Tag Archives: Gerald Graff

Links: What if the Common Core makers guessed wrong?

1. Here’s a post from a retired high school teacher making the point that the testing regimen of the last decade has created students who are not able to do college work. I’m not sure I fully accept the claim that students have been damaged by testing, but I agree that some worthwhile things have been sacrificed in the name of testing. I also appreciate the critique of AP courses — these classes, too, teach to the test.

2. On the other hand, The Atlantic posted this piece by college profs. Gerald Graff and Steve Benton, which argues that “the disconnected and muddled curriculum … does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.” That is not a claim I would make or hold after my 12 years of teaching high school writing and science. This piece claims that “mixed messages about the do’s and don’ts of academic practices … leaves [students]

profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

These mixed messages include everything from whether it’s all right to use “I” in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Now, this doesn’t seem like a problem so much as a reality. Different people write and teach and do everything in varied ways, and thank goodness for diversity. There are no, or very few, rules about writing that aren’t merely conventions, and thus, are arbitrary. For instance, the Associated Press Style Guide requires one comma in a series of three things (bread, PB and J) and the Chicago Style Guide has two (bread, PB, and J). Who’s right? Neither of them. The question of “who’s right” isn’t even appropriate in this context.

Graff and Benton would like teachers to “still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting beliefs about their subjects,” even while Graff and Benton advocate the Common Core, which is a document that largely ends rather than begins debate among actual classroom teachers. (And as an aside, I’m not sure G&B’s “mantra: ‘Make argument the center of the curriculum'” —  what role does mantra ever play in argument? — really deserves being the guideline of all curricula. For one, argument is only one of the many modes of thinking and being, among others such as creativity, memorization (of poems, say), practice, etc. For another, I don’t have the confidence in the centrality of argument to our culture that I, as a philosophy student, once did. Recent political communications have contained many examples of people using rhetorical tools well outside those of mere argument — and argument is a game with rules that the participants agree to. If one arguer resorts to ad hominem attacks and lies, there is no real argument taking place.)

But I don’t want to just criticize without also asking a question, which is: What is it about a single, narrowly defined, national curriculum that appeals to those who advocate it? I don’t believe there’s any one royal road to becoming a knowledgeable, thoughtful, capable adult, and I don’t frankly see how any Common Core (especially one that’s less a “core” of knowledge and more of a full-fledged program) is necessary, let alone desirable.

So who advocates this? I can guess that politicians and ed-policy types would appreciate having a single set of rules to impose (that’s what it feels like to this classroom teacher) across the country. In a sense, sure, there’s no great reason why students in one state should be learning different things than students in another state. But why should any such document be imposed? Why should there be any such document? Life is complex, the economy is complex, the world of knowledge is complex, so why would we needlessly simplify what students should learn?

G&B write:

“teachers need to agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to be a common one, but a good one.”

But how can anyone who lacks the power of seeing the future possibly know what skills will be needed in the future? What if the makers of the Common Core guessed wrong?