Like Democracy, Education Cannot Be Imposed from Outside

Last week, The New York Times published a piece concerning childhood reading–in this case, of Gone With the Wind. It appeared, oddly enough, while I was in the midst of re-reading a book I don’t think I’ve read since I was nine or ten, The Grapes of Wrath. I read it then with such attention that, even now, over fifty years later, I feel almost a sense of homecoming, of familiarity–and I am learning a great deal about where my beliefs come from, at least in part, beliefs about religion, ethnicity, politics, responsibility. I am also, oddly enough, beginning to understand through it just why I react so poorly to things like the Common Core State Standards.
While writing my last book, I thought a great deal about three fictional families–for the book was sparked by my own background in the culture of those families, the American Borderer culture that grew from 18th-century “backcountry” experiences of a predominantly Scots-Irish people who had come to the colonies after a generation or two in Ireland’s Ulster Plantation. These three families are the Joads of Steinbeck’s novel, Faulkner’s Snopes clan, and the Stampers of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Each family had a distinct impact on me, and they show me now the importance of reading as a personal experience in the development of all individuals given a taste for it when very, very young. And they show the danger of a broader society trying to impose a standardized conception of “reading” (or anything else) on an extremely varied population.
The importance of reading should be universally understood but, sadly, is not. Too few of my students have ever been as engaged with a book, even a single book, as I was, almost constantly, growing up. In college, then, I find them unable to explore with the same gusto I enjoyed–and I try to make it my task to help them develop that. For reading with engagement, and not the ability to “return” facts on Scantron sheets, is the real center of education. No testing can help me develop that in my students, nor can any standards… but the problem with the Common Core goes far beyond an inability to help me build enthusiasm. Its problem is that, like democracy, education has to start with the self and with the family. Like enthusiasm itself, either can be imposed by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning.
My enthusiasm for The Grapes of Wrath helped develop my affection for the two men would would be my first real and personal heroes: Woody Guthrie and that other Oklahoman, Will Rogers. I can’t say for sure that the book had any relation to that, but Oklahoma (where I have still never been) became an important source to me of what I saw as the real America. I doubt there were two other figures, outside of my family, who were as influential on my developing attitudes toward life and, yes, toward my country. They had nothing to do with my schooling, but much to do with my education. At least one of my teachers in high school understood: He arranged that I not be punished for missing school the day Guthrie died.
In college, when others were focused on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it was the story of the Stamper family that held my attention. I didn’t know why, and my own family had little resemblance, but something drew me–just as the Joads had. Endurance, “never give an inch,” resonated with me… not success, but never giving up.
In the late 1970s, some five years out from my undergraduate days, I still had no clue what I might do with my life. I was working in the parts department of an auto dealership outside of Chicago, drinking heavily and feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I picked up The Hamlet.
To say that Faulkner’s novel changed my life might be going a bit far, but it did make me want to go to graduate school in English, believing I would find, there, a means of reading under the direction of experts–no more randomly picking up books, relying on serendipity. That’s exactly what my graduate education became. There was no idea of career involved, but only the reading. When I was done, I felt I could turn to other things, to getting on with discovering my life’s work.
As I was completing my dissertation, I was applying for Peace Corps, to work in agriculture. Though no farmer and an inconstant gardener at best, I wanted to experience village life in West Africa, where I expected to be sent (I had already spent two years there, but in a city). Plus, I could find out if a career in development would be what I should pursue.
It was not. And I drifted to New York City, eventually believing that I had found my niche as a retailer. But that, I discovered after more than a decade, was not to be.
Now, in my sixties, I know that I belong in academia where my education is on-going and unrestricted by “outcomes”–and I know it is the books I’ve read (and not my schooling) that brought me here, books that related in some way to my own experiences or those of my family–or that expanded my knowledge of the world, reversing the entropy that it often seems easy for life to drop into. There were many more books than these three, of course, but these come to mind as I look back and try to determine even more clearly just why I wrote my last book and why I am enjoying so much my current project, the one that led me to re-read The Grapes of Wrath.
Human activity, I have learned through a varied life filled with my share of dead ends and successes, is not only patterned but an attempt to establish pattern–or to throw a sense of pattern onto what often seems mere chaos. Reading fiction provides us some of the best tools for dealing with pattern, both in any actuality and in the case of belief superimposed. It opens vision up, too, allowing us to stand back from the fabric under construction, to see the warp and the woof rather than simply experiencing our motion as we are shuttled.
The Common Core State Standards now being instituted in so many of our schools demand that the “texts” studied be 70% “informational.” Fiction can make up the rest. What strikes me so odd about this is that it is fiction, in my life, at least, that has provided more information about the world than all other “texts” combined–for it is fiction that has led me to see further and then to explore other texts… and even to write them. Fiction, for me, has been the heart of learning, and learning has come through those books striking chords of some sort inside of me as with experiences (or even imaginings) that I have had in the worlds fiction addresses.
There are different reasons for the teaching we do in different fields. Perhaps some can even be reduced to what they call “learning outcomes.” The learning that comes from reading fiction, however, is highly personal, its outcomes different for each individual. We can’t even demand those outcomes, for the texts we consider in any one course may not be the ones that light an individual’s fire–and by making demands we dampen the kindling for the fire that might otherwise arise next time.
Finding passion only happens when the student takes control herself or himself, the outcome being personal to each just as life itself is. The problem with imposing standards is that they remove this possibility from the student, no matter how those standards are defined.
In today’s The New York Times, Frank Bruni writes that the Common Core is “a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization.” But what’s analytical thinking if it doesn’t expand possibilities and push one into speculation… if it doesn’t foster thinking beyond established patterns? The Common Core is, at its heart, mass production, with “inspection” standards for each and every product (those things we used to think of as students). One of the important aspects of my exploration of Joads then Stampers then Snopeses was that it was my own, that it was not a path of reading laid out for me.
A common set of generalized goals, desiring students to go as far as they can and giving broad directions, would not be a bad thing–but these Common Cores State Standards don’t do that. They try to control curricula telling teachers how much of this and that should be taught, and when. They don’t understand that students in different areas and from different backgrounds learn differently–and often need to know different things. They don’t understand that students are different, anyway, depending on things like family, economic background and ethnicity… but that each of those things brings strengths as well as weaknesses.
They don’t understand the most important thing that I learned from the Joads, the Stampers and the Snopeses, that even the “lowest,” the most pig-headed and the meanest have something to offer, one generation to the next. Real education, that is, effective education for the masses, starts with them, and with the personal relationships that are central to a school.
As we continue to learn (or should be learning) through failing attempts and colonialism and neo-colonialism, when outsiders try to impose their ideas, little good results. The Common Core is no different… it is nothing more than internal colonialism imposed from afar onto situations unknown to its arrogant and self-assured creators.
Just read those three novels: You’ll see.

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