

    • Bryan

      “Common Core is not curriculum”…please explain to me how it is that standards DON’T drive assessments, which in turn DON’T drive curriculum. It only seems logical that these standards will influence curriculum development (isn’t that why the textbook publishers and “ed tool” developers are lobbying for it?).

      Furthermore, as an educator, surely you see problems with the increased level of assessments that have come along with all of the standards (even before common core). Our God-daughter is in 3rd grade at the local Catholic elementary school. She spent a week doing test PREP (not taking the test, preparing to take the test) last month. This, to me, seems to be a key point that Dr. Esolen is making.

      • Stefano Hatari

        Easy to explain. People write curriculum to align with standards. For instance, a Common Core literature standard for Grades 9-10: “Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).” What one actually DOES is curriculum. As a teacher, I can choose the subject/key scene from any text/medium that I wish, I can provide whatever background I feel is necessary, or none at all. I can spend a day or a week with this. I can have my students do the analysis in an oral presentation, a paper, or a third medium. Does this help clarify the distinction?

        By the way–I hate overtesting, but that is not an issue with the standards.

    • Tony

      The sky did already fall.
      I regularly meet Honors students at my college, freshmen, who tell me that they have never even heard the names of any number of the greatest English poets. Yesterday one of my best students, who had been part of a good AP program in the “classics” (Latin), told me that he has never heard of John Milton.
      The CC cannot be implemented unless the focus is diverted entirely away from what reading good books is FOR; its assumptions are utilitarian, and its bureaucratic and technocratic “standards” and their tests leave no room for any old-fashioned courses in the history of English and American literature.
      Don’t patronize me, Steve. A few years ago I volunteered my services for the town high school, to introduce the kids to Dante. Never got a call back. I teach young people for a living — I talk to them, and learn quite a lot about what goes on in their schools. Half of the time I find myself un-teaching the stuff they learned there.

      • Adam__Baum

        told me that he has never heard of John Milton.

        And I’m accountant who avoided English Lit like the plague (to my own detriment-the world communicates in words-it only argues numbers) but I heard of Milton for crying out loud.

        Me wonders how innumerate the honors accouting students are now.

      • heather

        Tony, I share your frustrations. I have been overrun with families wanting me to tutor their kids in Honors Geometry and when I see what they are learning I am fuming angry.
        I too have have volunteered ad nauseum in my district to volunteer to teach the basic tenets of Euclid’s Elements, (which is in its way is as beautiful and perfect as necessary to create thinking humans)..but which has all but been abandoned by CC in Geometry. Learning these processes and derivations are critical to the scientific method, any work in computer coding or IT, conducting scientific research, putting together a decent legal or philosophical argument, let alone thoroughly gaining an understanding of math from Algebra to Calculus.
        They shut me down, don’t want anyone to even know that there’s something out there that they aren’t providing. They told me as a volunteer, that if I can’t provide it to all 1600 students, then it’s unfair to offer it to anyone.
        So I put it out to students and families on the side that I will teach it in my dining room all summer long and hope I can deal with the demand I already have for this summer.

      • Stefano Hatari

        Sorry. This is just nonsense. A teacher, school, district, or state can put together a reading list for ELA classes that includes Milton. Many have. This is not a Common Core issue. I teach high school English, and I have a Ph.D. in English Literature, and your account of Common Core is a parody.

    • Andy

      From the Common Core website – The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. – this is the description of a curriculum – it tells us what students are expected to learn.
      I too am an educator and the Common Core is sucking the joy of school from students, teachers and parents. The “top-down” imposition of this curriculum or set of standards if you want has reduced teaching to for most settings to a set of scripts – scripts designed to achieve a certain level of performance on a test that is so far removed from what students need to be college and/or career ready.

      • Stefano Hatari

        Ridiculous. States (like NY) may require reading from scripts, but Common Core standards certainly don’t. And no, curriculum and ‘set of standards’ are not interchangeable terms.

    • Evagrius

      We don’t have to assume that the Common Core’s informational texts are dry and soulless. All we have to do is peruse the list in Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks of the standards. One can only imagine to what new heights young minds will soar upon reading such great classics of Western literature as — the U.S. General Services Administration Executive Order 13423 or the Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy Recommended Levels of Insulation. As for the Gettysburg address, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 as well the Common Core Close Reading Model Lesson for the Gettysburg address: http://www.achievethecore.org/dashboard/300/search/1/1/0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/page/752/featured- require “close reading” of this ‘text.’ Apart from close reading being a critical method developed for poetry by the New Critics in the first half of the last century, there are any number of problems with applying this technique to a historical text. To begin with, the Common Core tells teachers to “Refrain from giving background context.” As the Common Core Gettysburg model lesson explains, “This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.” Forcing students to read an historical text without historical background is, at the risk of restating the obvious, ahistorical. Say what you may about close reading as a critical method, but as a pedagogical method the record is one of abject failure as was already clear in the results of I.A. Richards’s experiments with his undergraduates over eighty years ago. See his Practical Criticism – A Study Of Literary Judgment (1929).

      • Stefano Hatari

        Sorry, Appendix B is not a reading list. You should read the introduction. And CC doesn’t require any particular method for reading the Gettysburg Address. You are confusing someone’s curriculum with the standards themselves. I teach the Gettysburg Address, and other texts, as I wish.

  • Erick

    I am at the university and it pains me to see peers taught to turn a piece of literature into a piece of marxism, deconstructionism, feminism, etc. This what the English professors are teaching them, and they are even taught that the “writer doesn’t matter”. Whaat? Such madness at our school, what ever happened to reading a text to gain a deeper understanding through the text itself, the author and the time period it was written. So sad what’s happening to our future.

  • WRBaker

    Doesn’t this sound like Common Core at the university level?

    “Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton—the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements and replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing. In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare, but was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”
    http://www.city-journal.org/2014/24_1_urb-humanities.html

    • Morrie Chamberlain

      Sad for the English major that might never have read a line of the Bard of Avon.

    • TheAbaum

      In other words, they aren’t English majors anymore. Next they’ll grant Civil Engineering degrees without Statics. Too bad if you are on their bridge.

  • Theresa

    As a student in a transitional master’s program to become an elementary teacher, I have been required to read many of the Common Core standards. I have heard both good and bad about them. I have also heard many teachers say that they teach a great deal of what they feel is important in addition to the standards, and if they need to justify it, they find a standard that can generally be applied to their teaching. If teachers are currently doing this, could they not also do so with the CC? I have not seen the CC and their incredibly specific standards in practice, but does it necessarily mean that teaching practices will go out the window? I would love to hear any comments you have on this.

    • Tony

      Yes, Theresa. The whole orientation of the Common Core, as far as literature is concerned, is away from the imagination, and towards those supposed “skills” in analyzing the rhetoric of a text. You simply cannot have both a course in, let us say, British Literature, wherein you immerse yourselves in the beauty and wisdom of the great poetry of our language, AND a course that applies the CC standards to the literature. For one, you wouldn’t have the time. The CC steeplechase is full of hurdles and tunnels and ladders and slides, so that even if you could keep your attention on the really and perennially important things — the things for which we read poetry in the first place — you would still have to force your students to fulfill assignments to demonstrate that they had acquired this or that “skill.” It would take over both what you had the time to teach — much less than before, and that is why the CC proponents are quite open about turning away from complete works and towards excerpts, divorced from their cultural and historical context — and how you taught it. When on earth could you possibly discuss the TRUTH or the BEAUTY of texts, or just be silent about them while enjoying them? There’s no payoff in that — because the “assessments” will always be looming, and to keep your job or get your promotion or your merit raise you will want your students, the CC guinea pigs, to “pass” with flying colors.
      Put it this way. If you design a course in English literature in which your paramount purposes are to introduce students to the great authors of our heritage, and to instruct them in how to read poetry and why poetry is to be loved, you will be spending almost all your time dealing with things that find no place in the CC “tasks” and “assessments.” But if you do focus on the “tasks,” you will necessarily destroy the poetry in the process. For there is no “use” in poetry — thank God.

      • Morrie Chamberlain

        Exactly. Nice summary.

  • Ric the Magnificent

    This article is so incredibly insightful, it makes me miss all the good books I ever read in my life. My compliments to the author

    • Theresa

      I love reminiscing about many of the classics as well. Preparing to enter the teaching field has re-ignited my love for them, as I come across them again and again in various classrooms that I visit.

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  • Beth

    Does this line of thinking make sense? One cause of the massive exodus from the church in the past 30 years can be correlated to not only the watering down of teaching within the church but also the watering down of education in the classics in ALL educational settings. Children (my generation and those after) were not given the meat of the catechism nor the meat of the canon of Western literature which made the ever-enticing pop culture of surface feelings rule the day. When you lose the ability to think or read challenging material, you lose the ability to make the faith and reason connection.

    Common Core does nothing but make us ‘think’ we are ‘thinking critically’.

  • Mack

    Where have you been? I’ve been struggling against such curricula since the 1970s. Thank goodness for photocopiers.
    And I vote in school board elections to try to prevent such enormities. Do you? Or do you limit yourself to writing thinky-stuff to circulate on the ‘net among people who already agree with you? Do you teach in a poor urban or rural school where the model is not LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE but rather the children of DELIVERANCE parents?
    Whether or not you want to attempt the adventure of teaching poor children who have been raised from birth with a diffuse, all-embracing hatred, I hope all of you will vote in your local school board elections. You might also try one hour a week in your closest school’s volunteer reading program.

    • Augustus

      You should not criticize someone you don’t know. Dr. Esolen has been neck deep in teaching and curriculum development at all grade levels for many years. Just because he criticizes Common Core does not mean he thinks everything was sweetness and light before its development. You’re not the only person who has been critical of the direction of education over many decades.

      • Tony

        Augustus — he continues to do that, every time he comes across one of my essays about the schools. It doesn’t matter what I write, or that I’ve taught young people for thirty years, or that I was the head of a coalition of 250 homeschooling families for seven years, or that I do vote in school board elections, for all the good that does. It doesn’t matter that I hear from my former students all the time about the tough times they face in the schools where they teach — or that I’ve been in on the founding of a new Catholic school, or that I am trying to place my best students where they can teach, for example, kids in the Bronx or kids in Mexico City. Unless I do things exactly his way, he’s going to snipe.

        Let’s get one thing quite clear. From what my students tell me, the “good” public schools are every bit as destructive as the poor ones. The poor schools never get round to good books; the “good” schools destroy them. I could put you all in touch with a bright young man who has worked as a supplementary tutor for well-to-do high school kids in New Haven. I keep saying it: it is not expensive to get a good education. Books have never been cheaper. The troubles are not primarily financial. They are intellectual — the teachers don’t know what they are supposed to teach, or don’t even like it; and they are moral — the schools are pitched in the midst of moral confusion and squalor, and do things that help spread that same confusion and squalor.

  • Peradam

    Brilliant article, Antony! Every word rings true. Thanks.

  • Paul Schumann

    Regardless of the blame old Teddy has for Japan’s rise to a warring power, this letter of his is useful in illustrating just what I *don’t* expect from anyone moving through the public school system today.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I am not at all sure of the thoughts I present below,
    having not entirely “worked them out” yet, but they sound good at the moment to
    me, so I am curious (honestly) about whether they seem right or not.

    I want to say (dreading the charge of “elitest” that it
    might provoke) that not everyone is college material. I tutor math and it seems
    to me that some students simply do not have the ability to grasp or think in
    the manner that “higher math” requires. I frankly have to often agree with
    their typical exasperated plea of “what will I EVER use this for?” – not
    because I think they have the wisdom to make that sort of judgment at that
    point in their lives, but simply because I recognize that the math texts (I
    hate nearly every one I’ve seen) are so lopsidedly oriented to the mindset of a
    “natural” math-major and the abstract thinking processes required, that it is
    unrealistic to think that the non-math-major can get much out of them, useful
    or not.

    But ironically, this makes me think that Anthony Esolen’s
    criticisms of the literary aspect of CC and his proposed method of teaching
    literature really IS the most “egalitarian” method of teaching the mass of
    students who must, according to our modern thought, be taught to think and “fit
    in” with what society expects of them.

    For the things that CC apparently wants to codify in literature are,
    valuable or not, exactly the sorts of things that, like the math curriculum in
    CC, not everyone can “get” or think in that manner.

    On the other hand, reading for the purpose, as
    Mr. Esolen says, “that our first response to them should be one of wonder and
    gratitude” is precisely the sort of thing that anyone, intellectual or not, can
    appreciate and develop an enjoyment for. For those inclined in the literary
    direction, they can go to wonderful heights with that background, but even for
    those not inclined in that direction, the value of focusing on (again as the
    author says) “the beauty and truth and goodness that good art reveals”, will
    have ramifications and value in all areas of their lives regardless of what “profession”
    or area they choose to work in.

    • Tony

      Stanley — Yes, I believe you are right. It does require a certain kind of mind to take to the abstract beauties of mathematics. It only requires humanity to take to music (which is what poetry is) and good human stories. That is why math, in the early years, should be taught as simply and straightforwardly as possible, making full use of the strength of the memory (which everybody has), and allowing the explanations to be natural and easy, and CONSEQUENT upon learning the ordinary operations.
      Much can be done, by the way, with shapes …. Ol’ Euclid, if he’s dusted off the shelf, might well help an enormous number of students “see” the algebra they never will conceptualize with x’s and y’s. And Euclid is beautiful, too — not like the horrible crime scenes that the CC devises.

      • Tony

        For example: a couple of weeks ago, just chatting before class with some students, I showed them — in about thirty seconds — why (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2, by drawing the squares and the rectangles. They SAW it, and their eyes lit up. Nobody had ever shown them that before. That’s because Euclid has been dumped. But can you imagine how darned much FUN it might be to learn how to construct a five-pointed star, without any measuring tool — only a straightedge and a compass, for drawing straight lines and circles — and then to have somebody explain why it works? But there it is again — in the old days, you were taught HOW to make geometrical constructions, and the understanding followed upon that. Now they ditch the constructions altogether, and teach kids math as if it were a division of pure reason. Not much fun — and not one teacher in a hundred could pull it off, anyway.

        • Mystified

          Where do you find these ignoramuses? Perhaps they slept through class? Or perhaps they are being polite when you attempt to show them very basic math concepts? Or perhaps you see what you want to see when you think their eyes light up (perception is strongly influenced by emotion)? All my students (in public school!) get to play with manipulatives AND with multiple online tools that allow them to play with shapes and graphs in a way that demonstrates all math concepts. And ditching constructions? Where? Constructions remain an essential part of every geometry class I’ve ever taught or seen taught. You are misrepresenting what really goes on in public schools.

          • Tony

            Excuse me, but constructions of what? Regular pentagons? Really? These “ignoramuses” are Honors freshmen at my college with extremely high test scores, for whatever that is worth.
            You are suggesting that I misinterpret what my students tell me. They say, “No one ever explained that to us.” They say, “I have never seen that before.” They say, “We never read anything by the person you have just named” — Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Chaucer (!), Virgil, Donne, Coleridge, Wordsworth …

            I don’t think highly of on-line graphs and so forth. It’s different when you have to draw a shape yourself, or you watch somebody else draw it in front of you, and hear them talk about it. And when I say that Euclid has been ditched, I mean that nobody spends four or five months going through the Elements up to at the very least the Pythagorean theorem. Only one student in all my years of demonstrating these things has ever told me that he saw the proof that Euclid gives, that does not depend upon numbers. That’s one out of hundreds.

            I say all the time that there are only two things wrong with our schools (the private schools, most of them, as well as the public schools): everything that kids don’t learn there, and everything that they do.

  • Faustina11

    Beautiful. Dr Esolen has very fortunate students. And children, too, I hope.

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  • http://rexcrouch.com/ Rex Crouch

    For those who may not know- Common Core also changes what the Constitution says in the text books and removes cursive writing from the curriculum. This does two things: 1- It prevents students from vetting their text books against the original Constitution as written and 2- It disassociates young people from their family history as all of your cards and letters from grandparents and historical documents were in cursive.

    • Jake Arvey

      I like your satire on critics of CC!

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  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    To bad the articles on the New Homophiles garner more attention and discussion -but, then, then, that’s the age bequeathed to us, or is of our making.

    Regarding their concerns, a serious dip into Shakespeare or Dante would answer most of them.

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  • Amazed by You

    Dear Professor Esolen,

    I sincerely want to thank you for this venal, specious, pseudo-intellectual diatribe laced with pompous literary pieties and reactionary, traditionalist romanticism that harkens back to a bygone era that never was. Peddling ignorance under the guise of literary protectionism has a long and storied history on our planet, and Christians remain among its most adept and veteran practitioners. As the entitled recipient of a privileged education in a society increasingly riven by a widening socioeconomic chasm between the impoverish and uneducated and the morally corrupted scions of inherited superwealth, I salute you for not only entirely misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Common Core and its intentions, but I can only hope that your ultimate project—deceiving the masses into the embrace of nonsense—achieves its ultimate realization: swarming hordes of mindless, low-information, zombie-like souls overrunning every institution of stability, security, democracy, and prosperity in this country in the quixotic pursuit of hallucinatory ideologies that entirely subvert their own self-interest. Clearly, you are a man who embodies and acts upon his own cherished values and advice, given that you have fundamentally failed to understand a basic informational text (the Common Core State Standards), and yet still feel qualified to call for its dismantling with vague, sham-poetic gobbledygook. I can only hope and *pray* that our country’s youth follow your illustrious example of opining on things they do not understand, and that our systems of universal public education swap out truly useful standards, such as “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking,” for your own suggested brand of academic expectations: “receive them as gifts on their own terms and enter into them with gratitude,” “maybe learn something about ourselves in the process,”or “read good and great books with them and for them, with imagination and love.”

    In profound admiration, I hope you receive this gift on your own terms, enter into it with gratitude, maybe learn something about yourself in the process, and read with it and for it, with imagination and love.

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  • Jake Arvey

    Common Core does not exclude all the higher things that education can entail. It specifically addresses math and language standards. It does not say that music, art, philosophy, poetry, and other things that elevate the life of the mind are to be avoided, or that these things are expected to be replaced by curricula that Common Core standards would entail. Even in the medieval conception of humanitas, students were expected to master things that required hard work and acquisition of technique…grammar, rhetoric, logic, then the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The Common Core standards are not an either/or proposition, and I would be surprised if those who worked on developing the standards would agree with your characterization of their motives as favoring the acquisition of technique merely for its own sake.

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  • MBM321

    I wouldn’t compare reading for pleasure to reading in school, whether the school uses common core or not. Studying a novel in school is having a book chosen for you, not to be immersed in that world, but to study it, pick it apart, and be tested on it. That was true long before common core was even a concept. (Although, I loved the article and agree, reading for pleasure is important.)

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