The Confabulation of the Common Core (and other observations of human behavior)


We have to concede that as a society we are relatively short sighted, over reliant/dependent on sound bites to formulate opinions, and focused way too much on receiving immediate gratification. These character defects extend way beyond just what’s happening in schools. As with our responses to climate change, the increasing abuses of big data and technology into our private lives, our collective ignorance to and our indifference to corporate take-over of food production, and the global abuses of human rights and the environment by corporate billionaire industries, the broader lack of understanding around what is really happening to public education is fueled by our instinct of self-interest, and a naive over- reliance on our leaders to care about what happens to us. How is this possible? How is it that can we continue to ignore the volumes of real research, facts, and plain as day in-our-face evidence that would demand we take action for our own long range collective survival?

Last week I heard a radio interview with the author of the book You’re Not So Smart by David McRaney. It lends a fascinating and much needed insight into why we think and behave in absurd counter-logical ways. In the interview the author explained that what constitutes “reality” for most of us actually is grounded less on the facts of reality and is constructed more on partially fabricated memories of events, our desires to confirm our pre- existing beliefs which lead us to (re)arranging reality to support our perception of it, and an unconscious need to feel validated and justified; even if there exists monumental evidence to the contrary. McRaney states: “You are a confabulating creature by nature. You are always explaining to yourself the motivations for your actions and the causes to the effects in your life and you make them up without realizing it when you don’t know the answers.”

It’s easier to see this in others, and much more difficult to see in ourselves. It’s easy for me to see how certain Tea Party members might believe that they are fighting for the freedoms of everyday folks while ignoring the fact that the movement was largely funded and manipulated by the wealthiest billionaires, the Koch Brothers. The theory of confabulation explains for me how a working class guy living in a trailer in Tennessee can be in favor of party policies which seem to work in direct opposition to his own interests for self preservation. How can my imaginary guy in TN share space with a political party also occupied by corporations responsible for disempowering the poor and working class like himself through deregulations that pollute his waters, strips him of (or denies him) health care for his family, and that erodes his safe and ethical working conditions? Using words that appeal to this imaginary man’s fears, hopes, and needs such as “freedom” and “individual rights,” free market billionaires spin a story in which our man is the main character and in which his “devoted politicians” have his “best interest at heart.”

But he is not alone. I state again, none of us are immune. Leaders associated with and from the Democratic Party, and other supposed “liberal” or “progressive” organizations have confabulated a dubious narrative as well. Using words that appeal to their constituents, such as “equity” and “fairness” they argue for a faith in regulation of schools, the national common core standards, testing accountability, and giant data base that tracks kids “progress” in schools as tools to help better serve the poorest and neediest of children. Anyone who continues to believe this has been duped too. Many folks want to believe this so badly that they cling to the sound bites and ignore the reality. Charter school reformers can make the grandest of claims, and Bill Gates can craft the most humanitarian speech he likes about the “value” of “big data” to rescue poor children from poverty. But the truth … looking at the facts …is that their big initiatives are actually harming the same children and communities they claim to serve. Simultaneously, to appeal to the libertarian parents these same reformers “code switch” and use language like “deregulation” and freeing communities of “government-run schools.” They use whatever language they can to appeal to all of our pre-constructed set of ideals, or our desire to want to believe that these policy makers care about us.

There has been much passionate and intense discussion around whether or not people and organizations on the “left” and conservative “libertarians” can find common ground against the common core. My answer is yes and no. First, we must get past the collective hijacking of reality. Conservative-minded people disdain “big government” and liberal-minded people disdain “big business.” But as every day working class individuals of varying political views, we might all need to admit that these bifurcations no longer suffice. While we waste time arguing with one another in personal attacks, big government and big business have run off and eloped…

Anthony Cody  did a fabulous job of summarizing the similarities and differences in the case against the Common Core from different ideological perspectives so I won’t visit that in detail here. Stephen Krashen deftly explored the false claims about the Common Core and Paul Thomas too nicely illustrates  how false claims about the Common Core lead to confabulated realities. Read all three together and you get a pretty good sense of where I’m going with this.

One hurdle to creating alliances is with the differences over basic ideological underpinnings of how society and government should function. Using a broad (perhaps over-generalized) brush I can surmise that neoliberals (aka right wing, republicans, Tea party and/or libertarians) eschew federal oversight of American life and a focus on individual freedoms. Some prefer federal “intrusion” to be minimal while others might wish for it to be eliminated completely. Conversely, a left-centered (aka progressives, liberals, Democrats, pro-labor, and/or leftist) perspective might be understood as one that values varying degrees of federal regulation aimed toward protecting a common good and a focus on social equality.

But if you self-identify as Conservative and really want to fight the common core you need to take your battle a little closer to home. Are you someone willing to be honest enough to accept the reality that members of your own political affiliations actually helped launch the policies against which you are now fighting?

And from the so-called progressive movement, we need to be rigorously honest in accepting the fact that many leaders in “pro labor” and “pro public education” organizations have compromised in the name of getting a seat at the table so much that they’ve simply sold out the rest of us.

Can ”progressives” and “conservatives” agree to disagree about the Common Core and still disagree with each other (sometimes to the point of “fighting words”) over the purpose for and value of preserving public schools? Maybe. Maybe not.

If those of us across the broad spectrum of ideologies are to work together in any capacity, we need to do more than challenge individual or party-oriented confabulations. We need a set of guiding values or principles upon which we can generally agree.

Laying agreed upon ground rules

1)      1) I will not negotiate with any individual, group, or politician (regardless of their political affiliation) who engages in a free-market, neoliberal assault on our public education system in an attempt to privatize public schools and place it in the hands of private “entrepreneurial” hands.

2)      2) I do not believe in negotiating my way to getting a seat at the big-boy’s table. Fuck their table. I want to flip it over, and start our own. And they’re not invited.

3)     3)  I do not believe in creating a large umbrella that is so “inclusive” that it waters down and compromises our resistance at our children’s expense. I don’t treat this fight like baseball trading cards, “I’ll give you teacher merit pay if you stop funding XX amount of charter schools…”

4)     4)  Let’s make sure we’re operating under the same set of facts. Perhaps because of a psychological phenomena known as “confirmation bias,” some folks are grasping at straws of “evidence” to support their idea that common core is a leftist plot of some sort. This is a prime example of what McRaney calls “creating complete lies which they then hold to as reality.” If you go visit the website of the creators and supporters of the common core you WILL find conservative-minded free-market think tanks and billionaire philanthropies and corporations, not communists and radical leftists. Truth is that conservative corporations are collaborating with their supposed “enemy”-big government-to craft the world for the rest of us in a way that serves their own interests.

5)      5) We must acknowledge that Common Core does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a multi faceted attack on public education. Common core is a vehicle that 1) delivers the data used to discredit qualified and good teachers, 2) uses data to support a conservative agenda of union busting, 3) creates the appearance of failing public schools which can be now be replaced with “innovative” privately owned charter schools that increase racial segregation and harm economically disenfranchised communities, 4) lines the pockets of (mostly conservative) billionaires and 5) ushers in greater forms of social control for the rest of us at the hands of corporations using the state and federal governments as their personal trained homing pigeons.

6)     6)  It’s not enough for me to fight against Common Core simply because of one facet of it that I don’t like, or because of what it does to the quality of my child’s education or violations to my child’s privacy. The well-being and rights of other people’s children is important to me as much as is the well-being and rights of my own.

7)     7)  I will not negotiate with individuals or groups whose policies or behaviors are grounded in a false construction of reality crafted consciously (greed) or unconsciously (confabulation) toward their own benefits at the expense of others. I base this not on what they say, or what I want to hear, or what their policies validate for me, but by the measure of the outcomes for those most greatly affected.

What do I advocate for?

1)      The right for all individuals to have viable access to basic human resources such as healthy food, clean water, humane living conditions, and quality health care.

2)      A legitimate and secure space for all individuals regardless of race, religion, culture, sexual orientation,  or social class, to enjoy equal access to the same opportunities, human dignities, use of public spaces, and legal rights as everyone else.

3)      A democratically-led balance between individual rights and freedoms and the need for state or federal regulation to keep the powerful corporate venture (vulture) capitalists from preying upon people and the planet.

4)      The preservation of well-funded, meaningful, sustainable public school access for ALL children, a system that meets all their developmental and human needs as a fundamental necessity for the maintenance of a democratic society.

If you can stand with me against all of these tentacles of reform, and support the goals outlined above, then I don’t care what your political affiliation is, whether or not you home school or pay tuition to the toniest private school in the nation. I don’t care whom you vote for, whom you pray to, or if you don’t pray at all. I don’t care what neighborhood you live in, whether you shop with food stamps, collect unemployment, or shop at Gucci. It’s simple: rather than relying on ideology to shape how I choose to perceive education reform, I use the facts and realities of what I see happening as the result of reform policies, and principles of fairness, equity, dignity, and freedom to shape my ideology.

Democracy necessitates discord, disagreement, and sometimes even occasional incivility. I’m sure even the Founding Fathers hurled their share of “fuck yous” or “Shut up, you’re wrong and I’m rights” across the table. Democracy cannot withstand apathy, insular thinking, or silence. I’d rather learn from my mistakes than relish in my unwillingness to try. We must invite various forms of dialogue lest we become a society that separates “me and mine” from “them and theirs.” I wish to avoid the “I’m right and you’re wrong” game because that’s the terrain of extremists and hate groups, and I wish to be careful to avoid such trappings and become the thing I detest. Such philosophies have led to the greatest human injustices we have witnessed in modern history. But I also stand firm in my beliefs, and I want to avoid the traps of watered-down compromises, concessions, and selling out. So what to do?

I am to take a stand, if I am to refuse compromise, if I am to go down fighting, it will be for principles and goals listed above. Does what I am fighting for result in the maximum benefit for the most people, not just me and mine? Will my efforts lead to greater positive humane outcomes for others? My opposition to Common Core rests in this litmus test. If yours does too, then let’s dance. You know where to reach me.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

8 thoughts on “The Confabulation of the Common Core (and other observations of human behavior)

  1. The corporate-state has been hijacking public education for decades now. Both major political parties have been part and parcel to this. And while a lot of experimentation with privatizing public education has taken place in the large cities of America, it is now a refined strategy in play that is sweeping up the rest of the country, and the world for that matter. Sounds exaggerated? Well, take a read of this essay and say it ain’t so, Joe:

  2. You had us nodding our heads in agreement all the way to the last paragraph, then we were completely baffled to see the radicalism rounded off with that reference to Rawls. Why? Rawls so easily lends himself as an apologist for the neo-liberal status quo. You say some very forthright things about democracy then fall back on the dubious idea that the highest priority is distributive justice – the distribution of goods and property. Surely not (which is not to say that distributive justice does not matter). Surely the highest priority is democratic culture itself. We need an education system organised around the idea of democracy as the fully-inclusive and utterly open-minded shared pursuit of the highest notions of the good that we can come to agree on (a notion of democracy that goes beyond the liberal taboo on rich notions of the public good). One thing that Rawls is adamant about is the veil of ignorance, which rules out those rich notions of the public good. We are forced to view society in the atomistic terms that the corporate lackeys insist on. See, for instance, this British right-wing appropriation of Rawls, arguing that Thatcher was a consistent adherent of the same “difference principle” that you rely on:

    With fellow travellers like that, surely we see the need to look for a better theoretical underpinning?

    1. thank you torn halves!!!! I appreciate the deeper analysis of Rawls–i indeed need to re examine my initial premise there–i always appreciate growing in my understanding-thank you

      1. well…I’ll be honest-it’s long and I think there’s volumes to deconstruct about this-my own central question goes to his final slide that suggests that the new common core is aligned with a UN “Marxist” one world government–now while from a conservative perspective it might FEEL Marxist…and I too am not thrilled with the whole World bank pulling the strings kind of universe…I’m with you on that…BUT it’s not the Marxists of the world sponsoring this stuff….it’s multinational corporations–most of whom are VERY RIGHT WING and conservative–they belong to ALEC and promote a free market conservative agenda….NOT a leftist one!! I wish the presenter if that video could address that issue…and even a member of The American Enterprise Institute signed on to a policy paper sponsored by Council on Foreign Relations calling for a NATIONAL set of STANDARDS-COMMON CORE. Companies and politicians from free market and libertarian minded think tanks have their finger prints all over this–not a Marxist in sight….

    2. laughing all day at my own folly Torn Halves. I guess i could have pretended that i was being ironic 🙂 (i.e. deliberately doing the same thing i am criticizing us for doing in the blog itself-running on ideals based on partial knowledge) …i guess i am an example of how easy it is to fall into this trap…and how open dialogue and a willingness toward self examination is so necessary-i edited the bottom portion because i recognize that without a fuller understanding of all of Rawls’ philosophy i best not hang my hat there

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