Common Core Education vs. Classical Education: A Thomistic Approach


Objection 1. It would seem that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is not contrary to classical education. For, as the classical education movement is aimed at broad-based learning, Common Core education provides standards that are broadly applied across the country to prepare students with twenty-first century skills to collaborate and compete in the global economy.

Objection 2. Further, as classical education concerns itself with the best that has been thought and said in Western Civilization, Common Core education follows in the same manner by employing the best information and communication of Modern Civilization, enabling collaboration between states on a range of structures and policies, including the development of new textbooks, cutting-edge digital media, and other modern teaching materials aligned to high quality standards.

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Objection 3. Further, as classical education is considered education that is for all, the Common Core education develops and implements comprehensive systems to meet the common needs of all, together with assessment systems to measure student performance, ensuring that all students are equally provided with a program of clear expectations designed to meet the requirements of colleges and careers.

Objection 4. Further, educational analysts and experts agree that the American education system is failing; and while the classical education movement applies tradition-based solutions, the Common Core also applies innovative solutions through the implementation of a direct approach to solve the problem of education, leveling the playing field for students with standardized measurement criteria and providing materials and systems that instill critical thinking skills.

Objection 5. Further, as classical education is for the sake of human excellence, and the objectives of the Common Core are also for the sake of human excellence, it seems that Common Core education is not contrary to classical education.

On the contrary, G. K. Chesterton states, “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions.” Therefore, as Common Core education is concerned with what is learned, guided by measurable standards, and classical education is concerned with the art of learning, guided by standards that cannot be measured, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is contrary to classical education.

I answer that, The idea of classical education is contrary to the idea that presupposes that, on its own, the intellect cannot be educated. The mind can be filled with information, but as Plato says, without experience and wonder, there can be no knowledge or wisdom. For the intellect is dependent on the experience of direct or indirect objects of sense and emotion. As the Philosopher says, nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses. Sensory and emotional experiences have a cognitive value that is rooted in the truth of things and, hence, in understanding. Classical education revolves around unprejudiced, unstructured, interpersonal considerations of those realities, works, and ideas that are eternal—experiencing them purely on their own merits, without outlines or textbooks. Classical education arises from conversation, not from commentaries. The scientific method is a way of registering means—of thinking about things in terms of their utility or their action. Education that is systematized, however, is for the sake of some arbitrary measurable end, not for spontaneous human interaction and experience. Classical education is not a method—it is an art; and art, as Cardinal Newman says, is not science. Teaching according to a classical method is antithetical to programs because the teacher must be an irreplaceable component, not dependent on or limited by systems or structures. Classical teaching and learning are free from predetermined utilitarian ends, considering those things that can be known and enjoyed in and of themselves and for their own sake. Such things are the best things—things that are good, true, and beautiful.

Reply to Objection 1. Classical education is broad-based education, meaning it addresses a broad base of subjects rather than a broad base of students. The aim of classical education is to form the whole person according to timeless, intrinsic values, rather than train a whole people to conform to a contemporary set of uniform standards. Thus, classical education responds to the universal truths of man rather than to the specific particulars of the multitude. The Common Core shrinks learning into a one-size-fits-all centralized set of information designed to achieve success by narrowing the focus of human learning to basic facts for measurable recall. This requires a reduction of the human person to an empirical calculus and ends in a lowest-common-denominator paradigm.  Contrarily, classical education lifts the minds of all students to the highest aspirations of man, encompassing a student’s capacity for imaginative and emotional appreciation of reality, as well as for analytic and scientific habits of mind, toward the formation of character.

Reply to Objection 2. Classical education, as its name intimates, is focused on the classics: i.e., those works that have endured throughout the ages and evoke the eternal, transcendental truths of the world and the human condition. It is, therefore, concerned with looking back rather than looking forward, so that students may draw from the wisdom of the ages and apply immutable realities to their own lives and perspectives. It is through the old that the new is judged, and therefore classical education provides an encounter with traditional views in order that the developments of the day may be properly assessed and harnessed. For the ancients, the end of action was the conformance of the soul to reality for the sake of wisdom. For the moderns, the end of action is the conformance of reality to the soul by means of technique. Excesses of technique have been seen, however, to dull the desire to experience through the distance they create from reality, and thereby dull the ability to learn according to a classical mode.

Reply to Objection 3. Classical education focuses on what all people should know as knowers—the truth. It assumes a Christian anthropology that includes treatment of the human person as an image of God in possession of appetites, intellect, imagination, and will; and thus cultivates wonder as the root of inquiry. The Common Core defines people as “change agents,” cut off from divine and moral agency and reduced to a set of numbers. The modern curriculum subordinates the higher inclinations of man to the acquisition of knowledge that is purely functional and utilitarian to meet servile ends, preparing students for a very limited scope of activity. Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas upheld the contemplation of truth for its own sake as one of the highest pursuits of man, which is the end of classical education. This philosophical perspective goes beyond mere knowledge and rises above the accumulation of facts to a general framework that allows for the interconnectedness of all things understood in their proper relation to one another. This was considered by the ancients to be the special mark of a liberal education and prepares a student to live a full and good life.

Reply to Objection 4. The educational reform required in the country would best be accomplished by returning to the original sources of wisdom and culture. The Common Core system focuses on innovation and new methodologies. A surer strategy would be a restoration of those traditional approaches that are the foundation of Western Civilization. Classical education centers on these works and ideas, and holds that the process of learning is an experience to be had, not a problem to be solved. Unlike the Common Core approach, classical education is not critical—it is accepting. Post-modernity has inherited a Cartesian scientism that posits that following a mathematical protocol will produce the truth in every subject; but this does not conform to classical education, which includes in its scope the mysteries witnessed through imagination, emotion, and wonder—mysteries which defy measurement.

Reply to Objection 5. Classical education ascends to excellence in cultivating the virtues, leading towards self-knowledge and a knowledge of reality that comprehends the proper order of all things. To know the whole truth of things and to think well for the sake of living well is the excellence classical education strives for: to gain self-rule and the habit of virtue. Common Core education, on the contrary, considers man’s excellence to consist of means: to work rigorously for the sake of living well—to gain self-sufficiency and the marks of worldly success. The current concept of worldly success is for the sake of economic excellence, while classical education’s end is for the sake of human excellence.


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