Skip the Knowledge!
The Concord Review
Poor James Madison, back in the day, spending endless hours reading scores upon scores of books on the history of governments, as he prepared to become the resident historian and intellectual “father” of the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia! If he had only known what we know now thanks to the new Common Core, he could have saved the great bulk of that time and effort if he had only acquired some Thinking Skills instead!
Our schools of education have long understood that if a student teacher [sideguider] can acquire enough pedagogicalistical sophistication and the right Thinking Skills, she will be able to teach [sideguide] anything, from Mandarin to European History to Calculus to Home Economics, to classes with any number of students.
The Harvard College faculty wasted many hours in the 1980s trying to derive a Common Core of knowledge which every undergraduate ought to acquire. No one on the faculty wanted to allow any other member of the faculty to tell her/him what knowledge students needed to learn at Harvard, and none wished to give up teaching what he/she was currently studying to devote any time to a survey course in the general knowledge of their field or any other field. So they agreed, thirty-odd years ago, on a Common Core of Thinking Skills instead.(1)
It is not clear whether the knowledge-free curricula of the graduate schools of education, or the Core experiences at Harvard College, in any way guided the authors of our new Common Core in their achievement of the understanding that it is not knowledge of anything that our students require, but Thinking Skills. They took advantage of the perspective and arguments of a famous cognitive psychologist at Stanford in designing the history portion of the Core. Just think how much time they saved by not involving one of those actual historians, who might have bogged down the whole enterprise in claiming that students should have some knowledge of history itself, and that such knowledge might actually be required before any useful Thinking Skills could be either acquired or employed. If we had followed that path, we might actually be asking high school students to read real history books—shades of the James Madison era!!
Just think of all the time and effort that was expended by Professor Hirsch and all those who worked to develop, and are now working to offer, a Core Knowledge curriculum to thousands of our students. If they had only had the benefit of the cognitive psychology undergirding at least the history portion of the new Common Core, they could have skipped all that and gone straight to the Core Thinking Skills now being promoted across the country.
The whole idea that knowledge is so important, or should precede thinking about anything, is so antedeluvian (which means—oh, never mind—just more of that knowledge stuff!). What is the value of being 21st Centurians and right up-to-date, if we can’t ignore the past and skip over its history?
Our advance into the brave new world of thinking skills was anticipated by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, as far as I can tell by looking over the research interests of the faculty, long ago left behind such mundane matters as the chemistry, foreign languages, history, literature and mathematics that students used to (and some still do, I suppose) study in our high schools. The Education faculty has moved boldly on beyond all that academic knowledge to, in addition to lots of psychology/diversity/poverty/sociology/disability studies, the new bare essentials of Thinking Skills.
During the discussions over Harvard’s Common Core decades ago, one physics professor pointed out that in order to think like a physicist it is important to know quite a bit of physics, but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He had spent his whole career in the pursuit of a knowledge of physics, so naturally he would think that knowledge is more important than Thinking Skills, or, at least, should come first in the study of physics or anything else.
We have finally come to realize that, after all, Google has all the knowledge we will ever need, and so, with keyboarding skills, and some time in Common courses on Thinking Skills, our students will be well prepared to launch their careers as ignoramuses, and make their own unique contributions to the disappearance of knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the United States, and to the decline of our civilization (which means—oh, never mind—just look it up!).
Let those history-minded Asian countries continue to ask their students to acquire lots of knowledge. Our students will have their new Common Core Thinking Skills, and all the pride and self-esteem that the ignorance we have given them can support.
(1) Caleb Nelson, Harvard Class of ’88 (Mathematics) “Harvard’s Hollow Core,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990