Common Core’s Rotten Core

Despite recent defense rallies by Bill Gates, wars are raging against the embattled Common Core State Standard Initiative, now implemented in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Though criticisms can be leveled at the lack of evidence that the Common Core will lead onward into a brave new world of education, the overarching problem of the initiative is that its strategy is not educational. Standardized, field-leveling information designed for mass consumption with a strict utilitarian agenda is nothing more than a training event, a programming session. Schools are not factories. Education is not indoctrination; it is formation. True education considers and incorporates the role of love in learning and the art of teaching by desire. Extrapolation and examination of real-world facts do not describe a lover’s quest for beauty—and education that fails to capture the heart, fails to educate.

Controversies over education, like any controversy, are the bitter fruits of philosophical divisions that ultimately come down to a deeper division over religion. The war over the Common Core is a war over pedagogical ideas and existential ideas. Though the language of the Common Core may sound reasonable, and even laudable, there is a fundamental error in its approach. No one can deny that it is good to drive students to dig deeper, to question, to seek evidence, and interact with the subject matter. The Common Core, however, strives for these objectives in the name of information-retention, global competitiveness, and analytical thinking geared towards securing a twenty-first century career.  There is more to living than making a living.

In a world of relativism where change is the norm, there is a strong temptation to succumb to the simple, survival principles of everyday life and spurn the search for higher truths, let alone the highest truths. This is not the description of an educated person, but rather of one of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men. As Henry Adams said, “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Human beings were not meant to lead ignorant lives; neither should the facts they learn be lifeless. Facts can and should be enlivened and made lovable by poetry, music, and the imaginative arts—by experience, delight, and wonder. So long as human beings have hearts, those hearts must be taken into account and addressed in the work of education. Any educational model, therefore, should be characterized by a dynamic love: a love and energy for all things good, true, and beautiful. Such love, if it is true love, is focused entirely on the desire for God. And it is by this desire that education—real education—is possible.

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Benedictine monk and theologian, Jean Leclercq, dubbed Pope St. Gregory the Great, patron saint of teachers, the “Doctor of Desire.” This unusual title for a saint and a pope refers to St. Gregory’s philosophy that asceticism was a preparation for the desire for God: a training, or cultivation, of desire. Through prayerful meditation on Sacred Scripture and the good things of heaven and earth, desire for God is sown in the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires the highest thoughts, brings understanding, and enkindles and guides the deepest and most inward longings of the human heart. At the touch of the Holy Spirit, the heart leaps up in yearning for God. St. Gregory speaks of this experience as a conversation between God and man. A colloquy that begins with God’s Word inflaming the desire of the heart; a gentle word that one must wait for and listen for.

There is a passage in the Book of Job that echoes Elijah’s famous experience where he searches for the Lord in a hurricane, in an earthquake, and in a fire, but only finds him in a gentle breeze.  Job reads, “There stood one whose countenance I knew not, an image before my eyes, and I heard the voice, as it were, of a gentle wind” (Job 4:16). In this, this murmur, this hidden word, Gregory hears the opening of a lovers’ dialogue. “This inspiration touches the human mind,” he writes, “and by touching lifts it up and represses temporal thoughts, inflaming it with eternal desires … so that to hear the hidden word is to conceive the speech of the Holy Spirit in the heart.”

The cultivation of desire, or the cultivation of the virtues of the heart, that Gregory speaks of is the very essence of education. Generally speaking, people will only do well if they have a will—a wanting, a desire. Consequently, education that does not engage the heart collapses. True education is an erotic endeavor (from the Greek eros, “desire”)—an attempt to awaken desire and the longing for ultimate consummation.  Since Wisdom is a woman, as she is described in the Book of Proverbs, desire must not only play a part, it must lead the way in guiding youth to their proper fulfillment: love. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”

The teacher who teaches rhetorically or persuasively (per suavis, “through sweetness”) does not begin by awakening a student’s intellect, but rather his desire. Such a teacher introduces a reverence for the object of consideration. Lovers do not strive for cold, scientific control, but for a relationship with the thing itself, alive and strong and mysterious. Such a teacher shares the inexhaustible Source of learning that he has already found, for it is only Christ—He Who dwells in the hearts of men—Who can be truly said to teach. The mode of such an education, originating from the heart, charms students. Lady Wisdom woos. Education is the child of desire, not data. This is where the Common Core fails and will always fail. The appeal to the mind alone teaches students to seek mastery over the truth. To make truth your slave, however, is the very opposite of the truth making you free. The appeal to desire, on the other hand, assumes an ascendency beyond pragmatism, and allows truth to coax and convert knowers rather than surrender itself to servitude.

Real education begins with desire—the desire for goodness, truth, and beauty; and it ends with desire—the desire for God. To a child or even a young adult, the sensible joys are more accessible, more immediate. But the delights sought in such joys lead on to Joy Himself. This is the proper order of education. If a student is not given the opportunity to desire anything good, how will he ever desire the Good? If a young person is not taught how to love beauty, how can he ever be expected to love the Beautiful. If he is never introduced to wisdom, how can he ever become a philosopher, that is, a lover of wisdom? It is in these preliminary desires and loves that One hides Whose countenance is not yet fully known. An image before the eyes. A voice waiting to be heard, a gentle wind—the voice of the Lover of mankind calling to His children through the things of this world to the desire for Him. This, and only this, is the end of education—an end the Common Core neglects because it neglects the core common to every human being: the heart.

One of the Common Core objectives is to prepare students to compete in a global economy. There is no lack of global competition these days. Tensions mount with Russia. The threat of Islam is ever looming. Education is the only way to prepare children to face the world we live in—but not an “education” that produces cogs. What the world needs more than anything are well-formed people—people with hearts, who have learned to love things lovable and despise things despicable. This is the global impact that education should aim for. Much hangs in the balance. In fact, man hangs in the balance. As Catholic educator Dr. John Senior wrote in his book, The Restoration of Christian Culture:

When a nation takes nothing but material success as its measure of value, it is led by the mean mediocrity which has us in its grip, stifling all initiative as we await the more effective aggression of foreign powers motivated by deeper loves and hates, who are willing to sacrifice their comforts and even their lives for what they believe.

Education by desire is the remedy for it leads to love and yields to love. In the immortal words of Virgil, “Love conquers all; let us, too, yield to love,” and only real education can teach the heart—our common core—to love.


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