The Common Core of Being: A Conversation About the Philosophical Foundations of "Common Core" in Education (Part Six)

Tod Desmond and Boyce Brown I Education I Theory I July 21st, 2015

The sixth and final part in a multi-part series of inquiries on "the philosophical foundations of 'Common Core' in Education." Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five

The beginning of Plato's Republic speaks clearly to when money as a medium of exchange was introduced. This made the expropriated surplus value easier to quantify, move and store. This time frame is also roughly coincidental to the "axial age" described by Jaspers (1968), when many young civilizations across the world made a quantum leap to a high level of spiritual, philosophical and cultural sophistication. It is also an era that can be used to mark the distinction between what Plato called the "fevered city" and the "healthy city" at the beginning of Book II of the Republic.

Although Plato was speaking allegorically about the differences between the two types of polities, he also taught and wrote during an anthropological moment when the notion of "power in social evolution" was in effect in an everyday empirical sense, when strong tribes and city-states often fought their neighbors for territory and resources needed to enable their ever-increasing division of labor and their ever-increasing appetite for luxuries ( Schmookler, 1994). Faced with conflict, the neighbors under attack by the fevered city would flee, be assimilated, be subjected, or fight back and win. In the Republic, Socrates asks, "Will a man, if he picks up a shield or any other weapon or tool of war, on that very day be an adequate combatant in a battle of heavy-armed soldiers?" (474c).

In this sense, civilization itself (or the dominator culture (Eisler, 1987), the predatory culture (McLaren, 1995), the pathocratic culture (Lobaczewski, 2006), empire (Korten, 2007), the psychopathic corporate culture (Bakan, 2004), and technocracy (Miller, 2009) is the fevered city. The simple, decentralized, self-sufficient agrarian vision of a healthy city envisioned by Plato is the only sustainable option available to us today now as a species. It is an ideal we must return to and progress towards. While we can, will and must retain some aspects of the fevered city - such as modern medicine, quantum physics, academic cosmology, computers and the internet - we must disavow many parts of it as well.

The modern version of Plato's fevered city (and nation-state) became even more fevered and manically self-destructive with the confluence of the scientific revolution, industrial revolution and the Enlightenment during the 18th century. Then, the use of hydrocarbons by participants in the industrial revolution allowed humans to live far beyond their annual solar budget, that amount of energy that can be embodied into food, wood, or animal power. This inaugurated an unprecedented expansion of human beings' impact on nature and the beginning of an exponential increase in the number of humans on the planet, as can be seen by any population chart.

In that transition, we have allowed the refinement of instrumental reason and the technological manipulation of the environment to become unmoored from any type of "moral question in the governing processes" (Indigenous Native American Prophecy, part 3). This has brought the world to the brink of severe environmental, economic, and geostrategic catastrophes, converging and culminating now, in a way that no previous crisis has prepared us for.

Even so, the guardians of representative democracy and their delegates in charge of the educational system continue to act as though the present global economic regime can continue forever. They offer us little beyond relatively superficial change when radical change is needed. We don't need to fix the public school system. We need "to fashion a radically new system from a radically different cultural foundation" (Miller, 2009, p. 123).

Some call this emerging paradigm the "great turning" (Korten, 2006). Plato's ultimate aim was to promote the "great turning" of the eye of the soul away from the dark cave of ignorance (the temporary world of three-dimensional forms) to the brilliant world of the sun (the eternal world of spiritual forms radiating from the idea of the good), as he has Socrates explain at the end of the cave allegory, which we discussed earlier. According to Socrates,

"Just as one might have to turn the whole body round in order that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor which we have called the Good. Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to effect this very thing, the conversion of the soul, in the readiest way; not to put the power of sight into the soul's eye, which already has it, but to ensure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be" (518b-d).

In this series we have suggested that a great turning toward the common core of being inside each of us may possibly be catalyzed by equating Plato's all-encompassing idea of the good with the gravitational singularity and surrounding horizon of the cosmos, as described by holographic string theory. To foster this quantum leap in the education system, moreover, the entire society must have its attention turned away from the deluding shadows on the back wall of the cave to the real source of the way things are at every level of existence: cosmological, psychological, political, and biological. Of course, this revolution will not occur without significant resistance from those who are profiting from the system as it exists today, because "conventional educational discourse is...deeply rooted in the language of technology, positivistic epistemology, and in the values of competition and socio-economic advancement" (Purpel, 1999, p. 110). Because of this conceptual framework and the prevailing professional dispositions of many teachers, administrators, education researchers and policy-makers today, most adjustments to the educational system typically remain at the level of "expertise-driven" technocratic tweaks.

This includes the reform initiative of Common Core, which is little more than an excrescence on the much larger framework of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and two decades of standards-based education reform. Major or minor, technocratic tweaks will no longer suffice. A wholesale revision to the education system is needed, one bold enough to match the challenge of our times. Unfortunately, such a revision will probably not be possible until the shocks to the broader social, cultural and poltical systems are obvious, inescapable and convulsive. Nevertheless, we must start creating options for a major redesign of our educational system today, so that these options are ready when they are needed. According to Dator,

"The purpose of education is unchanging and universal: to help learners live successfully according to the norms, requirements, and possibilities of the societies in which the learners will spend their lives. While the purpose is unchanging and universal, societies change, sometimes very rapidly and drastically, and societies differ considerably from one another at any point in time. … Indeed, ideally, educational institutions should guide and lead the changes of societies, but in fact seldom do" (Dator, 2014, para. 1-2).

Far from leading the changes of our society, educational institutions in America are being radically changed by non-academic actors who support the self-destructive status-quo. "No educational agenda is fully responsive to the conditions of our time unless it radically questions the foundational assumptions that produced, and continue to prop up, the educational arm of the technocracy" (Miller, 2009, p. 2).

We have proposed that the best way to help people from every political and pedagogical perspective radically question the foundational assumptions of Common Core is to conduct that conversation within the context of Plato's Republic and Dator's four generic images of the future. The Republic serves as a central hub into which each branch of academia can be plugged, because it is the original root from which all of those branches stem. Dator's theory (2006, 2014) offers pragmatism, simplicity and consensus.

Even though educational institutions seldom "guide and lead the changes of societies," they must (Dator, 2014, para. 1-2). If you don't recognize that now, you will. With the geopolitical, macroeconomic, and environmental shocks - occurring now, not reserved for some permanently indeterminate future, but an ongoing catastrophe of unimaginable proportions actually underway, we must. It is a gigantic project to turn education towards something as seemingly simple as sanity. But we must essay it. The great teachers of history - whose work did not suffer from a lack of exposure to Common Core - have already given us the road map. Let us take the best of the old and the new and dare to think sanely. It is our only hope.


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