Standards Opinion

Paul Horton: Has Common Core Lost the Plot?

By Anthony Cody — January 09, 2014 5 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

David Coleman, the current Chairman of the College Board and principle author of the Common Core Standards, proved his mettle as a curriculum writer when he declared, “Forgive me for saying it so bluntly, the only problem with ...that [creative] writing is that as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a [expletive] about what you think and feel.”

My guess is that the bard pantheon up in the sky somewhere (Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Yeats, Woolf, Achebe, Borges, and Lessing) wouldn’t give a [expletive] about what Coleman thinks, either!

The fact is that humans are storytelling creatures! Now, there is nothing wrong with writing analytical memos. Heck, I get an analytical memo every day: my son can make a very concise and logical argument supported with more abundant evidence than any Pearson algorithm could possibly require for why he needs an iPhone. My guess is that if he wanted to become an aspiring global capitalist like Mr. Coleman he could sniff out the magic words in hundreds of memos while pimping “liquid information” for McKinsey Consulting. Mr. Coleman may be loyal to making money and now that he has much more than he could ever dream about, he may have no use for stories! Stay away from that Colorado hotel-keeping job: “all work and no play.........”

The oldest story in any book is about how greed corrupts. If you aren’t hospitable you might be smited (toasted). This is part of the reason why stories, storytelling, and story writing are so important. When you cut out creative storytelling and writing, you perform a frontal lobotomy on any culture, you dissolve the glue that holds any culture together.

Indeed, according to Jonathan Gottschall in his recent important book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human, storytelling must have an evolutionary purpose because it is a cultural trait that informs survivors, not those individuals and species that plod their way to extinction,

Because my strong attraction to fiction is deeply interwoven with my attraction to gossip and sex and the thrill of aggression...it would be difficult to get rid of the evolutionary bathwater of story without throwing out the baby--without doing violence to psychological tendencies that are clearly functional and important. (p. 30)

It turns out that we learn storytelling as we learn to play. Our colleague here at the Laboratory Schools, Vivian Paley, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient and kindergarten teacher, was a close observer of the spinning of stories that originate in play. Above all, play is essential and very complicated,

Whatever else is going on in this network of melodramas, the themes are vast and wondrous. Images of good and evil, birth and death, parent and child, move in and out of the real and pretend. There is no small talk. The listener is submerged in philosophical position papers, a virtual recapitulation of life's enigmas. (Paley quoted, p. 32)

If we push play to the margins of the early childhood learning as Coleman proposes that we do, to make room for nonfiction literacy and mathematics, children will “have fewer opportunities to rehearse for adult life,” says Gottschall. “From this perspective, children at play are training their bodies and brains for the challenges of adulthood--they are building social and emotional intelligence. Play is important. Play is the work of children.” (p. 41)

Gottschall believes that stories share common characteristics across cultures much as linguist Noam Chomsky has identified cross-cultural patterns in language. “No matter how far back we travel into literary history, no matter how deep we plunge into the jungles and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing thing: their stories are just like ours.” Although Gottschall, ever the reputable scientist, is careful not to make any Jungian claims, he does suggest “that there is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome.” (p. 55)

If you are like me, you might be asking yourself as a professional educator: could there be a connection between denying our children these common stories and replacing interactive play with digital video games, TV babysitting, and never-ending planned time? This is certainly worth considering as we are confronted with more young people who we refer to as being “on the spectrum,” especially as single child households become the norm.

A recent Stanford study has indicated that the number and complexity of words that a parent or guardian shares with a baby before eighteen months might partially determine the rate of a child’s acquisition of literacy in later years.

Perhaps more studies are needed to determine whether there is a similar bundled connection between exposure to narrative stories and creative writing and the development of social and emotional intelligence, empathy, tolerance, and sensitivity to the needs of others. To take things a step further, our codes of ethics, morality, and connection to the spiritual dimensions of experience have always been intertwined with our reading and writing about sacred texts, great poetry, and great literature.

When we marginalize storytelling, literary fiction, and creative writing within K-12 language curricula in favor of nonfiction documents and the construction of analytical memos that might please Pearson Education, McKinsey consulting, and Bill Gates; we risk losing something more important than the ability to construct analytical memos.

To do so would be to risk severing our connection to the rest of humanity, to fall away into the cold, endless, zero gravitational space: the existential reality of the jackhammering of human connection that is the object of uninhibited capitalism.

The metaphor of education as memo construction is the sign of the destruction of organic ideas of human development that extend from Plato to Rousseau and Dewey, three excellent storytellers.

Story--sacred and profane--is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinships ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction 'is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entrophy'. Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest can not hold. (p. 138)

Jonathan Gottschall makes a very important point here. We need to think about this issue as we think about how why the corporate reform movement seeks to limit play, storytelling, and creative writing at school.

What do you think? Should fiction and creative writing be sacrificed in schools to implement an untested Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.