Does Being an Individual Matter Anymore?

I’ve come to think of the Common Core (and the standards movement as a whole) in three different layers, with each deepening layer being more difficult to see and to articulate.  These layers are simplistic and certainly not all-inclusive, but they do allow me to at least symbolize different understandings of the CCSS.

Layer one:  The Common Core standards in isolation.

Deeper

Layer two:  The Common Core standards connected to political and economic considerations.

Deeper again

Layer three:  The Common Core as representative of a particular way of imagining what it means to be human.

Layer one is simply the standards themselves as they function within the classroom.  This is the level that teachers initially deal with and it is the way that the media all too often addresses the Common Core.  I have written multiple times, as have many others (and below), about the dangers inherent in looking at the Common Core in isolation from its broader implications.

At the layer two level, we begin to see that the Common Core has  the potential for doing great damage, particularly in its connections to high-stakes testing, and, given the  history provided by our experience with NCLB, there is much evidence to support this.  Stan Karp, in a recent issue of Rethinking Schools, provides a wonderful outline of the dangers and writes, “…the Common Core threatens to reproduce the narrative of public school failure that just led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform.”  The whole article is much worth your time.

The harder thing to articulate is what the Common Core says about being human.  That is, it is difficult to peel back the assumptions underneath the whole standards movement and address what these assumptions say about what it means to be human.  The Common Core is presented as an objective set of standards.  However, as I’ve written before, it is impossible to be purely objective.  The standards represent a set of values- and the nature of values is that some things are privileged over others.  It’s important to expose these values, to understand what they say regarding our humanity, to question and problematize the Common Core standards not just in terms of their classroom function and their political role, but in their role in narrating a particular story of being human.

In their letter to the American Bishops criticizing the Common Core, a group of Catholic scholars begin to touch on the assumptions and values underlying CCSS when they write:

“Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to ‘over-educate’ people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.”

In other words, the Common Core is designed as a tool for career preparation. It assumes that humans are reduced to beings who must produce.  We must be molded to fit into an already existing economy which has needs that are more important than our individual quirks or desires.  The purpose of education is to prepare us for the workforce. Our value as humans is determined by our ability to achieve, get grades, score high on tests, go to a “good” college, make money, attain status. Art, literature, virtually anything that has to do with the excess fluff of imagination is probably pretty, but not an efficient use of time.  Education needs to be standardized in order to produce a standardized, “work ready” outcome. The purpose of life, unstated yes, but nonetheless fairly obvious, is to work in order to attain status.

Ken Jackson is getting at these assumptions underlying the corporatist education reformer’s way of imagining being human when he writes:

“Now we take it for granted, of course, that we are individuals… infinitely complex in our own way and — while we aren’t quite able to articulate that complexity precisely — we prize it deeply nonetheless.

…Education and growth are human, deeply human, processes, processes revealed to us long ago if the ‘education’ experts would take the time to look or even ask.

We are not recorder pipes to be played on. And neither are our children.”

Jackson is arguing that we are not simple, objectified tools to be manipulated by others in order to be filled with content. We need to recognize that teachers and students are fully human, fully individual, with unique desires, abilities and gifts that just can’t be standardized.  An education that imagines them as anything less is dehumanizing.

I just started reading Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, a beautifully written dystopian novel that serves as a meditation on where all of this might be leading us.  (And for what I mean by “all of this” I defer to Henry Giroux, in writing about the roots of our cultural violence“State and corporate violence merge in the looting of public treasuries, the defunding of public schools, the elimination of social provisions, the creation of policies that expand poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and those conditions necessary for a semblance of human dignity and agency.”)

Lee writes of the future (and by implication, the present) of individuality:

“But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are individuals.  We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case.  We are not drones or robots and never will be.  The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore.  That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.”  (Emphasis added)

Maybe, just maybe, the question of whether or not being an individual makes a difference anymore is really the most important question about the Common Core and the whole standards movement.  David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, famously said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

In regards to being human, this is the underlying, unstated foundation of what the Common Core teaches our children:  That they just don’t matter.

Do we care?

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