That title above? It’s a ver batim quote from David Coleman, the co-author of the Common Core, and a man described by our former New York State education commissioner as being “at the center of the account of educational reform in this country”.
Please–don’t believe me. I’d be grateful if that were your first reaction. It was certainly mine.
But let’s back up a bit.
I first stumbled across its mention in a recent, fiery piece of Susan Ohanian’s on Coleman’s April 2011 presentation of the Core to educators in my home town of Albany, NY. Susan, for those of you not in English Language Arts circles, is an award-winning, tireless, crazy advocate for the primacy of literature, the importance of the aesthetic, and the autonomy of the educator. For the sake of objectivity, though, I felt it was important to read the transcript of the session myself, which she provided in link form.
It’s imperative to read David Coleman’s full statement.
Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a **** about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”
Later, in a related statement on academic vocabulary, he further remarks:
The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.
You can see clearly that this is a more nuanced opinion that one might think just by looking at the sentence with the “bad word,” which makes the situation better.
However, you can also see clearly that Coleman’s opinion is one which could easily dismiss a truckload of information students need to comprehend and write aesthetic, narrative text. (And not just narrative, either. At the seventh grade level in the Core, for example, the word “synonym” is denounced as “esoteric”.)
At the same time, Coleman’s convictions place the needs of the marketplace definitively over those of a holistic approach to personhood and education.
And all of this makes the situation much, much worse.
The Real Problem
After I got over my amazement, I realized the central problem with Coleman’s **** statement is not actually the “s-bomb”– after all, we’ve all slipped and made language choices with students that were not the most appropriate. Nor, on the other hand, is it the possibility that Coleman chose this language deliberately for its earthy shock value. Many intelligent, ethical speakers take this rhetorical route. In fact, if you study the transcript, it’s obvious that this is exactly what Coleman was doing. Permutations of other terse, down-home phrases such as “Let’s be honest, ” Forgive me, but…,” “Let’s be blunt,” and so on, appear at least six times in his speech on literacy. You could compare this, in his favor, to the significant number of times he makes also self-effacing statements such as “There are people more intelligent than I in this audience.” (This tendency has been noted in other presentations of Coleman’s as well.)
None of this is the problem. The problem is this: David Coleman is wrong.
My basis for this claim? I could cite research about the irreplaceable subjective connections in how we actually learn and comprehend our reading (which Coleman calls, demeaningly, “hovering around the text”), about the neurological primacy of narrative (which Coleman would near eliminate in the upper grades), or the cross-disciplinary necessity of effective metaphor (which neither Coleman nor his Core mention at all). All of these things, categorically, point to the reality of people “giving a ****”– not only about our internal opinions and emotions, but the aesthetic ways in which we convey information to one another.
I could do that. But instead, we’re going to talk about a real life example. No slimy unbathed beat poets, 99 Percenters, Sufi mystics, or Nobel-winning authors. Our example is Steve Jobs, possibly the most successful businessman and lauded entrepreneur in America’s history.
As documented in Walter Issacson’s biography on Jobs, Jobs’ music collection contained material from 29 albums of world-renowned lyricists Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and others. The literature that inspired him included poetry, Moby Dick and King Lear. His favorite class in college, according to him? Calligraphy.
Consider this, then: if The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez had been educated under the Common Core, would their art exist?
Without Shakespeare, Herman Melville, or Dylan Thomas– who, by the way, may have written the most compelling account of one’s childhood on the planet, in the poem “Fern Hill”– without these artists of the written word, would Steve Jobs even exist?
Consider, too, the genuine love and loss expressed by this country upon Jobs’ death two weeks ago. You may say that it’s because we can’t live without our iPods anymore, but I would argue that it’s because Steve Jobs was someone who could say this, at Stanford in 2005:
“…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
Type this quote into Google, and you’ll receive over three million hits.
These are not the words of evidentiary argument. They are the words of a man who knew his heart– and knew how to express it.
To Be Fair
Coleman and his Core pay some attention to aesthetic and narrative. It’s a far sight less than one would think, though, given that Coleman earned a master’s degree from Oxford University in– wait for it– English Literature. However, a glance at his circulated biography confirms that he has had equal, if not far more extensive, experience in corporate America. It’s an understatement, and a deeply disturbing one, to say that it shows.
But perhaps the most telling, if accidental, fact about Coleman’s presentation comes directly from the transcript I viewed. The phrase which angered Susan Ohanian so much, and which comprises the title of this post, is recorded there as follows:
“The only problem…is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sheet (sic) about what you feel or think.”
As a seventh grade English teacher, I tell my curious and clever students that the profanity that they occasionally encounter in our reading exists for a reason. Its non-gratuitous use is to express a deep, overwhelming emotion or conviction: so deep that it can only be reserved for the Anglo-Saxon or Norse versions of our words. That, I tell them, is how profanity should also be used not only in their own writing, but in real life.
It is easy to infer that David Coleman has turned his back on the nexus of power in language. Perhaps we don’t need to beat a dead horse by letting his transcribers do it too.