What Do We Have in Common Core?

Designed to create commonality, Common Core State Standards are, ironically, not commonly understood. In an area of educational policy that aims to combat common predicaments, much energy is being squandered combatting one another — energy that could potentially be harnessed to formulate solutions. Having said that, misunderstanding Common Core is not akin to misvaluing Common Core. After all, Common Core, like the majority of past educational reforms, is aiming at a goal held by all of us: improve the standard of education across the nation.

Understanding Common Core State Standards

Essentially, the Common Core State Standards is the initiative to produce and implement a national set of standards designed as a uniform content guide for Mathematics and Literacy in grades K-12 across the United States, with supplementary Science, History, and Writing subsets. This set of standards was formed over the past twenty years by an assemblage of state governors (National Governors Association Center), and two nonprofit, bipartisan groups focused on improving student career and college readiness, one comprised of public officials (Council of Chief State School Officers), the other a combination of corporate and government leaders (Achieve). Achieve, founded at the 1996 National Education Summit, serves as the primary directing program for public advocacy of Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative promotes three central paradigm shifts in each subject. Common Core Mathematics Standards are intended to shift towards enriched focus and depth on all topics, coherence in logic and thought process, and increased rigor for conceptual understanding. Common Core Literacy Standards are intended to shift towards accumulating knowledge through non-fiction readings, understanding and utilizing textual evidence, and practicing comprehension with complex diction.

Adoption and implementation timelines for Common Core Standards vary by state, as each state is free to choose if and when they adopt the standards.  Pioneer states such as Tennessee, recently awarded $500 million for second place in the first round of Race to the Top grant competitions, are already employing Common Core Standards within existing curriculums, set to finalize the transition by the 2014-2015 school year.

A Comprehensive Look

Education is generally considered a high priority, so it is no surprise that a national system would be discussed so frequently. Today, the majority of stakeholders in education would agree that there is at least some problem with the national public education system. Common Core, specifically, has struck vital political veins and stirred ideological controversy in the process, hence the extended debate.

The initiative is optional for states, so immediately a major concern is diffused.

Opting In

The initiative is optional for states, so immediately a major concern is diffused. That being said, opting in at this time is often rewarded by large subsidies through associated Race to the Top grants, which give credit for adoption of common standards, without explicitly mentioning Common Core. Currently, forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

In addition to subsidies, the standards are repeatedly hailed as “standards, not curriculum,” producing another major draw for CCSS: it still allows for local deliberation regarding matters such as textbooks and teaching strategies.

Another major draw for CCSS: it still allows for local deliberation regarding matters such as textbooks and teaching strategies.

Opting Out

Texas, the home state of No Child Left Behind, led the pioneer era of rigorous standardized testing. However, now Texas opts out of Common Core. Texan policymakers today worry about the cost of high-stakes standardized testing, as evidenced by recently approved legislation to reduce the required number of high school level standardized tests.

In a similar vein, Alaskan legislators opted out with concerns that the Race to the Top application did not ask open-ended questions about what states think will work, a sentiment resonating in receptive ears.

Massachusetts, along with many other disgruntled states, is wary of any standards that might be set at a different level than those existing in the state. With fifty different states, the U.S. has effectively fifty different definitions of educational measurement, drastically hindering interstate correlation.


Level Playing Field

Proponents of Common Core assert that we must unite the nation under a set of consistent definitions, such as what it means to be proficient in reading at a third grade level. The logic here is that different rulers will only ever produce different measurements. Common Core, according to supporters, is the solution.

While Common Core will set the necessary consistent markers for progress, an oversight in this argument is that standardized tests should not be the only means for assessment. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, when all you have is a test, everything looks like a score. Students must be valued as more than a grade. It’s time to expand the education toolkit, and ask what public education optimizes.

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, when all you have is a test, everything looks like a score.

It is time to develop comprehensive assessments revealing the correlation between content allegedly learned in school and mastered content utilized in years after graduation.

Common Core Assessments

PARCC Testing

Individual states are responsible for creating their own assessments to measure successful mastery of Common Core Standards, but to help, Achieve has allied with the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to develop examinations that expand beyond the traditional multiple choice test format. In efforts to eliminate dissatisfaction with the acclaimed “drill, kill, and bubble fill” methods, PARCC has developed an innovative technology-based system for assessing comprehension. Although, many fear the data mining and invasion of privacy that could come from the digital assessment filing process.

PARCC states that their Literacy Assessment focuses on texts worth reading and questions worth answering, using authentic texts instead of artificial, arbitrary passages, and discussion questions to delve deeper. (sample PARCC Literacy prompt)

PARCC additionally asserts that their Mathematics Assessment is designed to include “questions worth answering,” shifting towards application-based questions and a thorough understanding of all topics. (sample PARCC Math question)

PARCC mastery assessments are a step in the right direction, but are considered by many to be not enough. Many questions still distinctly resemble multiple choice, as this example shows.

-- A PARCC example question that still uses traditional multiple choice format.
A PARCC example question that still uses traditional multiple choice format.

Feedback that Counts

In line with all major top-down reforms, Common Core must incorporate evaluation systems from the ground up, empowering student, teacher, parent, and administrator feedback control.

However, hosting venues for stakeholders to voice their concerns is not enough; policymakers must genuinely listen.

Public officials have already begun to host community conversation events regarding Common Core implementation, yet little action has become of it. Many such meetings are rigidly organized to address only what the organizers want to talk about, with little space for open-ended discussion and debate. These are often set as panel discussions in which the audience has little say, frustrating those who simply need to have their voices heard.

Hosting venues for stakeholders to voice their concerns is not enough; policymakers must genuinely listen.

Distorting Public Sentiment

Officials portray the public consensus as supporting their own blanket statements of approval. Through biased surveys, loaded questions, media outlets, and selective quotations, the general public is oftentimes depicted as largely supportive of Common Core as a whole, when, in fact, public opinion is much more convoluted.

Finding Common Ground

The underlying question remains: “What do all engaged reformists have in common, regardless of stance on Common Core?”

The truth is, they have approximately 55.5 million things in common, each toting a backpack full of number two pencils.

Students are the rope in this game of tug of war. Reformists on any side of the power struggle must recognize this common ground, and move towards it, for the sake of the students.

Ironically, the solution to the current educational disengagement crisis, of which staggering dropout rates are born, could be found in students’ voices — if policymakers took time to listen.

What about students?

Paradoxically, what all students have most in common is individuality.

Humanity is teeming with a diversity of individuals, talents, and passions, but currently most education systems force students into one-size-fits-all molds, allowing no room for that diversity. Students spend seven long hours in school everyday studying content that they may or may not be interested in. Because of this, comparably little time is left to pursue the questions that they are interested in.

Resolving Common Core

Standards are necessary indicators to mark progress on an objective scale, but the decision of where to set the theoretical bar must be rediscussed. The Common Core State Standards Initiative sets it high, their common motto being “higher expectations produce higher achievement.”

The connotation of “high standards” is generally positive, invoking a sense of disciplined rigor with the potential to push individuals above their limit. However, according to Common Core, high standards mean that all students should be required to learn polynomials, thematic prose analysis, sinusoidal functions, eighteenth century literature, and more, suggesting that they might push students beyond their limits, forcing square pegs through round holes. “Raising standards” is simply a favorable label for the process.

Standards are meant to be the floor, as both opponents and proponents of Common Core agree: begging the question, where should the base line be drawn? Perhaps the base line could reflect only the basic commonalities for all productive members of society: mastery of elementary math, the ability to read and write, and the elusive critical thinking skills that many schools only allegedly foster. Beyond these fundamentals, individuals would be encouraged, not coerced, to learn auxiliary supplements specific to field of interest.

Standards are meant to be the floor, as both opponents and proponents of Common Core agree: begging the question, where should the base line be drawn?

Furthermore, the necessity of personalized education needs reassertion. In order for passion to grow, students require a breadth of educational avenues, unrestrained by restricting standards. With the growth of the Open Source movement, it is now possible to place that such nourishment directly in the hands of a curious child.

Common Sense

Adapted here is a quotation from Thomas Paine’s revolutionary, enlightened pamphlet “Common Sense.”

“Some writers have so confounded [education] with [learning], as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. [Public education] is produced by our [generalized standards and policies], and [individual learning] by our [intrinsic wiring and passions]; the former [requires a level playing field], the latter [demands room to grow].”

It is time to integrate the two, in order to create a more perfect union.

Keaton Midspeech

About the Authors:

Keaton Wadzinski has participated as student perspective on several TN panels specifically regarding CCSS, and is scheduled to speak at another in August. He has also participated in a promotional video shoot for CCSS, and worked with TN education officials for a variety of functions. Inspired by TED Talks from Seth Godin and Sir Ken Robinson, Keaton fights to promote passion-based education innovation. @Kwadzki

304785_456115234421035_1450741438_nJacob Frackson, a Canadian high school student, is the Director of Digital Media at Student Voice. Jacob is about to enter his senior year of high school and has much experience in Canadian educational policy, specifically in his home province of British Columbia. Follow him on twitter, and tweet him about anything education, international affairs, or writing in general: @JFrackson

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How to be Ecstatic about Rejection

That attempted sensitivity in the apology. That choking sound of nonacceptance. That guttural contraction of rejection. When a rejection letter is received, it’s never initially a calculated and reasoned response; more accurately, it’s a longing for ecstasy. Ecstasy, in this context, meaning its intended definition: an out of body experience.

It’s flight in its purest form. When people are faced with things that appear subjectively insurmountable, they turn away — away from the rejection, and away from themselves. Often, it’s because it feels like a fracture. One continuous story has been interrupted, and the only way to fix it is to hum along until it resets. But sadly, it won’t — and maybe that’s for the best.

Routine, it would appear, has become the bane of humanity’s existence. Humans are constantly choosing the road more traveled, and frankly, this is for the worse. Life, in many of its facets, has become a game of follow the leader. There is one road to becoming a high school graduate, there is one road to becoming a pre-med student, there is one road to becoming a doctor. Conscious of the necessities of standards, the scope has become claustrophobically narrow. And maybe that’s why rejection stings so much.

If students were entirely honest with themselves, and properly understood the logistics of gaining whatever particular job they desired, rejection would not be so upsetting. Upsetting, in this sense, meaning also its intended definition: altering from its original course. Although a nonacceptance letter, to be so bold as to call it as such, may be disheartening, it is not the same as a rejection from an entire field. Education, particularly post-secondary, has come a long way since the single medical school times of old. Now, becoming a doctor could involve any combination of a whole complexity of paths, traditional and untraditional. To put it bluntly, a student does not have to go to Harvard immediately following high school if she wants to pursue life as a brain surgeon. She could just as easily take a gap year building houses in Myanmar, go to an entirely different school, and end up at the same destination, at most a year behind.

Although the sting of rejection, and the consequent grief, may not have an antidote, the hopelessness of it does. Even if it feels like you’re falling down, you aren’t. Broadly speaking, a life’s career does not hinge on the content of one letter. Take the news as it comes, but don’t let it knock you down. Steady yourself and be ecstatic, in an out of body sense. Reevaluate, tell yourself to stop overdramatizing, and then get back to pursuing that goal.

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A More Fulfilling Educational Experience

One day, it stopped being enough. I had sat through one too many dull classes, one too many passive discussions, one too many uninspiring days of school, and now I needed more. There had always been opportunities to go beyond school, but they were always in alternate manners. I could be in the band, I could take art, I could play volleyball, I could run track, or I could do something that I genuinely cared about. My only problem, was discovering what that was.

The thing was I didn’t want something more than school. What I actually wanted was more school.

Education and its mechanics has always fascinated me. Like math and philosophy, — two very appealing subjects to me — I saw education as a series of complex inputs with equally complex outputs. It had structure, a structure with intricate patterns, and I loved it. On one end of the curriculum you would insert your educational needs and on the other, after an extraordinary process, you would receive your learning outcomes. To me, education was the most brilliant of machines, an apparatus moldable to any needs and able to produce any outcomes.

After constructing these cognitive structures within my mind, I finally found the push to apply them, so I started a blog. In relatively short articles, all within the ball park of 300 to 1,500 words, I found my student voice. I explored ideas, I questioned current educational conceptions, and I presented my scholastic beliefs. However, possibly because this alone was not fulfilling, or because of the uninspiring ease in which one can communicate an idea in countless characters, I found my way to Twitter. Through connections that I had made through casual conversation, I found myself attempting to express these insights in 140 characters or less. I acquired a Twitter handle, and to the best of my ability, I dived into every #edchat I could find.

Within weeks, I was on the #StuVoice chats. It was my element. Not only was it full of innovative people discussing ideas on the topic of education, but also full of students, truly a great combination. My excitement was then furthered when I discovered Dell’s amazing collaboration with my new friends at Student Voice, the first ever Student Voice Live conference. The appeal of such an event made my mouth water — in an intellectually stimulating kind of way, of course.

From there, the journey was a whirlwind. I became involved in writing articles, editing up-coming posts, working on various toolkits, launching the newsletter, and in all these things, increasing my passion for education. With the help of Student Voice, Dell and the amazing @DellEDU team, my idle curiosity has transformed into a genuine life path. The support that has been extended to me — a young Canadian writer from a small rock off the west coast — constantly astounds me. The educational community that is out there, especially that of @DellEDU and Student Voice, is more than welcoming. If my short story leaves you with nothing more, than leave knowing that your opinion is valued and that you’ll always have a spot at the table with us.

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A New Interpretation of “No Child Left Behind”

Every weekend I spend an hour volunteering with a boy who has cerebral palsy. Together we go to the local pool and together we swim. Because he needs the extra support, I spend my hour helping support him so that he can exercise. We always have a great time and that’s because we are both gaining something from our time together.

An hour a week is an insignificant commitment; but over time, its impact builds. Every time I’m with him, I get to experience a new perspective. Rather than being seen as just another able-bodied person, I’m seen as that person helping a disabled person — and even further — having fun while doing it.

Instead of me blending in, and him standing out, a compromise is had. People look at me differently, but they also look at him differently. Even if only by a slight degree, I like to think that when people see us together, they think that we’re similar; or at least, that our differences are not as divisive.

When we talk about ideas like “No Child Left Behind,” this is what comes to mind for me. In my opinion, “No Child Left Behind” is synonymous with the phrase “Educational Equity,” and not with the phrase “Round Up the Stragglers.” As can be observed, some people agree with me; however, some do not.

It’s naïve to think that all people are equal. Even if you remove all status, wealth, and rank, you’re still left with the natural truth that certain individuals have a greater aptitude for certain things. Simply put, this is a fact of life. If we set one standard for all, it is bound to be ineffective — people are too. However, this does not mean that society cannot be equitable.

By equitable, I mean equal opportunity. I mean that all students should be given the opportunity to succeed. The manners in which they succeed may differ, but the fundamental truth should remain that they deserve the opportunity to succeed in some way or another. “No Child Left Behind,” in its purest form, should be about giving every child the best education possible; or in other words, it should equip every student for personal success. Rather than setting a standard for all students, I believe that a genuine “No Child Left Behind” policy would be about embracing the individual — no child would be left behind in the purgatory of mediocrity and failure, instead, they would all have the opportunity to excel in their own individual format.

When our hour is up, I always leave with a smile. I leave thinking about similarities, not difference. The differences between my swimming partner and me, are barely noticeable when you taken into account our similarities. The only longing that I’m left with when our session is over is for an equitable school environment for the both of us — well that, and our next swim.

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The Equity of Ideas


Student Voice, a student-led initiative that supports the student voice internationally.

What if the weight of your opinion did not matter on your ethnicity, social status, age, or any other superficial characteristic? Or in other words, what if your ideas were based on their content, and not their designer? Now that’s what I would call progress, and Student Voice, a student-led initiative empowering student involvement internationally, would entirely agree.

Malala Yousafzai, a school-aged proponent of women’s rights and a recent victim of the Taliban in Pakistan, is a great example of this progress at work. For all her life very little was expected of Malala: she was a girl, she was young, and she was Pakistani. But regardless of that, she made a difference. She made her voice heard, she overcame oppression, and she propelled forward the case for universal female education. Malala Yousafzai’s value was not based on superficial characteristics, but by the weight of her character.

John Rawl phrased this utopia well in his work, A Theory of Justice. In this work he presented the ideal world as what he called the “Original Position.” Here, the world was minority-less. The political structure of this model was designed behind what Rawl called “The Veil of Ignorance.” This divider separated the designer from all superficial characteristics, about both himself and others: he knew not his, or anybody else’s, ethnicity, social status, sex, or even language. Because of these circumstances, the designer was led to create impartially and equitably. Rawl’s “Original Position” was a utopia for certain, but a didactic tale nonetheless.

This ideal, Malala’s miracle and Rawl’s “Original Position,” is what Student Voice is all about. Regardless of an individual’s superficial characteristics, we want to empower their voices. Students have valuable opinions internationally, and Student Voice strives to support them.

How we go about doing this, is by promoting the student voice online, particularly through the medium of writing. We welcome all student voices and together work with them to share their opinions. Ultimately, Student Voice aims to be the support that a student needs to make her voice heard.

Now a part of the Student Voice team as an editor, I’m more involved than ever with helping share the student voice. For more information about the initiative, visit the Student Voice site here (Student Voice). 

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An Idealist’s View on Anti-Bullying Day

Today, thousands of youth across Canada will don pink in support of Anti-Bullying Day. Together they will express their shared view and in doing so, condemn the abuse that is bullying. But what are they really condemning?  And more importantly, what do schools want to replace it with? To answer these questions, another look needs to be given to what bullying is.

Pink Shirt Day graphic, pinkshirtday.ca


In an adult world brimming with alienation, arrogance, and animosity, it is not difficult to imagine these sentiments overflowing into the world of adolescence.  As is our nature, it seems, our eye is drawn to negativity. It is the unsightly things in our lives that get the most attention. And curiously enough, these things are most often our faults, but more harmfully, the faults of others. These faults have infected the realm of adults, and have left them in a state or perpetuation. Set in their ways, adulthood appears to be a constant debate over whose faults are worse.

What bullying is, is an attempted mimicry of this. This negative view on life has spilled into the innocence that was youth. The optimism that characterized the young has become tainted, and with this corruption, a downward spiral has begun.

Youth are imitating what they know. Because they have been surrounded by bickering their whole lives, it naturally — or arguably unnaturally — falls into a pattern of sorts. Bullying, or abusive acts in general, are copied behaviors. The negative examples that have been set have taken over the spotlight, and consequently, the lives of youth internationally.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Youth does not have to mimic adulthood; youth can set its own example. Thanks to the impressionability of adolescence, the foundation can be righted before it is set. Rather than in cynicism, the grounding can be set in collaboration, altruism, and equality.

In an ideal world, positiveness is the standard. Instead of differences, similarities are focused upon. Instead of bad qualities, good qualities are emphasized. Instead of division, cooperation is the norm. In an ideal world, the problem of bullying would not exist.

Pink Shirt Day will mean something a little bit different for everybody. For some it will be a bitter day, where bullying is condemned and where bullies are demonized. However, for others, it will be idealistic. And ultimately, this idealism will represent hope. A hope for change, a hope for positiveness, a hope for a more cooperative future.

So on this day, clad in pink, make a stand against bullying, but more importantly, let your idealism and your hope for the future show.

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Education as Expression

Although the words may have been heretical in the past, it can be safely assumed that students, and youth in general, have important things to say. It’s ground-breaking — I know — but all great ideas do not come from degreed individuals. In fact, many great ideas come from the desks of schools, and not always from the large desks where the chair is unattached.

No longer do we have to look to the profession of academia for insight and thoughtful opinion. For with the ever-expanding array of resources, it’s more accurate to say that this wealth of knowledge is to be found in all schools, and hopefully within years, a significant portion of Western populations. In truth, our education system, in combination with technological advancement, has propelled our youth towards a remarkably improved understanding of the world. All that they need now is an outlet to express that understanding.

Thanks to large national investment, education has been able to flourish. Elementary education is available unilaterally in Western cultures, secondary education completion rates are on the rise, and post-secondary schooling opportunities are present more than ever before. Evidently, an education enlightenment is occurring in our very midst, but somehow we have not connected all the dots.

As far as preparation goes we have made leaps and bounds: modern education is now able to equip students to a far greater extent than that of a century past. But along with this educational burst, an equal development in application has not followed. Instead of an accompanying system for application of learnt material, the concept of using your education has been saved for after you acquire all of it. An awkward model has manifested: extensive learning, followed by an abrupt transition, and then lastly application.

What is needed now is a medium for expression during education. As education progresses forward along with it come many brilliant ideas, insights, and innovations, and rather than brushing them aside, outlets need to be available to develop them further. Students, rather than being restricted by the walls of their school and the extent of their extra-curriculars, need a measure of freedom to pursue such ideas. To compliment their education, students need available avenues to express and further pursue what they have learnt. Schooling should not be a single engulfing river; it should be a complex, and ever-expanding, network of tributaries.

The nature of these expressive outlets are by no means limited, especially due to the individuality of students. All things from art exhibition, to socio-political movement, to writing are encompassed here. What is important is not what the outlet is, it’s simply that the outlets are there. Students have toiled hard during their schooling; now let them explore the open waters of the incredible realm of education.

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Can Religion be Used as a Uniting Force in Education?

The visceral response to this question is a cynical “no.”

Religion, if anything, is seen as a separating force in the world today. Animosity between faiths run deep, and theses disputes’ temporal roots run even deeper. Through observation that interpretation can be argued to be entirely reasonable; however, it remains to be seen whether religion is inherently divisive, or if this animosity is simply a result of human subversion.

The task of creating scholastic community has always been a difficult one. Students are naturally different, but in order to effectively teach, some extent of unification is needed.

This unity, however, must not come at the expense of individuality. The purpose of school communities is not to homogenize students; rather, its purpose is to unite them, and their uniquenesses, under a broader banner. The community gains much from connectedness, but it also gains much from diversity of perspectives. But can this be applied to religion?

Yes — but this is a hesitant and idealistic yes.

If religion is being incorporated in a supplementary manner (See “Religion Rounds-Out Education”) that also preserves freedom of choice (See “Where do You Draw the Lind on Indoctrination?”) then theoretically a broad category for scholastic community could be made.

Under the heading of religion, students who had been exposed to a religiously inclusive education, in that it is willing to include religion in its teaching, could connect in a new way. Because of this common ground, students would be able to identify with one another on various shared themes that fall into the category of religion. For example, if the collective all agreed on certain overreaching doctrines, such as charity, the pursuit of truth, or human collaboration, then these points could be used as aspects of the broad framework for the community. Like other unifying forces, such as national identity, large generally thematic ideas could be selected and incorporated into the community’s structure. For the example of national identity, such concepts as shared language or rights could be used in the creation of such a framework. In doing this, a broad banner for unification could be formed, but the individual qualities would still be maintained.

Having said that, this is strictly a theoretical possibility. With the modern stigma towards religious incorporation, primarily because of the fear of conflict, an immense logistical hassle would be present in the efforts of applying such a system. This hurdle, however, is non-existent if the children are willingly exposed to such an education at an early-enough age. The religious stigma comes into play not with the innocent children, but with parents and guardians. Nonetheless, the logistical aspect of this problem remains.

Regardless, the validity of religion as a unifying force remains. It would require a radical openness and idealism, but in theory it could work. Religion, rather than being a major rallying point for conflict, could become a hub for unification; the only hurdle in this pursuit though, is ourselves.

In writing this short series I wanted to express a more idealistic stance on religion. Specifically, I aimed at presenting its possible role with the younger generations and their education experience, and ultimately how it could be of benefit. Thank you for reading.

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Where Do You Draw the Line on Indoctrination

From my article last week, Religion Rounds-Out Education, a clearer outlook can be observed in regards to religious education. Being used in a supplementary manner, religion can add to an education, but now I would like to address the question of whether or not it is right to do so. Or in other words, is it ethical to teach religion in schools (ethical in this sense, meaning that it preserves free will)? Obviously application is going to come into question, but the basis, whether or not religious education can be ethical, can still be explored.

For hundreds of years the words Church and education were inseparable in Western societies. There was no debate about whether a child should go to the religious school or the secular one, for there was only one choice. The only other option was what would be modernly referred to as homeschooling, but even then, that was something of the peasantry. Religious education was the reality. The Catholic Church provided the service, and the populace utilized it.

Education in today’s setting is much different. Catholic schools are still present but there is also the public system. Schooling, on the account of religious education, has become a dichotomy. But not simply Catholic and public, more accurately, it is a divide between religious and secular.

However, an underlying principle still remains: utilitarianism. The mass education system has always worked off of this principle, or put plainly, it has always aimed for the greatest good for the greatest number. In the past, society focused more greatly on the Catholic faith, so an education system reflecting that was best. Modernly, society has a shared perspective between religion and secularity, so a shared education system is best. This philosophical policy, due to its political-correctness and pragmatism, can easily be seen to be a good fit for education — but there’s more to it then that.

The first important thing to note about utilitarianism is its consequentialist nature, or that it often values outcomes over actions. John Stuart Mill, the forefather of this school of thought, was a political economist by profession, and this is evident in his thinking. For when outcomes are the focus rather than the actions, a clearer distinction between right and wrong can be made. No longer must one address each decision, but rather one must only focus on keeping sight of his end goal. In fields, such as economics and education, this form of cognitive process is favorable; it is decisive, it is simple, and it is efficient. In this argument there are many counterpoints, but to stay on the idea of religious education, this school of thought can adequately act as a foundation.

In religious tuition, as with its secular variant, there are goals. These goals are most often pursued with a utilitarian process. An example of this is knowledge base. If a school wishes to use education as a means for equipping a student with a well-rounded knowledge base, then they will use various testing and teaching means that they have proven to be effective. Ultimately, the school will act in such a way that this goal can be realized. A similar process can be applied to religious education, however the goal for this is not as clear.

Through observation of modern religious institutions, a goal of producing faith can be seen. When these schools teach religious stories and practice discipline of a particular faith, this goal is seemingly evident. But then is this not indoctrination?

A hasty conclusion can be made from this, but once again, with some further analysis, the concept of religious education can be righted.

Indoctrination has inherent faults: it acts unjustly authoritative, it outrightly denies all other perspectives, and most importantly it eliminates free will. If indoctrination and religious education were synonymous then without saying it could be dismissed, but if they are distinct, then religious education merits another look.

Rather than having a goal of producing faith, religious education can be theorized as having a goal of presenting faith. In this, it is not forcing a choice; it is simply preparing an individual to make that choice. Religious education is not trying to make believers, it is trying to equip them to make their own decision about belief. The choice is theirs, and in that, they have free will. And depending on your definition of ethicality, this form of religious education is morally justified. This argument is without a doubt idealistic and theoretical, but its premise holds true.

Counter arguments to this premise are also present, but when taken purely theoretically, only the argument of bias stands firm. In truth this philosophy does understate bias, but if the validity of the freedom can be preserved, then the bias can be over looked to an extent. This model is not based off of giving the individual a perfect foundation for making a decision of faith; the only goal that this model is pursuing is presenting a faith, while at the same time, preserving freedom of choice.

Religious education is not unethical if its goal is respectful of free will. If it is not respecting of free will, that is when the line of indoctrination must be drawn, and consequently, the line of immoral action.

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Religious Education: Religion Rounds-Out Education

Religious Education: An Analytical Series

In writing this series, I am aiming to explore a single idea to a more comprehensive degree. Rather than only writing on one question or idea, I will take a look at three different questions in regards to the topic of religion and its role in education. For my purposes, I will write from a strictly philosophical viewpoint. I will try and answer questions not only in a pragmatic sense but also in a logical and ethical sense. From this I hope to provide arguments with clarity from both the negative and the affirmative viewpoints. Ultimately, I aim to comprehensively address the debate of whether or not religion should play a role in education. 

Religion Rounds-Out Education

“To prepare [a child] for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.” This concept, phrased by John Dewey in his Pedagogic Creed, in many ways accurately represents the purpose of education. Working from this definition, the question of what shifts to the question of how: how do we educate? Or more specifically, what particular capacities are we aiming to develop?

Religion for many years was viewed as one such capacity. Man was given religion and from this he was to learn to apply it to his life. Through this, a more complete understanding of the world was to be achieved — supposedly.

This debate, that of religion and its ability to round-out an education, remains today. Is religion a capacity that we should develop, or is religion an inhibitor that should be denied?

To start with the negative end of the curriculum, religion can be considered as an obstacle in providing education. In this area, Karl Marx needs to be called to account. A famous adage from Marx was that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature and the opium of the people.” In saying this, Marx is referring to opium’s desensitizing effect; religion is an agent that gives humanity hope for an after-life, and thus numbs them in this world. In this sense, religion is viewed as an inhibitor, a social construct that obstructs humanity. Man has no need of this. In fact, such a concept would only hamper man’s ability to go about his life. Things such as politics, economics, and education, when using a purist Marxist lens, are only held back when religion is involved. Clearly, a hardline denial of religious education is present with Marxism.

However, Marx is not the only philosopher to denounce religion; Émile Durkheim also took a critical stance on it. His most infamous maxim abut the topic is, “Religion is society worshipping itself.” Unlike Marx, he takes a sociological perspective in regards to the topic. From his point of view, religion is simply the misinterpretation of social forces. Society acts in place of a god and thus produces a religion, or more accurately quasi-religion. Religion’s only purpose, in this framework, is to form communities; and because communities can be formed in other more transparent ways, Durkheim comfortably dismisses religion as a useless construct. Once again, a stark denial of religion’s value in education is observed.

Many other philosophers have taken unique negative perspectives on this topic, but the overwhelming number of them is still not power enough to discount the positive end of the continuum. To contrast Marx and Durkheim, such great thinkers as Comte and Freud can be called to attest.

In the case of Comte, religion is seen as having significant value, particularly in scientific thought. During his time, the early nineteenth century, science was advancing in such a way that, similar to today, more questions were being found than answers. Scientists, as they now began to call themselves, were finding answers to questions that had gone unanswered for centuries, millennia even. Along with this influx of scientific activity came an influx of gaps. These gaps, unanswered questions, were beyond nineteenth century capabilities, and thus they turned to religion.

When thinkers of this period, and many following periods, were faced with certain incomprehensible aspects of life, they cleverly began to fill the gaps with divinity. This theory, also known as the “God of the Gaps” theory, if accepted as accurate, can be used as a supplement to education; to more or less, round-out the knowledge that is dispensed in education. However, its fault is also found in its merit: this theory is only plausible if you accept its premise.

The premise, that a god would fill in the gaps of science, is constantly proven false, as is evident with Galileo and Newton. This argument is simply one of ignorance: just because we are unable, at this moment, to prove that a god did not create the complexity of a certain matter does not mean we will not be able to so in the future. Logically, this theory is invalid.

At the latter half of this century, a new thinker came to the table, and with him he brought a new argument. Sigmund Freud, although highly critical of religion, presented the idea that it could be used as means for postulating concepts outside of human understanding, such as powerful emotions. However, this framework, from Freud’s perspective, was only suitable for a child; Freud believed that when a human leaves adolescence, reason and science would take hold. But even if Freud did not subscribe to the existence of religion, he unknowingly pointed towards one of its viable arguments, that of inhuman understanding.

As philosophers continue to prove, science can only answer so many of man’s questions. When things can be observed through sensory perception, science can most often be applied, and usually with reasonable results. Things of this nature are very familiar to us; all physical sciences and most social sciences fall into this category. Having said that, unanswered questions remain. For example, the physiological operation of the brain can be understood through rational science; however, the actual concept of thought cannot. When a human thinks something, we can comprehend what hormones and nerve cells are part of the function. What we cannot reason out with science, is how a certain sequence of physiological events causes a human to think a particular thought. In saying this, we return again to the possibility of an argument from ignorance. This inhuman understanding is only plausible if you accept the distinction between it and science.

If you do not accept that, religion can be discounted and subsequently ignored in education; but if you do, religion can be viewed as a means for balancing education. In other terms, religion can be utilized in education as part of the foundation: no longer is it only based off of science and reason, it can now be supported upon a pillar of sound incomprehension, conscious of the fact that somethings simply cannot be humanly known.

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