Politics & Policy

Common Core Is Stupid, Says Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Duplessis, c. 1785
Central planning works no better in education than in economics.

This week, Obama nominee John King Jr. was confirmed as the new education secretary. The confirmation vote was 49 to 40, with seven Republicans in favor and one Democrat opposed. The Democrat was Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. As it happens, Mr. King’s last job was in New York, as the state commissioner of education. That’s why Mrs. Gillibrand voted against him — “King’s tenure in New York,” she said, “was very adversarial, leaving families, students, and teachers without a voice on important issues.”

The issues to which she refers are those surrounding the Common Core curriculum. King’s support of Common Core irritated not only Senator Gillibrand, but the leftist Network for Public Education, the New York State United Teachers union, and a gaggle of Republican congressmen — one of whom said that King’s unbending support for the Common Core curriculum had “resulted in the near-destruction of public education in New York State.”

Centrally planned education is a stupid idea, because it relies on the good judgment of the central planners. In New York, that meant Mr. King got to force teachers to test students on Common Core material they had not yet been taught. At other points in American history, relying on the judgment of central planners meant that teaching evolution was illegal, or — according to a bill passed by Indiana’s House of Representatives in 1897 — that the value of pi was 3.2. (And those were only on the state level.)

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The stupidity of central education-planning is not a new discovery. I’ve been on an American Indian kick lately, exploring the red branches of my family tree, and in reading some “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America” by Benjamin Franklin, I happened to stumble on a damning condemnation of Common Core.

(To those who may have been hurt by Franklin’s use of the word “savages,” he explains, “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility. They think the same of theirs.”)

In 1744, Franklin relates, the Colony of Virginia and the Six Iroquois Nations signed the Treaty of Lancaster, settling their territorial disputes in the Ohio River Valley. After the treaty was signed, there was a lot of goodwill between the Virginians and the Iroquois, and in that spirit, the Virginians decided they would sponsor Iroquois scholarships to Williamsburg College. As Franklin tells it, the Virginians proposed that “if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their sons to that college, the government would take care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the learning of the white people.”

#share#He continues, “It is one of the Indian rules of politeness not to answer a public proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating is as a light matter, and that they show it respect by taking time to consider it, as of a matter important. They therefore deferred their answer till the day following; when their speaker began by expressing their deep sense of the kindness of the Virginia Government in making them that offer, for we know, says he, that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those colleges, and that the maintenance of our young men while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced therefore that you mean to do us good by your proposal, and we thank you heartily.

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“But you who are wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things, and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it: Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences, but when they came back to us they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.

“We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer though we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.”

#related#Different men need to know different things, say the Iroquois, and Benjamin Franklin. Different parents want their children taught differently. How would the Iroquois decline this sort of offer from a post-colonial government?

They might say something like, “We appreciate your offering to teach our sons to express their feelings, to play without keeping score, to reject the vices of masculinity, to demand lifelong coddling, and to feel guilt for the sins of their fathers — but we would prefer they learn facts and figures, and how to read, write, and do arithmetic.”

And that’s the argument against Common Core.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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