Life Under Compulsion: The Dehumanities

by Anthony Esolen on January 21, 2013 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Education & Liberal Learning

reading statue

Imagine a new father looking into the eyes of his child.  A wisp of blond hair curls about the scalp.  The fingers, wrinkled like those of an old man, curl about his own finger.  He has blue eyes, but who knows whether they will stay that way?  There’s the slightest indentation in the chin, reflecting that of his wife, who cradles the baby in her arms and hums gently to him.

“Here is one,” says the father, “who will be a productive member of the labor force, and who will assist in the increase of the Gross Domestic Product.”

“Here is one,” says the mother, “who will be adept at the processing of information, so as to facilitate the attainment of a successful career.”

“Here is one,” says the father, “who will possess the capacity to embark upon independent research, who will present arguments that balance claim and counterclaim.”

“Here is one,” says the mother, “who will meet the Common Core Requirement anchor standards and high school grade-specific standards, which work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations, the former providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity.”

I did not make that last sentence up.

In my last essay, I mentioned that our educational archons had come up with an idea even more foolish and inhuman and destructive than the consolidated school, the New Math, the basal reader, the folding of history and geography into Social Studies, the elimination of grammar, the computer on the desktop, et cetera nauseanda.  Behold, the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

There are so many bad things to say about these standards, one hardly knows where to begin.  The field is full of rubble, and all I have here is a shovel and a small wheelbarrow.  Still, one must begin somewhere.

The archons, like my monstrous imaginary parents above, forget that a child is a human being, not a data processor, not a lever in an economic machine, not a researcher piling up the articles and books for a sufficiently exhaustive bibliography, meaningless in itself.  A child is a human being: and human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.  That implies that the child is made for goodness and truth and beauty.

Every encounter with what is good – the chivalry of General Lee, the willing poverty of Mother Teresa, the shy greathearted youth of Alyosha Karamazov – can expand the soul, if we will allow it; which means that it helps to set us free from the compulsions of false goods, which Christians have long grouped under the headings of the seven deadly sins.  Every encounter with beauty – the glint of a simple word in a poem by Herbert, the meditative subtleties of the late Shakespeare, the sweet charm of a ballad by Burns – can expand the soul, if we will allow it; which means that it helps to set us free from the heavy accretions of the drab, the dull, the mean, the spiritually sluggish, the smog of contemporary workaweek life.  Every encounter, not with facticity, but with human truth – Jane Austen deftly revealing how little we know our own motives, Dickens revealing the meaning of “economy” in the cheerful and charitable housekeeping of Esther Summerson, his finest heroine, or the foolish Lear, who is mad and childish and yet “every inch a king” – can expand the soul, if we will allow it; which means that it helps to set us free from the common delusions of our time, the lies we believe and the lies we tell.

But the Common Core Standards in English Language Et Cetera know nothing of all this.  For the archons, reading is a “skill,” and that is that.  What you read is of no import; only how complex the text is, judged according to various quantitative algorithms and a few subjective check lists that do not touch upon goodness, beauty, or truth.

That explains why the Standards jettison any systematic study of the history of English and American literature.  It also explains why, as the children grow older, silly ol’ poetry is progressively supplanted by “informational texts,” Supreme Court opinions, newspaper editorials, and technical manuals.  It also explains the suffocating pseudo-professional character of the writing that is required and praised.  Here, for example, is a high school senior writing about the blurry line dividing fiction from nonfiction.  Allow me to boldface everything vague and abstract, and to italicize every irrelevant sentence:

The modern world is full of problems and issuesdisagreements between peoples that stem from today’s wide array of perceptions, ideas, and values. Issues that could never have been foreseen are often identified and made known today because of technology. Once, there were scatterings of people who had the same idea, yet never took any action because none knew of the others; now, given our complex forms of modern communication, there are millions who have been connected. Today, when a new and arguable idea surfaces, the debate spreads across the global community like wildfire.Topics that the general public might never have become aware of are instantly made into news that can be discussed at the evening dinner table. One such matter, which has sparked the curiosity of millions, is the recent interest in the classification of literature as fiction or nonfiction.

What’s wrong with that writing?  Everything.  There are platitudes – dull and absurd at once, as if people are actually arguing about whether Maureen Dowd is a fiction writer or just the usual editorial goof, while picking out the asparagus.  There’s the wearisome and phony enthusiasm over modern this and modern that.  The nouns are vague, “peoples” and “issues” are misused, “wildfire” is trite.  And none of it is to the point.

But the real problem can’t be cured by a visit to the English stylist.  It’s a problem that the authors of the Common Core Standards cannot recognize; just as a tone-deaf man cannot understand the beauty of the simple air that gives us Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.  The real problem is not technical, and is not primarily linguistic.  It is human.

A human being wrote that passage, but not as a human being.  He wrote it as a machine, as a Language Research Trainee, as a Prospective High-Prestige Academy Admission.  He wrote it as a boy-turned-ape, going through the English Language Proficiency Motions.  The passage is unrelieved by the slightest touch of beauty or elegance, of human feeling, of real address to a world of trees and dandelions and dogs.  There is one obvious observation – we have computers and the internet.  There is no wisdom, nor even the sprightly bravado of youth.  The writing is senile without ever having been young.

Is that too harsh?  Remember, this essay is held forth as exemplary, for a high school senior.We could hardly expect any better, when the archons themselves write in a clodhopping pastiche of political lingo and social-science lingo, impossible to parody.  Presumably they have been too busy processing “information” to have learned how to read, either.

But why should we care?  Won’t this bad idea die the death?  I’m not so sanguine.

That’s because this bad idea is part of a federal measure called Race to the Top (good ol’ RTTT, for bureaucrats playing with blocks).  Here’s a rare example of a directive whose name actually reveals something essential.  Not, of course, what the directors think it reveals.  The directors believe that all this stress upon linguistic “skills” will help us achieve the summit of the, the, we’re not sure, but it will be the summit!  What it really reveals is Life Under Compulsion.

What’s the race?  Why the induced panic?  Is someone somewhere going to invent some new form of mass marketing and human degradation before we do?  Say it ain’t so!  Is that little child going to waste his time being, rather than doing, and doing what his betters want him to do, and when, and why, and how?  Going to read books for the joy of reading, and the human wisdom to be gleaned from them?  Going to write meditations upon them, without dutifully scrounging up professional sources, focusing on what makes for careers?

The demon Uncle Screwtape reproaches Wormwood for allowing his charge to take a walk in the country to an old mill.  Can’t have that, and can’t read a book for the pleasure in reading it, rather than for the smoky anti-pleasure of saying pert things about it and making your way among people who matter.  I’d say that Screwtape runs our whole educational machine, but that does an injustice to the avuncular one.  He at least can write.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Gorentz January 21, 2013 at 12:52 am

Very good. I hope the people in that Vermont community that is trying to take its school private in order to avoid consolidation will get a chance to read this, too. It might give voice to some of the things they are uneasy about.

avatar Steve From New England January 21, 2013 at 7:41 am

As Massachusetts 8th grade English teacher I can confirm much of what this post says. We have been working under standards of various stripes for the past 15 years with the Common Core being simply the latest variant on a tired theme. However, the dire situation presented here is not completely accurate. While it is true that my students must take a proficiency exam at the end of 8th grade, this only accounts for a week out of my curriculum. The remaining 175 school days are filled with the kind of learning that I think the author would support.

We read Shakespeare, Dumas, Chekhov, Hawthorne, Vonnegut Jr. and many others. We memorize poetry, study classical rhetoric and write and write and write. My school currently allows for two periods a day for my area, one for reading and one for writing. This means that my students have the time to study grammar ~even sentence diagramming~ as well as persuasive and research writing. By the end of 8th grade they write approximately 18 500+ word essays for my class. (They also write additional papers for Social Studies and Science.)

The point of this long response is to point out that even though students have to take a standardized test, we as teachers do not have to teach that way. If a student is properly schooled in the art of writing and critical reading he can pass any test the state chooses to give him. So the author is write in bemoaning the ultimate pointlessness of the test, but wrong in assuming that means the education students receive is likewise devoid of merit.

avatar Steve From New England January 21, 2013 at 8:02 am

Quick question: Can you provide the source for the writing exemplar? I completely agree that it is poorly written and would love to be able to use it as an example of why we as a school can not get hung up on these tests. Thanks.

avatar Rob G January 21, 2013 at 10:49 am

A writer friend who lived in England for many years and still frequently spends time there writes: “The British have been dealing with this for a decade now. Esolen’s piece is a perfect description of their National Curriculum. The really sad thing is that it has already driven most of the older teachers out of the system (in despair) and replaced them with younger teachers who have been trained (and that’s the best word to describe it) to teach this curriculum.”

avatar D.W. Sabin January 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm

If you’d like a simple test of where we are as a civilization after several decades of “Public Education”. Ask any 16 year old you know to write a brief essay on any subject they wish and then read them, as penance. There are, of course, anomalies but the general trend of spectator culture is grindingly downward . The ham-digit mewlings of twittering is just the tip of the ice berg.

My own kids attended a so-called “blue ribbon” public school whose various boosters enjoyed extolling its virtues. Meanwhile, after the oldest fell flat in her first college essay, there began a series of private instruction to all my kiddies, for something I’d already paid taxes for. A culture that cannot write coherently cannot ever be expected to think coherently. This, of course, raises the issue of the definition of coherence. My apologies for a loose reading.

avatar Tony Esolen January 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Steve: I got it from the Department of Education’s website, where you can hunt around and find the 200 page text and download it. It is utter misery. It will hurt kids who can (sort of) read, and won’t help one bit those who can’t.

avatar Michael Umphrey January 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

The Bible was sort of banned, and the canon was debunked and deconstructed. English teachers were retrofitted as facilitators of the skills requested by the technocrats. Content was unimportant—it would be filled in later, ad hoc, as the boss desired.

avatar Kenneth A. Cote, Jr. January 21, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I am a naturally despairing person, so strain the pulp of sadness from my words and take what little is left.

Hardly anyone cares about being human these days, and our schools do little to preserve what is left of that sentiment. I am a public high school English teacher, so I am biting the hand that feeds me when I say that in my twenty-one years at the job I have never seen anything as stupid as the Common Core. One goal of this curriculum is to install a perfect balance between fiction and non-fiction texts in all public schools. The Common Core corps does not mean the lovely essay when it speaks of non-fiction. No, as Professor Esolen makes clear, its notion of non-fiction is “informational text.” And the word “text” is essential; “book,” “poem,” “essay,” “biography”–such words smack of quaint, old-fashioned, nostalgic, decidedly non-clinical minds, the minds of people stuck in the goo of yesteryear; who read Tolkien, watch “Gunsmoke,” and eat comfort food; who treat technology as a tool and not a fetish. Under “compulsion,” I recently watched a video of the educational guru Dr. Alberti, a charismatic proponent of the Common Core, delivering a speech at a conference somewhere in New England. She never used any other word but “text” in her discussion of English and literacy education; at one point, she even tried to cast an image of students “losing themselves in the text.” I kid you not. It was almost enough for me to reach for my Kindle and curl up next to the propane fire–to read the Common Core, of course.

Any intelligent person can lay out a reasonable argument for this and every other educational reform. Chances are that I will already be familiar with that argument. I tell my students not to end their essays with rhetorical questions, but I will be the hypocrite just this once: Why do we always get the world that we do not want?

avatar John Gorentz January 22, 2013 at 1:24 am

It should also be pointed out that words like those quoted from the Common Core Standards have the same corrupting effect on us as the “Worker’s of the World, Unite!” poster was intended to have on Vaclev Havel’s greengrocer.

avatar Briana January 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

You should’ve boldfaced the entire paragraph. :)

avatar Steve Billingsley January 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

The Common Core = institutionalizing the educational philosophy of Thomas Gradgrind.

avatar Ray Olson January 23, 2013 at 11:44 am

Mr. Esolen–Fine demolition of the gray bureaucratism of the Common Core. I’ll borrow a phrase from a fellow career editor to express my reaction to the model paragraph you quote. The paragraph is all so much “throat-clearing”, although the flurry of abstractions in it that you highlight make it a particularly gaseous example of its kind. Good writers delete such stuff once they strike the meat of a subject, and good editors do the same for less good writers. though they sometimes have to tell them that their forks went awry of the plate.

avatar Tony Esolen January 23, 2013 at 12:05 pm

My fellow monks in the midst of barbarians: Mr. Cote’s experience I must file away in that ever-swelling category, “No Matter How Bad You Thought It Was, It’s Worse.” The blockheaded nouveau-theorists in my field, literature, snapped up that word “text” to make sure that nobody would ever gain think of a poem as a poem, a song, and to add a pseudo-scientific air to their contemptible “desconstruction” of works of art. You’d think that people who devote their lives to teaching literature would love literature for its own sake. In most schools this is not true. On Gradgrind: we get the worst of both worlds. It’s as I put it in the introductory chapter of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (shameless plug, I know): “Gradgrind, Without the Facts.” All the drudgery, all the dullness — and no facts! I joke with my students that I find only two things wrong with our schools: everything they don’t teach, and everything they do.

avatar Kenneth A. Cote, Jr. January 23, 2013 at 4:30 pm

For the record, in Book the Third of “Hard Times,” we learn that even Gradgrind has a heart; he loves his children, and he regrets what they have become. If the “man devoted to Fact” can be transformed by affection, what is to be said of an educational system than cannot?

avatar D.W. Sabin January 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm

What is absent? Simple enough, a love of the language and its ability to transport rather than simply transcribe.

avatar robert m. peters January 25, 2013 at 9:07 am

Mr. Cote,

I was compelled for a short time in my professional life to endure those who refer to themselves as educators in their formal settings in schools of education and at education conferences. I looked up “Dr. Alberti” and listened to a segment of a video on the “common core.” In an instant, all of the aversion to the attitudes, discourse and contentless content of that profession welled up in me. My antidote to that brief encounter with my distasteful past was to find my copy of “The Battle of Mauldon” and read it, going instinctively to those powerful lines:

“Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað”

(Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.)

At my age and after all of the battles with “those people,” the verse captures where I find myself and to that which I am resolved.

avatar Kenneth A. Cote, Jr. January 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Mr. Roberts,

Thank you for your thoughts. The lines that you quoted instantly brought to my mind the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

From 991 A.D. to 1842 and back again to the eighth century B.C.–great literature transcends the ages by giving authentic voice to the human heart.

avatar Kenneth A. Cote, Jr. January 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm

I’m sorry: Mr. Peters.

avatar Andrew January 27, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I’m a little confused. As I understand the “Common Core,” at least part of its underlying philosophy as posited by E. D. Hirsch is that it matters very much *what* students read, not merely *that* they read. I suspect Hirsch would heartily agree that it’s not enough to emphasize reading “skillz.” :)

Leaving any bureaucratic problems aside, am I at least correct in my initial and partial assessment of the “Common Core” insofar as literature is concerned? Thanks in advance.

avatar Michael Umphrey January 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Andrew, all of the above and none of the above.

What CCSS is in reality varies from state to state, from school to school, and from classroom to classroom. Like all national education initiatives, it exists as tremendous noise, with people arguing for it and against it, with no clarity, ever, as to what “it” is.

CCSS is mainly noise–quite harmful to schools.

The best people understand it as supporting a core curriculum, as Hirsch argued for, because reading comprehension has as least as much to do with background knowledge as it does with “skills.” They hope to use CCSS to ensure that school is not a wasteland of practicing abstracted skills but of actually mastering significant bodies of knowledge, which will give them the background they need to read complex texts with some comprehension. Hence the emphasis on informational reading.

They don’t understand this to mean literature goes away. CCSS includes science and history, and much of the informational reading will be done along the way to learning those subjects. English teachers should continue teaching literature.

However, this does not mean that many people, including curriculum directors and administrators, have not interpreted CCSS to mean English teachers need to stop teaching so much literature. So the English teachers are buzzing about nonfiction texts, many of which are not books.

Overall, the situation is somewhat grim, since English teachers abandoned the canon long enough ago that many English teachers never encountered it anywhere in their education. So in many cases, replacing literature with informational texts does not mean abandoning Melville to read an Obama speech. It often means trading a young adult novel about meth addiction for a Teaching Tolerance tract about gay love. Nothing much changes.

It’s mainly noise.

avatar Andrew January 28, 2013 at 1:42 am

Thanks, Mr. Umphrey.

For those interested, the Common Core writing sample quoted in the article can be found on page 89 of the following link:

http://vernonpublicschools.org/files/Curriculum-Guides-ELAC-Part-2-Grade-12/12-%20Grade%2012%20CCSS%20Appendix%20C%20pages%2076-107.pdf

The student in question apparently “had unlimited time to write and likely received feedback and instructional support while creating the portfolio.” Yep. “Instructional support.” It all makes sense.

avatar T. Chan January 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm

What sort of tools are being used to persuade states to adopt the CCSS? Threats to withdraw Federal funding and the like?

avatar Michael Umphrey January 29, 2013 at 11:37 pm

States competing for Race to the Top funds got points for adopting the standards, but lots of states didn’t bother competing. Duncan has talked about linking Title 1 funds to adopting of standards quite like CCSS, though he carefully didn’t mention them. Not that the law is an insuperable obstacle for this federal government. There was quite a lot of bandwagon fervor going on, but officially CCSS is not a federal government initiative, and officially USDE is not supposed to try to direct education or push federal standards or curricula–according to the Act which established USDE.

It’s pretty clear that USDE is pushing CCSS and linking dollars to adoption. However, this is strictly unofficial and rumors to the contrary are denounced as a conspiracy theory.

So, yes, the federal government is using money to persuade states and, at the same time, no, it is not.

avatar Nick January 30, 2013 at 10:39 am

Reminds me of the following verses from a Roger Waters song:

And is it any wonder that the monkey’s confused
He said Mama Mama, the President’s a fool
Why do I have to keep reading these technical manuals

avatar T. Chan January 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Thank you for the info, Mr. Umphrey.

avatar Kathleen Wagner June 16, 2013 at 12:37 pm

My dear, excellent high school English teacher told me once that what made his work worthwhile was “looking out over the sea of bored and irritated faces and seeing one little soul burst into flames.” Interestingly, it was not invariably the high-scoring students who responded to Chaucer and Dryden and Keats and Wordsworth. In a corner of some students’ minds there slept a taste for strong, beautiful words, and it was his privilege to wake it and feed it. That was enough to sustain him in the many frustrations of an English teacher’s life.

avatar Justin Gregory July 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

A little late to the party, but this essay reminds me of the cancellation of Reading Rainbow – a children’s TV show which perhaps only trailed Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in excellence. The goal of Reading Rainbow was to instill a love for reading books, but the primary cause of its cancellation was that Research had decided that it was more important to have TV shows devoted to the mechanics of reading. So now we have Super Why, which I suppose is a well-done show for the task that it’s been assigned, but it strikes me as far less human. (Come to think of it, RR was primarily live-action with some artwork from each episode’s book, while Super Why is entirely computer generated.)

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