Political orthodoxy and lack of viewpoint diversity in the academy is now a well known problem, thanks in large part to Heterodox Academy and the many scholars who contribute to the site. Yet even Jonathan Haidt–one of the more productive combatants of this growing trend–will admit that intolerance to opposing ideas and the spread of victimhood culture “has its roots in high school” (see Haidt’s The Yale Problem Begins in High School). While Haidt discusses experiences he had with faculty and students at elite schools, as an English teacher at a public high school, I can personally attest that the problem has also been exacerbated by public education policy and the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
First, a bit of background. In 2009, Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant funded by the Education Recovery Act, incentivized states to adopt the CCSS. Opting-in would allow states to earn points toward much-needed education funding and waivers from federal regulations required by No Child Left Behind. Since funding is tied to Common Core assessment measures, when the standards for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics were first released in June 2010, many states scrambled to find Common Core aligned curricular materials.
One such state was New York, whose Education Department (NYSED) developed the EngageNY Common Core Modules, a fully-articulated Pre-K to 12 curriculum program designed to “assist schools and districts with the implementation of the Common Core.” Although local districts, the NYSED, and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were explicit that the CCSS was not to be a curriculum, but merely a set of standards, New York State had suddenly made it a curriculum. Across the state, rather than training teachers to align their curriculum and classroom content with the standards, numerous districts began ordering teachers to use the EngageNY modules and, in many cases, to teach them verbatim.
Originally introduced as an optional resource for teachers to “imagine how classroom instruction could look,” EngageNY quickly became a curriculum program that teachers, depending on their district and its reliance on state aid, were forced to adopt wholesale. My own district informed me early on that I had to teach “all modules in their entirety.” This meant not only that I had to teach the texts assigned by EngageNY, but I had to teach them how EngageNY thought they should be taught. At the grade 12 level, for instance, this involved cutting Catcher in the Rye, Frankenstein, and Much Ado About Nothing, to instead teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X; The Namesake; Guns, Germs, and Steel; and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Though loyal to the CCSS mandate to increase student exposure to nonfiction “informational texts,” the texts and lessons used in the ELA modules tend to slant left and focus largely on themes like social injustice, racial and gender oppression, immigration, and cultural identity. One grade 11 module, case in point, focuses on W.E.B Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and includes other texts that represent “voices, experiences, and perspectives… united by their shared exploration of the effects of prejudice and oppression on identity construction.” Students then “broaden their exploration of struggles against oppression in America to include issues of gender and sexism,” and so on.
In an ELA classroom, these topics are certainly valuable and worthy of discussion, but not to the exclusion of introducing students to imaginative literature, aesthetic analysis, and themes that are universal to the human condition. Instead of immersing students in an in-depth survey of classic and contemporary literature; instead of guiding students through the great conversation of history; instead of helping students to discover how words and ideas can reveal our common humanity–the EngageNY modules focus on topical social or political issues and often limit students’ exposure to one side of the story.
Consider this module, for example, in which 9th graders read How Sugar Changed the World, by Aronson and Budhos, and examine America’s role in exploiting slave labor in third world countries. In the module, students “learn to think of the products they use and consume everyday as part of a complex web of global production.” They then go on to study “the working conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh” and “consider arguments against the exploitation of sweatshop labor,” the goal being to understand “what it means to be an ethical participant in the global economy.” Just remember that these are 14-year old kids, many of whom are still learning their parts-of-speech.
What happens when literature and critical thinking become, as Camille Paglia would say, “subordinate to a prefab political agenda”? Over time, one possible result is that a state-approved victimhood narrative begins to emerge and students begin to draw dividing lines. Rigorously molding high school students into aggrieved leftist cultural critics is not the job of public education, nor does the practice bode well for the public’s perception of teachers.
To be clear, my purpose in writing this essay has not been to call the CCSS into question. Along with most teachers I know, I am of the opinion that the standards themselves are well-written and emphasize important grade-level skills. What troubles me is that, in many cases, states and local districts are using a top-down “one size fits all” approach to education that sucks the joy out of learning and does not adequately prepare students to engage with opposing perspectives. The EngageNY modules–which have now been downloaded close to 50 million times and are being used by at least 36 states, as well as Washington D.C.–represent just one example of how public schools are creating an echo chamber and planting the seeds of victimhood culture.
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