Many years ago the English writer G. K. Chesterton claimed that the “coming peril” facing civilization was “standardization by a low standard”. Today, almost a century later, Chesterton’s words have something of the mark of prophecy about them. Standards of literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of standards of morality, are not so much declining as plummeting.
The latest calamitous “dumbing down” of America’s already beleaguered education system is the introduction of the monstrous Common Core State Standards Initiative. At the risk of seeming a trifle sensationalist, this latest affront to educational standards is nothing short of being a crime against humanity. Let’s not forget that the humanities are thus called because they teach us about our own humanity. A failure to appreciate the humanities must inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of culture and a disastrous loss of the ability to see ourselves truthfully and objectively.
The problem is that the architects of the Common Core do not believe that it is possible to see ourselves truthfully and objectively. They have a chilling indifference to truthfulness and objectivity in human affairs, rejecting all discussion of truth and objectivity except in terms of that which can be measured empirically by science. With regard to the truth that we can know about ourselves as human beings, and which is expressed in the great works that have graced our civilization through the centuries, they never get beyond Pontius Pilate’s famous question, quid est veritas? ["what is truth"], which is asked not in the spirit of philosophy as a question to be answered, but in the ennui of intellectual philandery as merely a rhetorical question that is intrinsically unanswerable. This intellectual philandery spawns numerous illegitimate children, each of which has its day as the dominant fad of educationists, at least until a new intellectual fad replaces it. It is in the nature of fads to fade but in the brief period in which they find themselves in the fashionable limelight they can cause a great deal of damage, a fact that Chesterton addressed with customary adroitness in 1910, over a century ago:
“Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the latest ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, and may learn something from experience.”
Implicit in Chesterton’s critique of the nature of modern education is a condemnation of the intellectual elitism that fuels the transient fads and fashions of the zeitgeist, the antidote to which is the timeless touchtone of Tradition. It should, of course, be obvious that the disenfranchisement of the past inherent in the Common Core’s manic pursuit of novelty is not only an abandonment of the wisdom of the dead but also a disenfranchisement of the unborn. In denigrating and deriding the Great Books of Western Civilization, and the great ideas that informed them, the doyens of the modern academy have broken the continuum by which the wisdom of the ages is transmitted to each new generation. In refusing any authority beyond the individualism of the self, egocentric Man (homo superbus) has disinherited himself from his own priceless inheritance; in imposing his egocentric ethos on the Common Core, he is also disinheriting future generations. He is a contemptuous and therefore contemptible cad who not only kicks down the ladder by which he’s climbed but tries to destroy the ladder so that no one coming after him can climb it either.
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The Common Core is nothing less than the dogmatic imposition of radical relativism, the only philosophy compatible with homo superbus, a philosophy which goes hand in glove with the implementation of secular fundamentalism, the political ideology of homo superbus. Such a philosophy and its accompanying ideology refuses to tolerate anything but the things it tolerates itself, doing so in the name of “tolerance”, an egregious and outrageous example of the sheer chutzpah of Orwellian double-think! In short, homo superbus has recreated education in his own image, sacrificing all rival dogmas on the altar of self-worship he has erected to himself, on which the tabernacle of any god other than himself has been replaced by the mirror of self-referential subjectivism.
There is no place in such self-referential education for religion or for any metaphysical philosophy, nor for the great writers and thinkers who espouse religion or a metaphysical understanding of the cosmos. Homer and Plato and Aristotle are vanquished, vanishing from school curricula. There’s no room for Dante or Chaucer or Shakespeare; or Austen or Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Instead today’s already malnourished high school students will be fed trivia and trash, selected on the basis of its perceived “relevance”. As I wrote in a different context in an earlier article for International Business Times, a good, solid education should offer real meat and gravitas whereas American kids, thanks to the Common Core, are being fed a thin gruel of nutrient-free nonsense. A good education is health-food for the mind and soul, full of nourishing traditions; the Common Core offers only fast food and junk food for the soulless and the mindless.
The reductio ad absurdum (‘reduction to absurdity’) at the heart of such a system of education was certainly not lost on Chesterton, who perceived it as the very antithesis of the object of a true education: “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive standards.” The problem is that the radical relativism of the Common Core presumes that there are no abstract and eternal standards but that, on the contrary, all standards are merely fugitive, here today and gone tomorrow. Education does not serve truth because there is no truth to serve. Chesterton’s bon mot will not serve as a motto for the modern academy because the modern academy does not serve anything but itself. Its motto is non serviam (‘I will not serve’). In such circumstances, education ceases to be the means to an end because there is no end, in the objective sense of a purpose or meaning to life. Such an education, incarnate in the Common Core, is nothing less than the end of education in that other doom-laden sense of the word. It has put an end to it.
The tragedy of the Common Core is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. We are lost and blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss. Such is the price we are doomed to pay for our blind faith in nothing in particular.
Joseph Pearce, editor of the St. Austin Review (www.staustinreview.com) is writer in residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.