Common Core: Twenty-First Century Peonage

A young man and woman arrive at the office of the town clerk to procure a marriage license. They’re all smiles, until the secretary hands them a document to sign, wherein they read this remarkable sentence: “The State, conceding to the parents the making of their children’s bodies, asserts its primacy in the making of their minds.”

So bald a proclamation of totalitarian power might cost the party that made it a percentage point or two at the polls. Thus, it will never actually grace a marriage license. Yet there is no need to make that proclamation when the arrogation of that power is an accomplished fact. An underling who does not realize his subservient position is more tractable than one who does.

I’ve lately been involved in the fight against the latest move to nationalize public education, this one called the Common Core. It is a bag of rotten old ideas doused with disinfectant; its assumptions are hostile to classical and Christian approaches to education; it is starkly utilitarian; its self-promotion is sludged up with edu-lingo, thick with verbiage and thin in thought; its drafters have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is to be a child.

But my point here is not that the Common Core is dreadful. It is this: that there should even be a Common Core proves how far we have fallen into peonage to the State.

I have said many hard things about the poor preparation of many of our public school teachers, about English teachers who do not know grammar and who cannot write, about history teachers who settle down into current events, requiring no broad reading or knowledge, about math teachers who have no facility with numbers, and about foreign language teachers who hold their students in bonds for four years and yet do not manage to teach them how to read a newspaper, much less Don Quixote or Les Miserables. 

In a farming village or a small town in 1889—I am choosing the year advisedly—the most learned person in the congregation on a Sunday was the parson, and the second most, the lawyer, the doctor, or the schoolteacher. That is no longer the case.

Critics of the public schools since James Koerner’s The Miseducation of American Teachers (1963) have noticed that the willingness to submit oneself to an empty bachelor’s degree in education is nearly a negative intelligence test. The best students do not put up with it. It is why private schools succeed best when they hire teachers from outside the accrediting apparatus of the state. A private school can hire me to teach poetry to seniors, as I have been teaching poetry for almost three decades to their slightly older siblings in college. A public school cannot.

Yet long before the advent of departments of education, the Christian progressive William Chauncy Langdon, defending the family against the encroachment of the state, wrote in The Century (November 1889) that education “is not, certainly in its earlier stages, any part of the immediate responsibility of the political community,” for the totalitarian “Sparta presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” That is because “real education is the development of distinct personalities,” and therefore cannot “be effected by contract or in the aggregate.”

Whoever actually imparts the education, said Langdon, even if it is, partially, the State, “can be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.” The family delegates some of its educational task to the schoolteacher, who is, as it were, a general governess or tutor hired by the parents through the intermediary of the town or county. The school is a deputy of the family, or, in the case of the death or debility of the parents, a substitute. It has no authority of its own apart from what the employers, the parents, delegate to it.

Let’s pause to think about that. A rich man hires a tutor to instruct his son in arts and letters. The father has the classics in mind; he wants his son to read Virgil, to converse with Matthew Arnold, and to sit at the feet of Pascal and Kierkegaard. But the tutor has other things in mind. He has the boy read Toni Morrison, “graphic novels,” and op-ed pieces from contemporary newspapers. That shine you see on the seat of the tutor’s trousers has been imparted, successively, by the father’s boot and the three concrete stairs down which the worthy teacher bounced on his way out of the manor.

Now why should parents who are not so wealthy not exercise, in common, the same authority? Especially now, when the teachers are, as a group, no great beacons of either intellectual or moral virtue?

Yet the promoters of the Common Core do not consider that the parents are their employers. The parents have had and are to have nothing to say about it. They are “good” if they submit, and “problematic” if they don’t. No one has asked them their opinions about a decent education. No one ever does. Imagine if the leaders of our public schools were to say, “We will no longer be instructing your children in sex.” A few parents would complain, mainly on account of other and (supposedly) irresponsible people, but in the main we would hear great sighs of relief. Imagine if the same principals were to say,

We will assign readings to your children based upon high literary merit, proved by the test of time. We will cease our mercurial experimentation upon your children. We will depend upon things that have worked for generations, across many cultures. We will teach geography again. We will teach grammar again. We will teach history, not current events. We will keep partisan politics out of the building. We will cease our hostilities against all things religious. We will abjure the foolish pride that led us to believe that we were the progenitors of a new world or a new nation or a new anything. We are your delegates, and we welcome your direction.

Parents might well glance to the skies to see whether the sun had darkened and the moon turned as red as blood, with hosts of angels descending to herald the world’s last day.

It would be unfair, though, to suppose that all teachers welcome the Common Core. There are brush fires kindling all over the country in opposition to the edicts from above. I assume that good teachers—and there are many good teachers scattered across the plains—are wise enough to know who they are and who they are not. Such teachers are likely not to tailor their instruction to meet the demands of a standardized test. They don’t want their textbooks dictated to them by the state. They don’t want to reduce history to current events. They don’t want to replace Milton with Miley Cyrus, or Homer with The Hunger Games.

These teachers too have been bypassed. No one has asked their opinions about the Common Core, either. They can protest all they want about grindingly dull methods of instruction—for example, teaching “text” divorced from all human considerations, so that students look at the Gettysburg Address but are not supposed to think either of the Civil War or of any memorial celebration. They can protest all they want about intrusive “assessments” that have involved, in some schools, not just the standardized exam, but cameras and recorders. Welcome to the land of the peons, o teachers. Know that your erstwhile employers, the parents, were here before you.

I can sum it up this way. Any land in which parents, singly or in groups, do not have first and last authority over what and how their children learn is not free. The fact that we might countenance national authority over the mind of a child shows our abjection. It is as if we were to accept educational instructions from managers in Brussels, or from a federation of experts hailing from Alpha Centauri, and then were to comfort ourselves with the assurance that we were still free, because we could exercise one vote in a hundred million, or three billion, or seventeen trillion, or whatever number you like that reduces our actual influence to that of a speck of dust on an anvil, a proton against a planet, or one parent’s cry against the massive deafness of money, power, and arrogance.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 6, 2013 on Public Discourse, the web journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Jo Joyce

    This was delicious to read! I’m so glad such intelligence is fighting a battle with me! ( If you aren’t fighting this in your state, please do!

  • Steven Jonathan

    Excellent Dr.Esolen, and sadly true.
    Its drafters have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it means to be a human. It is as bad as you say and today the teacher aggressively undermines the work of good families. Talk to parents and you will see that war on family is thriving. The CCSS is merely groundwork for the global curriculum, the ultimately slavery called freedom, until we really do navigate the stars, then the sky is the limit.

    • Adam__Baum

      “Its drafters have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it means to be a human.”

      All that’s necessary to complete their vision of Alpha, Betas, Gammas, etc is non-corporeal gestation. There people that insist on using Huxley and Orwell as blueprints, not warnings.

  • “A

    young man and woman arrive at the office of the town clerk to procure a marriage license. They’re all smiles, until the secretary hands them a document to sign, wherein they read this remarkable sentence: “The State, conceding to the parents the making of their children’s bodies, asserts its primacy in the making of their minds.””

    40 years worth of phonics and other bad educational theories, has rendered that remarkable sentence nearly meaningless.

    20 more years of common core, and the politician adding such a sentence to the marriage contract will escape entirely unharmed- because nobody reading it will know what it means.

    I for one, think that’s the real purpose behind common core- to give society over to the lawyers, who write contracts that cannot be understood.

  • hombre111

    A thoughtful article, as usual. The discussions about Common Core in Crisis have caused me to think hard about the subject, but I still have not made up my mind. My conservative state accepted the idea and has begun to implement some of its requirements. Don’t know what effect it will have. But what has already had a deep effect is the abysmally low priority given to education by our legislature, and our rube state’s traditionally low regard for teachers.

    • slainte

      “…But what has already had a deep effect is the abysmally low priority given to education by our legislature,…”
      The PARENTS, NOT THE LEGISLATURE, must prioritze education and significantly minimize, if not discontinue, all imput from legislatures.
      Our knee jerk tendency to refer all matters to the Federal, State and/or Muniipal Legislatures is what has caused this mess in the first place.
      Parents cannot and must not delegate their parental duty for their children’s education and.or well being to the state.

    • musicacre

      Two wrongs never make a right. Teachers not being appreciated is a completely different issue! My sister teaches in a Catholic school in Canada, and after many decades, is definitely not appreciated. But when a program is rotten, one must acknowledge it stinks! For the sake of the children. After all that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

    • Adam__Baum

      “our rube state’s”

      Can you just once try to post something relevant, coherent and without the obligatory gratuitous drivel from MSNBC?

    • My first effect, which all the people here assured me WOULD NOT AND COULD NOT HAPPEN to the point of accusing me of lying about my son, happened. I got my first Common Core report card from Beaverton Public Schools. As expected, my special needs son on IEP got the equivalent of a failing grade across the board: EVERY score was 1-.

      So much for it not happening.

  • Jonathan Allen

    I think the architects of Common Core know exactly who their employers are: the State, first, and, well, employers, second. I’ve noticed lately that the rhetoric on education doesn’t even try to sound egalitarian or make any nods to the humanities or human self-improvement through education. Instead, the rhetoric itself, reflecting the reality underlying it, emphasizes the purely utilitarian, and narrowly utilitarian at that, basis of education. Schools, primary, secondary, and post-secondary, are meant to turn out compliant employees with the set of skills- and nothing extraneous- demanded by employers now. Not coincidentally, such a scheme will also result in yet more compliant citizens. Everybody wins- everybody that “matters,” that is. Students themselves, their families, and educators who care about more than narrow utilitarian concerns, don’t count at all in these equations. Granted, none of this is especially new- education has long been a tool of compliance, and public education was integral for the creation of modern capitalism and the nation-state. But at least in the past other things remained; a concern for the humanities, a liberal sense that all people should participate in the good things of culture. Now that is largely gone, even the rhetoric replaced, stark, brutal, but, at least, honest.

    • musicacre

      When you think about it, the popes issued urgent letters to the new American country, way back when, warning Catholic parents not to participate in the new school model which allowed boys and girls to share the same bench at school. These were written in the 1800’s…

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  • mary jo anderson

    Chilling sentence :”Any land in which parents, singly or in groups, do not have first and last authority over what and how their children learn is not free.” Excellent article.

  • muscicare

    Thank you for the clarity of thought to help parents think this thing through!! Keep up the good fight! JPII stated clearly many years ago that the final attack of the the devil would be on the family itself. This change from education to raw propaganda and wasted time filler is one of those prongs!

  • slainte

    Prof. Esolen sends the important message that parents must take back the responsibility for the educational well being of their children from secular agenda driven bureaucrats. I would suggest that historically, the Catholic Clergy of New York City would never have tolerated any program which compromised the classic liberal arts education so important to the promotion of the Faith.

    Over at “The American Catholic”, in an article entitled “January 3, 1864: Death of Dagger John”, Donald R. McClarey recently honored a famine era hero of Irish America, the venerable Irish immigrant Archbishop John Hughes, who single handedly, from 1838-mid 1864 in New York City, revitalized the starving and near dead Irish famine victims from a state of utter desolation to dignity.

    He accomplished this remarkable feat through sound Education….

    “….Hughes’s first New York crusade was to get his flock educated, so that they
    could benefit from the new nation’s almost limitless opportunity. He
    passionately believed that the future of the Irish in America depended upon
    education: indeed, he knew it firsthand from his own experience.

    He immediately stirred up a war over the city’s schools, then run by the Public
    School Society. Though the society received state funding, it was essentially a
    private Protestant organization that taught Protestantism and used the
    Protestant Bible. Worse, from Hughes’s point of view, it had pupils read such
    books as “The Irish Heart”, which taught that “the emigration from Ireland to
    America of annually increasing numbers, extremely needy, and in many cases
    drunken and depraved, has become a subject for all our grave and fearful
    reflection.” Hughes (with the support of New York’s 12,000 Jews) wanted an end
    to such sectarian education, and he wanted, above all, state aid for Catholic
    schools, just as the state had funded denominational schools before 1826 (with
    no one dreaming of calling such aid unconstitutional).

    The outcome of the struggle pleased no one: the Maclay Bill of 1842 barred all religious
    instruction from public schools and provided no state money to denominational
    schools. On the night the bill was passed, a nativist mob ransacked Hughes’s
    residence, and the authorities had to call out the militia to protect the city’s
    Catholic churches.

    Having at least partly reformed the public schools to help those Catholic children who attended them, Hughes threw his energies into building a Catholic school system that would educate Catholic children the way he thought they should be educated. No need was more urgent, in his view. He did not believe that a society hostile to the Irish and certain they were incapable of accomplishment would produce schoolteachers and administrators interested in and good at teaching Irish children.

    “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward,” he said. “In our age the question of education is the question of the church.”

    Hughes’s schools emphasized not just the three Rs but also a faith-based code of personal conduct that demanded respect for teachers and fellow students. Parents had to attend meetings with teachers and do repair work and cleaning in the schools. These schools then, as now, produced children capable of functioning in the mainstream of American life. By the end of his tenure, the original boundaries of Hughes’s diocese contained over 100 such schools. Not content to build just primary and secondary schools, he founded or helped to found Fordham University and Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent colleges.”..

    Source, The City-Journal, “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish” by William J. Stern, (1997)

    In an era of extraordinary violence, Archbishop Hughes fought back with every ounce of his being on behalf of his flock and his Catholic faith. In time, he prevailed and won the respect of an entrenched, well financed Know Nothing protestant bureaucracy. Many of us are the descendants of those Irish and priests like Archbishop Hughes.

    Archbishop John Hughes fought for a Catholic educational system that would elevate his flock and thus strengthen the faith. Common Core accomplishes neither. Archbishop Hughes would say NO to Common Core and he would counsel the present resident of the Cathedral he built… Timothy Cardinal Dolan of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral…. that any program that marginalizes a Catholic liberal arts education and the integrity of the Faith is not welcome in the NYC Catholic School system (also built by Absp Hughes).
    Catholic New York must stand against Common Core.

  • John Uebersax

    Solution = voucher system + Catholic schools

    • A Mom

      John, not exactly. The fact is that many archdioceses around the country have signed on to Common Core – and it is now mandatory and being implemented in all of their schools. A fatal mistake.

      • WRBaker

        You’re right – it seems a majority of (arch-)diocesan schools have made the change and not in collaboration with the teachers or the parents, but by diktat. The diocesan education staffs and the principals let it be known that it was this way or the highway to the teachers and told parents that, after all, they know best how to teach students.
        Long gone is the time when the Baltimore Plenary Councils mandated a Catholic education for all Catholic school children. After all, the bishops have all their traveling, (Protestant) cathedral building and special interests to keep them occupied – they leave education to their staffs.
        The Gates’ Foundation money that the NCEA took is paltry when you look at the millions that Cristo Rey Network has taken for a decade. It seems then, that Catholic schools are no different than their public (government) counterparts – money drives the effort and reigns supreme.

        • Tony

          As so often, the bishops look like dopes, because they rely upon the “wisdom” of people entrenched in the chancery and in the parochial schools. I think that the first thing that every newly installed bishop should do is to ask for the resignations of every worker in the chancery and every principal in the diocese, and then go over them all, one by one. If you are going to make enemies, make them all at once and right away.

          • WRBaker

            A good idea and maybe he should do it every 5 years or so, too.
            They might also look at other items, such as, why virtually all principals who are chosen (and the overwhelming majority of teachers) went to a particular Jesuit university? Look, too, at the background (personnel and Catholic) of these principals and education staff – after all, there are many incompetent persons in these levels and there are even more who do not believe in what the Church teaches, yet they can hire and fire teachers (because they all belong to the same “club” and there are no unions to impede their personal biases)?
            Also, look at the various in-services and field trips the schools/staff take. Explain why the enneagram is an in-service and why the Sins the Cry to Heaven for Vengeance (CC #1867) is unknown by clergy leading a related discussion and why taking a field trip to a monastery is not all right.
            These are among the reasons why Common Core seemingly sailed through the NCEA (with the help of Loyola Chicago) and into Catholic schools.

  • cestusdei

    I am constantly amazed at how little children know and this program will make it worse.

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  • Bedarz Iliaci

    That one needs a license to marry from State would be regarded as slavery in some countries. That Esolen does not mind it, shows that one can get used to anything.

    The school teacher is not the same as a private tutor. He is not hired by a parent but either by an entire community of parents or by a private person or institution that is running the school.

    So the parent needs to submit to the judgment of either the entire community (and that makes education to be a political matter) or to the judgment of those running the school (i.e. the experts).

    That education is a community endeavor has been the world-wide practice. That American Christians have to resort to home-schooling merely speaks of the alienation that some American Christians feel. Home-schooling is not an ideal but a necessity in these times.

    Aristotle has written that the rule in a family goes corrupt without rule in the City. Family is not a self-sufficient entity in itself. By nature, families are meant to be embedded in the City. If everybody were to educate their children howsoever they think fit, how would the nation be sustained? Nation requires a commonality.

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  • Lkessler41

    I want to thank Mr. Esolen for picking out garbage writers like Toni Morrison to make his example utterly graphic.

    I had to read several novels of Toni Morrison’s in college, and I couldn’t think of a greater waste of my time than Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula and Tar Baby.

    Talk about perpetuating stereotypes!!!

  • Diddian

    What surprises me is those notable conservatives (at least in the area of Education) who are on board and promoting it: Bill Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Reagan and author of the book, “The Educated Child: A Parent’s Guide from Preschool through 8th Grade,” Chester Finn, Jr. of the Fordham Institute, and E. D. Hirsch, author of the books, “What Your Kindergartener [through Six Grader] Needs to Know, ” (the books about standards ensuring cultural literacy).

    These individuals have all written about the educational failings of pedagogies that have substituted methodology for content (collaborative learning, cooperative learning, student-directed inquiry, etc.). These pedagogies were instituted on the basis that the professional educators from afar pushing them KNEW better than local longtime educators and parents who were presumed less hip to the globalizing world. Yet, those local longtime educators and parents were witnessing firsthand the failures happening with their own students and children as a result of these changes; the students weren’t achieving beyond the levels of past students; they were achieving less and they were increasingly culturally illiterate and unimaginative. Nevertheless, despite the failures and the pushback from those with greater vested interests, the unanswerable Education Blob prevailed.

    Bennett, Finn, and Hirsch might respond that Common Core is a corrective to that earlier error – in that it institutes content, rather than pedagogy -, but the greater problem is that it leaves the failing pedagogy in place while – unless adherence to Common Core is purely voluntary with no federal consequence to choosing not to participate – reinforcing the notion that distant experts know best. That is an anti-education message. After all, if all is to be decided by distant expert elites, then the motivation is to figure out how to become one of those, rather than to become a skillful, knowledgable, autonomously thinking person.