Saving the Uncommon Core of Catholic Education

As Catholic institutions have come under unprecedented pressure from government to trim their religious and social mission, it seems incredible that Catholic educators would consider voluntarily placing their schools under an onerous federal yoke.  But that incongruous prospect may be nearing reality as over one hundred Catholic dioceses have signed onto the Common Core Standards Initiative (CC).

There is no mistaking what the Common Core is all about.  Developed by handpicked, federally funded nonprofits and two national associations of state executives, the Common Core is an attempt by a subset of education “experts” to write k-12 standards and, ultimately, dictate curricula that will foster a uniform educational experience in the United States. The justification for this nationalization, according to CCSI advocates, is to create a generation of college- and career-ready students who can compete in a global economy.

The Obama Administration, naturally enough, is deeply enamored of the idea of removing local authority over classroom content and shifting it to centralized bureaucracies, much as it has done with the U.S. economy and health care. Equally naturally, some politically connected big businesses champion the Common Core, eyeing the practical benefits of gearing the nation’s classrooms to be trade schools for their vision of the world’s future workforce.

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And at bottom, the Common Core embraces essentially a trade-school mentality.  Even in English class—where the heart of humanist education should beat most strongly—the curriculum is to be redesigned to offer less classic literature and more nonfiction “informational texts.” After all, if a student is unlikely to encounter Paradise Lost in his future job, why waste time on it now? Better to focus on the technical manuals or government documents that he might grapple with in the corporate world.

Common Core Validation Committee member Sandra Stotsky, perhaps the nation’s premier expert on English language arts (ELA) standards, refused to sign off on the Common Core standards because they “weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” And the math standards are similarly deficient. Stanford mathematics professor James Milgram concluded that it is “almost a joke to think students [who master the Common Core] would be ready for math at a university.”

Why Catholic schools, which have a centuries-old vision of the purpose of education, and a track record only the most elite secular institutions can match, should embrace this olive-drab doctrine of uniformity and utilitarianism is not at all clear. In what way is this mindset compatible with Catholicism, and certainly with Catholic education? The great Catholic educator and scholar John Henry Newman, author of the visionary book The Idea of a University, believed that education must be directed at the whole person, not toward forming students for predetermined professional slots.  Education, he wrote, trains “the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth and to grasp it.”

Newman’s vision for the university is still what Catholic and other parents (who will be the forgotten partners in the era of the Common Core) desire for their children when they make extraordinary sacrifices to provide this alternative. They desire excellence in education, but they see that excellence as part and parcel of personal excellence and moral character. They see these qualities not as adjuncts of discrete subject matter, but as an uncommon core animating every field of study from English to social studies to mathematics to religion.

Why trade these hallmarks of Catholic education for a mess of federal and special interest pottage?

The Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative has created a PowerPoint presentation (which can be found on the National Catholic Education Association website) that attempts to answer this question. The presentation claims that adoption of the CCSI will only mean grafting Catholic values onto a shared and presumably more rigorous set of benchmarks. But it is simply not possible to reconcile true Catholic education with the Common Core.  A grafted branch cannot survive without a sound root, and the Common Core root is withered at best.

Dr. Anthony Esolen, editor of Magnificat and English professor at Providence College, had this to say about the Common Core:

[W]hat appalls me most about the standards … is the cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. It is a sheer ignorance of the life of the imagination. We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.

Frankly, I do not wish to be governed by people whose minds and hearts have been stunted by a strictly utilitarian miseducation…. Do not train them to become apparatchiks in a vast political and economic system, but raise them to be human beings, honoring what is good and right, cherishing what is beautiful, and pledging themselves to their families, their communities, their churches, and their country.

The Common Core does not aim to form individuals in this sense.  Indeed, it does not acknowledge this goal as even a purpose, much less the purpose, of education.

In contrast, classical Catholic education inspires children, through the eternal truths, to become the people God intended them to be.  That mission is consistent with the American tradition of education of forming individuals capable of fully exercising their liberties and who, if the spirit should call them, are prepared to enter the public square as citizen-leaders.

Now, more than ever, is the time to embrace classical Catholic education and shun secular fads like the Common Core.


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