Postmodern Conservative

Libertarian Dissenters vs. Common Core Conscription

So I’ve been criticized by some for blaming libertarian economists for the uncritical faith in technocratic expertise that’s responsible for the various degrading stupidities characteristic of disruptive innovation in education.

I’m thinking that criticism makes a lot of sense. There’s a difference between faith primarily in the market and faith primarily in technique, although the difference may be far from radical or fundamental.

For today, I’m going to highlight the difference by paying homage to the criticisms (here and here) of the Common Core found in the libertarians’ Reason (magazine).

The Common Core, of course, was the product of educationist expertise funded lavishly by the Gates Foundation and semi-forced upon the states through the carrot of national government funding. It sure isn’t a good sign that representatives from our two major parties and our executive branch all deferred to a billionaire philanthropist who knows how to market (and especially corner the market on)  software and so forth and maybe not much else.

Here are some Reasonable observations:

Gates surely sincerely believes that the new national curriculum and rigorous national testing based on its standards will improve American education. It will do what past such efforts — such as No Child Left Behind — failed to do.

Still, “a Windows webpage actually recommends that schools hurry up and buy the latest Windows software in order to enjoy a smoother transition to techno-heavy standardized testing.” Microsoft will make a lot of money from the virtually certain fact that schools will be stuck with Windows 8 (or higher), given that Microsoft has managed to make sure that there’s no comparable product in the marketplace.

It’s always true that “massive, expensive public policy changes . . . carry ramifications for rent-seeking.” The money Microsoft makes won’t flow from the competitive marketplace, but from basically a monopolistic government stimulus package.

In general, the semi-coercive standardized computerization of educational “delivery” and evaluation is “crony capitalism for computer companies.” Silicon Valley in general, and Microsoft in particular, depends more and more on that kind of corporatism, or pseudo-capitalism. And the joy of techno-creativity found in the early days has been displaced by a far more rigorous attention to the monetary bottom line by manipulation of consumers through what can be known about who they are by their online behavior. I’m all for  a hermeneutic of suspicion” when it comes to any centralizing, expert-driven reform flowing from Silicon Valley. Thank you, Reasonable libertarians, for reminding us that we should worry a lot more, say, about Google watching us than about the NSA doing the same.

Here’s the dissident Coalition against the Common Core: Tea Partiers, teachers’ unions, various parents-rights activists, localists, homeschoolers, religious educators, libertarians, and Louis C. K., the philosopher-comedian. They agree that the reform is needlessly intrusive and dependent on “wonky high-stakes tests” based on jargon-driven competencies and impossible to sensibly prepare students for, and that it costs more to implement than it could possibly be worth in improving student learning. “Private”schools won’t really remain unaffected, as all standardized testing is reconfigured with the Common Core in mind. This dissident coalition includes pure libertarians and those deploying libertarian means for their traditional ends.

I’m not about to wander off the libertarian ranch in this homage and defend teachers’ unions, although I’ve already said more than once that we should have selective nostalgia for unions in general. I will say that the high-school teachers I know aren’t against being held accountable; they would be thrilled if some competent and informed authority actually recognized their excellence and offered them helpful criticism. It’s just that their bosses don’t know what they’re doing, and so accountability means living in fear of random willfulness. And they don’t have any more faith in being held genuinely accountable for their job performance through standardized testing generated by what passes for educationist expertise. Accountability, to be real, has to be personal and local. It does exist here and there in American education, but the Common Core, if you think about it, almost guarantees there will be less of it.

The Common Core standards, as I will explain later, could easily be worse. They recognize the importance of content-driven education and of actually being able to do mathematical computation and not just relying on the mysterious outcomes that are the results of inputting data into calculative devices. But they, as I’ve said before, do away with the competency of penmanship, with what’s required to think more clearly by using the selective and whimsical “method” of taking handwritten notes. Handwriting is dispensable if all “writing” is keyboarding.

So all in all, the tendency is to install the computer into all levels of the “classroom experience” as an extension of each student’s physical being. That is a huge mistake, studies show, if we’re really about giving students the joy of thinking for themselves about what they read and hear. For the existential reasons described by Louis C. K., teachers should tell students to leave those screens alone. There are also, of course, the freedom reasons; everyone online is being monitored every moment from Silicon Valley. The less time our kids spend revealing themselves online, the better. Schools should develop habits of self-reliance; they include rediscovering the joyful competency, celebrated by the Beach Boys, of being alone with your thoughts in your room. So the Common Core is most of all a stimulus package for those who want to make as much of our students’ world as virtual or screen-dependent as possible. I’m not saying, of course, that I’ve captured Gates’s or Microsoft’s secret goal or anything like that.

For polemical purposes, I’ll say that our libertarians have noticed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support for the Common Core is also a bad sign. The real goal is to move even further away from education aiming at forming souls and toward producing reliable, “collaborative,” “information-retrieving” (as opposed to wisdom-seeking) cogs in a cyber-machine scripted by our cognitive elite. From that point of view, I understand and applaud the libertarian cry that we need to stop using our kids as “conscripted labor” (trapped in public schools) “for standardized testing companies.”

The concluding libertarian truth, indispensable for those who are about using libertarian means to achieve the non-libertarian end of sustaining and enhancing the moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education from kindergarten through graduate school: “Efforts that empower parents to fix their own local schools will always be more successful than cumbersome national initiatives.” I would include in the category of cumbersome the costly, time-sucking, and largely pointless monopolistic processes we have for accreditation and certification.

This sounds a bit one-sided? Sure.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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