Entry from April 18, 2014

In the current issue of The New Criterion I write en passant about the "Common Core" curriculum in history which the educational establishment has been so terrifyingly successful in imposing on America’s school-children. Remarkably, there is no body of knowledge attached to the history standards. History, along with "social studies," is itself tellingly subsumed under "English language arts" and is to the authors entirely a matter of analyzing and interpreting "texts." The reason is of course that history is no longer to be regarded as transparent — stories, facts and dates to be learned like the multiplication table or spelling rules. The facts are now thought to be subsidiary to the true story, knowledge of which requires a certain interpretive subtlety on the part of the student. "History" now consists, according to the Common Core, of the skills necessary for the extraction of this hidden truth from the welter of mere facts.

I don’t suppose I need to explain the political import of this hidden truth, but a recent story on NPR’s "Morning Edition" will explain it better than I could anyway. In order to illustrate the Common Core in action, the reporter, Charlotte Albright, took us into a class of 8th graders from Vermont who were being drilled in what she laughably called "close reading" of two texts — one about German science under the Nazis and the other the fable of the blind man and the elephant. From these, the children were expected to draw the simple conclusion that Nazis were Social Darwinists who had misread Darwin. The children were much too young to understand the gross oversimplification of that equation or, indeed, anything but a caricature version of either Social Darwinism or Naziism, but they were all bright enough to see that this newly minted historical fact was the right answer to their teacher’s questions, which they then imagined they had discovered for themselves with the help of her two "texts."

As it happened, a few days later I heard a reporter on another show on my local NPR station solemnly inform his audience that, "In the Victorian period, Social Darwinism reigned supreme." Some children in Vermont, pleased with their new historical knowledge, must have thus discovered that the Victorians were Nazis. They had no way of knowing that the reporter himself knew nothing whatsoever about the Victorian period. Less than nothing, indeed, since the one thing he did know, or thought he knew, was wrong. Yet he, one supposes, is the ideal product of the politicized historical education proposed for all children who fall into the Common Core’s sausage machine. Already, for lots of people, the only thing worth knowing about the Victorians is how they can be slotted into the progressive fable of a centuries’ long process of gradual enlightenment culminating in those master-works of history, Barack Obama and Harry Reid. That’s what history is for, and anything which does not fit — like the rich history of Victorian social and political thought — becomes suddenly unhistorical and irrelevant.

Thinking itself is thus rendered impossible, outside the very narrow channels prepared for it by the politically engineered Common Core. The NPR reporter was talking about what he described as the new academic discipline of "cooperation studies" — no doubt another triumph of progressive education but an utterly nonsensical subject to anyone without that education. Its nonsense is disguised from us, however, by the apparent contrast with that mythical intellectual milieu of Social Darwinism, bequeathed to us by the Nazi Victorians. Just as their education presumably consisted of lessons in how to ensure their own survival by doing down their neighbors, so in these more enlightened times we can look forward to the young ones’ diligent application to the study of cooperation and comity. Even without the Common Core standards to back them up, I’m afraid all too many history teachers will approach their subject in a similar way. Clearly, whoever taught that NPR reporter did.

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