For years, I battled tirelessly against the evils of the Common Core education standards that were ruining our schools, and jeopardizing the education of an entire generation of children. I fought with passion, lobbying for and against various state and federal bills, writing article after article condemning the standards and pointing out their myriad flaws. And until recently, I didn’t realize that I was actually playing into the hands of my opponents all along.
I’m not saying that this was not a fight worth having–it was—or that Common Core standards are acceptable—they aren’t. But conservatives made a mistake when they allowed the education debate to be framed in such narrow terms. So intense was the focus on Common Core that the implication became that if only we could rid ourselves of these insidious standards, everything else would be fine.
So when Congress proposed the updated version of No Child Left Behind, which, at least on paper allowed states to opt out of most of Common Core’s worst parts, the movement as a whole had a hard time explaining why it was unhappy with it. We were boxed in by our own rhetoric. Given a portion of what we had asked for, it was hard to then oppose it without looking unreasonable.
It was brilliant, really. By handing us a minor scapegoat towards which we could direct our anger, the establishment was able to distract us from larger issues of education policy. We couldn’t see the forest of indoctrination and propaganda for the scrawny trees of unsolvable math problems and biased history textbooks.
It is for this reason that I think it’s time to stop talking about Common Core as the problem, and instead focus on the entire education bureaucracy as the real culprit in the substandard learning most Americans have come to expect as given.
Instead of attacking minor features of the school system, we should be attacking the system as a whole, for it is the system of compulsory education itself that has turned so many promising Americans into unthinking worshippers of the state and its authority.
As Dan Sanchez of the Foundation for Economic Education puts it: “In school, students are not so much taught as they are conditioned. Schooling deeply ingrains certain mentalities that foster militancy: timidity and tribalism, dependency and docility, conformity and credulity.” Similar conclusions are reached in the writings of education theorists such as John Taylor Gatto and John Holt. Forcing children into small, windowless rooms to be talked at by superior know-it-alls for eight hours a day, during the most crucial period of their development, is a mind-numbing and soul-destroying cruelty that should be done away with as rapidly as possible. Instead of focusing on Common Core, a symptom of the disease that is compulsory schooling, conservatives owe it to themselves and their children to attack the disease itself, head on.
A little background here will be useful. Your humble author, from birth until age 18, was the product of a home education. When most people think of homeschooling, they envision a makeshift classroom where children are didactically instructed by their parents around a kitchen table. And while it’s true that some families do teach their children in this way, mine was not one of them. Instead, we practiced the more radical method called “unschooling,” in which children are assumed to be natural learners, and are allowed to pursue their interests in their own way, in their own time. My sister and I had no formal classes. We explored the world through books, outings, conversations, and, when specialized knowledge was desired, the occasional lesson from a local instructor.
Unschooling is a difficult concept for most people to wrap their heads around, so tangled have the very distinct notions of “education” and “schooling” become. The truth is that children do not require much schooling to become educated, so long as their interests are nurtured rather than crushed through the force of rote memorization, repetition, and compulsory study of subjects which hold no interest for them.
Many people to whom I’ve expressed this opinion dismiss it with barely a thought. They assert that it only worked for me because of my above average intelligence, and that most children, left to their own devices, would do nothing but play video games and watch TV. This attitude is simultaneously flattering and condescending. Spend time around any two year old, and you will marvel at the curiosity, intelligence, and wonder with which they see the world. Endless exploration is their default setting, and certainly requires no extraordinary faculties. It is only the drudgery of compulsory schooling that transforms learning from fun to work. It is the force that kills joy, and dulls even the sharpest mind.
I am not advocating that every parent adopt the method of unschooling for their children. For too many, it is not practical due to the financial pressures of work or single-parenthood. Rather, the point I’m making is that it’s time to start rejecting the assumptions that government has driven into us, that our children will be unable to think, to work, to function in society without the 12 years of formal schooling mandated by law. It’s time for more civil disobedience, it’s time to take our educations back into our own hands. When my parents made the decision to teach me at home, the practice was not yet legal. It was only when the government was placed in the position of jailing innocent mothers or allowing them to teach their own children that homeschooling as we now know it became legal (although it still retains too much in the way of bureaucracy).
To all you young parents or potential parents out there, I urge you to recognize your child’s innate learning potential, and not let it be squashed by a system that will relentlessly teach them to be but another cog in the machine. And to all you political activists, think-tankers, and journalists out there, I urge you to speak out against coerced schooling with the same vigor with which you attacked Common Core. It has been said that gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice, meaning that by focusing on small, incremental steps rather than ultimate goals, we are destined to get nowhere. The experience of the last few years proves this to be the case. If we want to really make a difference, let’s get radical.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.