The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Essays

The Common Core and Democratic Education

Johann N. Neem

Fanatic Studio/Getty Images.

David Coleman, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and the current president of the College Board, is one of the key figures behind the recent Common Core State Standards initiative. He has been described as “an utterly romantic believer in the power of the traditional liberal arts,” and Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2013. He is also a former Rhodes Scholar “whose conversation,” Dana Goldstein wrote in The Atlantic, “leaps gracefully from Plato to Henry V,” and who has “advanced degrees in English literature from Oxford and classical philosophy from Cambridge.”1

At least on paper, Coleman is precisely the sort of person you would want in charge of a national standards initiative. But when outlining the kind of education he wants for American children, he sets his sights much lower than you might expect. When asked in 2012, for instance, why he chose to become the College Board’s new president, Coleman responded that he believed that the organization could “help the movement towards agreement that college- and career-readiness is the goal of K−12 education in this country.”2 That phrase, drawn directly from the Common Core standards, reflects a diminished understanding of democratic education.

Coleman’s fellow business leaders have been more explicit. Chris Kershner, a member of the Dayton (Ohio) Area Chamber of Commerce (and a Common Core advocate) put it this way: “The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a work force in the future.”3 For Kershner, there is little doubt about whose interest public education should serve.

We Americans once saw public education as something more than just preparation for the work force; we saw it as a means of preparing citizens and developing human beings. The Common Core signals an absence of one understanding of education, but also the presence of something else. To understand this something else, we must look to recent history.

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