public education

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic, Part II

“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.

. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”


In Part I of my comparison between C.S. Lewis critique of 1940’s British educational reformers and the modern Common Core logic, I discussed the areas in which we would possibly disagree. Now I strike on the overarch philosophy on which I believe we agree.

Lewis was fighting against a beast which is mostly foreign to us today. While some of his ideas sound more in favor of something like a Common Core standard, I would argue that his underlying assumptions were totally opposed to it and his expressed ideal circumstances were a call for a middle ground between a logical foundation and a passionate pursuit.

We should start by noting the four cultural ideals involved in our conversation. They are Lewis educational ideals, the reforming ideas of the 1940’s, the current ideas of the Common Core reform, and my own perspective.

1. Lewis is old school. While he highly values the emotions involved in enjoying literature, he starts (in all things) with logical undergirdings. From true understand appreciation can grow. He says that even when a student dislikes the material, we have “at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it.”

2. The period reformers were attempting to shift to test students on their capability to appreciate rather than comprehend the materials at hand, and to do so by judging them on localized standards with educator peer reviews. Their goal was to give educators the freedom to make attempts revealing what the Norwood Report called the “sensitive and elusive thing” in appreciating literature instead of testing the “coarse fringe” that is testing for detailed comprehension. “The teacher’s success can be gauged by himself or by one of his immediate colleagues who knows him well.”

Lewis stands against both educating for appreciation and in-house assessments. He believes that students would be more hindered by trying to sound appreciative of the works for test performance than they would be by having to evaluate the actual materials for answers. He also questions whether anyone can learn the materials for their own merit if the testing is based on the professor’s interpretations of the material rather than its content. You have to agree with the professor’s preferences to do well.

3. “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” If you read this mission statement the wrong way it might sound like nationalist propaganda. We will tell the teachers and parents what to say. The students will be proud to make their nation great.

Common Core is based on a couple of nearly-standard American cultural premises. The first I would describe as a fast food standardization. You can get the exact same Big Mac at any McDonalds across the globe, and our industrial society sees this as a golden rule for progress, including within our education system. Leave a 5th grade class in small town Connecticut on Monday, pick up where your left the standard text in a classroom in San Francisco on Tuesday. Everyone should learn the exact same things at the same age, and this is automatically good for them. To personalize the system is to devote too many resources.

The second problematic idea behind modern education theory is that simple, blue collar work is less valuable than jobs requiring higher level expertise. Obviously, from a monetary perspective, many positions requiring an education pay better, but often a trade school education or specialized machinist skills can pay just as well with much less irrelevant education involved. We live in a culture that looks down on less intellectually charming roles. We have outsourced our manufacturing because we believe that we have transcended the lowly skills involved in creating our own things. Most people used to spend their time growing food, but now the idea of farming tends to conjure up images from The Grapes Of Wrath.

Common Core functions based upon the faulty cultural presuppositions that everyone needs to know everything equally and that higher education is automatically valuable to everyone. It is partially spurred on by similar hopes to those of the old educators who wanted people to really be engaged by and in love with what they were learning, but it also refuses to believe that a basically educated and simply enjoyed life is actually valid. “Ignorance is bliss” becomes not simply an unwise axiom, but a moral heresy.

4. Lastly, I come to my own ideas. I do not wish to lay a claim as an authority on education. I have had a handful of very illuminating conversations with educators and educational theorists, but those don’t hold much weight. What I have had is the pleasure of knowing and truly enjoy a lot individuals of all passions and education levels; the opportunity to see so many diverse people learning to explore their own giftings and interests makes the idea of an extreme and mechanical standardization of education a dystopian prospect. Education should pour out of relationships. Relationship most importantly of student to materials, and secondary of student to instructor.

All four perspectives hold in common, as some level, some authentic desire for people to learn and to utilize and enjoy what they learn. There is no contradiction in that aspect of their goals, it is in execution where the distinctions become radical.

The old reformers push for a common modernist idea of focusing on interpretation almost to the exclusion of the source material. Their desire is overtly to pursue interest and response over basic understanding. The Common Core logic takes this idea and requires it of everyone. Every student must be equally interested in and capable of all things. Not only can we enforce interest, but we can standardize it.

Here we finally come to the points on which to take Lewis very seriously. Lewis proposes that we simply give the students the most basic materials and make sure that they are comprehending what they are given, then allow them to determine their own interest level beyond that point of understanding.

Lewis’ perspective on educating is like throwing seeds of knowledge and waiting to see what sprouts up when they find ample mental sustenance. Who are we to force things to grow were they are not wanted or sustained? Everyone benefits from being able to multiply, but is geometry valuable to all? I believe that passionate teachers (something Lewis seems to assume regardless) who can foster their interests should be the second goal.

The truth is that we should become as comfortable as Lewis seems to be with relequishing control and allowing a student to shun what we hold sacred. If the son of two Master’s degree parents wants to be a farmer, who should hold him back from it? If the daughter of a poor miner wants to become a neurosurgeon, who can hold her back?

Our system has made some great headway in making education available to all via public libraries and public schooling. We should continue to pursue greater excellence in these. But the innate desire to learn is often too valuable and fragile a thing to withstand years of training on arbitrary information. Great opportunities should always be available, but idealists shouldn’t be horrified when students don’t share their passions and industrialists shouldn’t be dismayed when students don’t desire their level of personal productivity.