Every hometown has its hero and every cause its champion. They’re all worth remembering to someone, somewhere. But imagine if the federal government mandated that every child in the country had to learn about all of them as part of a national curriculum. It would be absurdly impractical.
Some faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy — or worse, Congress — would have to decide who gets cut. Can you imagine how much we’d fight about that? Well, look no further for a real-world example of this potential disaster than the controversy surrounding a recent decision to remove Helen Keller and others from such a list in Texas.
Last month its State Board of Education voted to adjust who its students must learn about, and Keller was removed from the statewide curriculum requirements. That preliminary decision didn’t sit well back in Alabama, especially in Keller’s hometown of Tuscumbia.
“I was shocked and disappointed when I received this news,” said Sue Pilkilton, executive director of the Birthplace of Helen Keller, in an email. Visitors travel there from around the world to see the pump where Keller as a 7-year-old famously learned to spell “water.” “Helen Keller is an international historical figure,” Pillkilton added. “She is in history books around the world, not just in the U.S. … In my mind, I don’t understand why people are trying so hard to do away with our history.”
The decision to remove Keller followed weeks of heated debate in Austin about who should stay (Billy Graham made the cut), and who should go (Hillary Clinton and Barry Goldwater were removed, along with enlightenment thinker Thomas Hobbes).
The board also grappled with referencing how the “Judeo-Christian legal tradition” played a role in the development of our government and how “Arab rejection of the State of Israel” has led to ongoing conflict in the Middle East. “Japanese imperialism” was removed as a major cause of World War II.
We could argue for hours over the wisdom of the Texas board’s specific choices, but here’s the larger concern: Those are just a few decisions being debated in a single state. It’s a state, mind you, with a rather common identity, shared history, and sense of culture. Multiply that by 50 and spread it across our nation’s vast socioeconomic and cultural landscape, and you could easily see how we’d sink into a meltdown from the Puget Sound to the Florida Keys over the mandated content of a national-level curriculum.
While it’d be entertaining to watch Republican Rep. Mo Brooks and Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters debate who Americans our students must learn about when studying economics or patriotism, it’d be a fruitless and ultimately counterproductive exercise. Kids in Huntsville should learn whatever Alabamans want them to, and the same should go for kids in California. Kids in Texas, too.
While there is a difference in national standards and a national curriculum, this is one chief concern driving opposition to Common Core. As the Texas case shows, local school systems already cede a great deal of authority to state boards. Kick those decisions up any higher and we’d likely lose whatever little local control remains.
Still, those calling for a national curriculum often say such fears are groundless because their content plan would give local systems an unspecified degree of freedom to add whatever content they wished. But again, that’s exactly what happened on the state-level in Texas. The board didn’t forbid teachers from discussing Keller or Clinton, or anyone else for that matter. They’re just not mandating it, yet their decision still incited a heated argument.
In fairness, Texas was just trying to rack and stack who and what their students must study among countless potential people and subjects. One has to draw the line someplace. Otherwise kids would end up merely memorizing dozens of biographical thumbnails and endless from-to dates while never holding quality discussions of the virtues, or vices, those people epitomize or the impacts of certain events. We have to make choices.
Texas made its choice and, as they say in the Lone Star State, we shouldn’t mess with it.