Core teaches citizenship

The Common Core will teach kids to be good citizens, argues Ross Wiener in The Atlantic. The new standards aren’t just about college and career readiness. Common Core is “deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

The Common Core identifies three texts—and only three texts—that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (Preamble and Bill of Rights), and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

. . . Acknowledging the explicit prioritization of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution can re-center the political debate on the merits of Common Core. These documents are embraced across the country and across the political spectrum because they represent the common ground and shared commitments that unite us as Americans. Understanding them is at the core of why public schools were created in the first place. Closely reading and deeply comprehending these documents is essential to Thomas Jefferson’s vision that public schools should enable every American “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country” and to scrutinize the actions of public officials “with diligence, candor and judgment.”

High school English Language Arts standards call for students to analyze the historical and literary significance of foundational U.S. documents and speeches, Wiener writes. Examples include Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Students are expected to “understand Supreme Court opinions and dissents and decide for him or herself whether the Court arrived at the right decision.”

“Common Core articulates standards for speaking and listening that develop students’ ability to participate in democratic debate,” writes Wiener.

Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a fair hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

These are college, workforce and citizenship skills, Wiener concludes.

High school graduates will be able to evaluate the merits of U.S. Supreme Court decisions? “O brave new world that has such people in’t.”

I was in Junior Great Books from fifth through ninth grade. We started each year by discussing the Declaration of Independence. It took us three years to get past “all men are created equal.” We never made it past the “pursuit of happiness.”

About Joanne


  1. High school graduates will be able to evaluate the merits of U.S. Supreme Court decisions? “O brave new world that has such people in’t.”

    LOL. Having been through law school, I totally agree. Attempts to parse Supreme Court opinions by high school students are most likely to consist of popularity contests, both between people and ideas.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I completely agree.

      Students are perfectly capable of having opinions and arguing about policies. But they are in no way equipped to read a judicial opinion and say whether the Court arrived at the “right” decision. Their decisions are not (supposed to be) about setting policy, but about settling specific disputes. And those specific disputes are intensely factual matters.

      What’s more, the Court doesn’t necessarily consider all of the facts: it’s limited in its inquisitorial abilities to the record provided to it by the litigants, by the rules of evidence, etc.

      Students need to understand the world of facts that the Court has before it before they can even THINK about assessing whether the Court made the “right” decision.

      (This is putting aside the fact that it’s analytically impossible for the Supreme Court to come to the wrong decision, legally speaking.)

      Of course, there are greater powers in our society who would LOVE to have entire generations of schoolchildren growing up to think of the Supreme Court as a sort of Aristocratic or Oligarchic Policy Body, because that’s what a certain sort of intensely political person wants the Court to be.

      It allows end runs around the messy, slow business of legislation, that pernicious process where the people actually have a voice.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “This is putting aside the fact that it’s analytically impossible for the Supreme Court to come to the wrong decision, legally speaking.”
        I am not familiar with the phrase “analytically impossible.” Does this mean that if the Supreme Court rules 5-4 that a 30 year old non-US citizen should become president, that this isn’t a “wrong” decision even though the words of the document clearly preclude this?

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Yes, that’s what it means.

          The Supreme Court could read that clause and say that the age requirement emerged from a world in which formal education didn’t exist, and that a 35-year requirement is age discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause (which came afterwards and could be seen as a modification).

          And there’d be no one to say that the Supreme Court was wrong, because they’re the last word on such matters.

          They cannot be wrong, because it is their decisions that determine what is right and wrong, legally speaking.

          That’s why it’s analytically impossible — the very concept of “right decision” is determined by the Supreme Court’s decisions.

          That’s not to say that they can’t change their minds. But that just changes the nature of the legal “truth”.

          This is one of several ways that you can tell that law and philosophy/ethics are separate fields.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            So this is a polite way of saying that the Supreme Court is (or can become whenever they wish) an oligarchy, right?

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Well, they don’t have any battalions. So there’s that.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            This is like the story about the three baseball umpires explaining how they call balls and strikes.

            The first says, “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.”

            The second says, “I calls ’em like they is.”

            The third says, “I calls ’em then they is.”

            The Supreme Court is that third umpire.

  2. cranberry says:

    It’s not enough. Close reading of the “three documents” teaches very little of citizenship, if the students don’t know those documents’ context in history. Eliding most of the Constitution makes no sense, by the way.

    This isn’t an improvement; as far as I know, most states require a course on US History for graduation. So I fail to see how requiring students to read those particular documents closely improve things.

    I fear school administrators will feel pressure to ignore literature, and world history, to focus on subjects and topics which are already sufficiently presented to students in the high school curriculum–for those students who are paying attention.

    If you spend too much time on one small part of world history, you won’t have time to learn of the Magna Carta, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” the Suffragettes, etc. As a consequence, you will be less well prepared to be a citizen in the 21st century.

    • I agree. If you don’t know the context, you’ll just spend all your time talking about race and gender (which is just how this was designed) and never get around to the real roots and obligations of democracy.

      It is a basic moral principle that, for democracy to work, all “rights” must be balanced by “responsibilities”. Since we have discarded this principle, no amount of reading or analyzing the source documents will lead to better citizens.

  3. If you read the appendices to the common core, for samples of the sort of texts the author’s have in mind, you’ll get a distinct impression that the interest is far more in progressive articles about those documents than the documents themselves.

    Howard Zinn is the presiding spirit of public school teachers’ understanding of America’s past.