School Brainwashing in the Age of “Common Core”

Obama speaks to students in school

A Daily Dose of Reason reader wrote to me about his 11-year-old son.

He came home with a social studies project to pick the “best” one of [President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] FDR’s four “freedoms.” I encouraged my son to choose the first, freedom of speech, after he initially indicated an interest in the third, freedom from want. I was dismayed at how difficult it was to put into words what is otherwise natural to me ( I am a staunch capitalist and highly educated): the difference between a freedom/right and a security/privilege.

I understand wanting to discuss freedom of speech rather than “freedom from want” as a political right. I realize that one right is valid, while the other is fallacious and phony, and you’d like to rush to defend the valid one first. However, if I were you, I’d probably dive right into the erroneous concept of “freedom from want” and encourage him to think about it.

I’d ask him, “What do you think freedom of want means?” I’d ask for his definition first, so you’ll both know what you and he are actually talking about. If he can’t define it, I’d help him explore possible definitions. I’d next ask him what it means for the government to provide a freedom from want. If freedom from want means you’re entitled to make somebody else pay for your dinner, your bicycle or your toys, then does someone else — by the same right — have the ability to make you pay for theirs? Keeping in mind that it’s a law, it will apply to everyone equally. You won’t be able to decide when to follow the law, or not.

Use examples relevant to him, personally. For example, talk about your next-door neighbors, family friends or his best friend’s parents. How would he feel if the government forced them to pay for your own house, food or vacations? Or the other way around? Would this be awkward? Would it feel right, and good? Would it be right and fair? Why or why not? If he says no, it doesn’t sound fair, then it’s important for him to understand that this is what “freedom from want” requires, and he doesn’t have to agree with it. Truth comes before authority, even the sacred authority (according to his school) of FDR.

The best way to fight brainwashing is to ask questions the brainwashers are counting on you never to ask. I’m talking less about the teachers themselves (although sometimes they’re guilty) than I am about the people in the U.S. Department of Education, state boards and elsewhere who plan out these pseudo-academic and faux-objective exercises cloaked in bias, deceit and indoctrination.

Indoctrination is what Common Core is about. But that’s what public schools are about — and have to be, by definition. Children are forced to attend public schools (for all practical purposes, since there’s no real market for private education, thanks to the government). Government has a virtual monopoly on ideas, as transmitted to children. We don’t (at least yet) restrain adults in this way. Adults are still free to read the books and websites, or view the videos and televisions shows/movies, of their choice. But no public school curriculum allows for such diversity, and it can’t, by its nature. States and governments command and control; they don’t foster independent thought. They foster indoctrination.

I know lots of people who consider Catholic schools (especially the old model, from the 1940s and 1950s) to be institutions of indoctrination, while public schools are bastions of reason and independent thought. But public schools are engaging in just as much indoctrination, from a different direction, as Catholic schools ever did. The crucial difference? Public schools can’t go out of business, and will not ever stop what they’re doing.

Based on your son’s motivation and individual ability to understand, you might talk about how there are different systems people choose to live in. In one type of system, people are told what to do by the government, and they must follow these directives whether they want to, or not. In other systems, people are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, so long as they don’t physically harm or steal from someone else. Ask him to think about which system makes more sense to him. Remind him that you and he live in a system closer to the second than the first, although that’s changing. What would it feel and look like if you were suddenly living in a system more like the first?

In the public school system, a lot of these brainwashing techniques are based on half-truths. Teachers aren’t necessarily going so far as to tell children outright, “FDR was one of our greatest presidents,” despite the fact that not everyone agrees with this assessment. Although I expect some teachers do go this far (perhaps about our current President, as well), that’s not how the curriculum actually operates in theory. It’s much more sneaky than that.

“Common Core” is the name given to the basic content and approaches used by public schools nationally today. It’s as Orwellian (or Ayn Randian) as everything else we’re seeing nowadays. Names are deliberately given to concepts to describe precisely the opposite of what they are, and what anyone (with even a shred of intelligence and three seconds’ worth of independent thought) can see is phoniness. It’s like a sick mental joke, daring the object of the humor to say it’s other than it is. It happens only with the benefit of billions of taxpayer dollars, because without this coercion such educational snake oil wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes on a free market, where people choose to pay — or not.

Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, writes:

School is back in session, and debate over the Common Core is boiling in key states. As governors and legislators debate the fate of the Common Core, they hear Core advocates repeatedly stress five impressive claims: that their handiwork is “internationally benchmarked,” “evidence-based,” “college- and career-ready,” and “rigorous,” and that the nations that perform best on international tests all have national standards.

In making these claims, advocates go on to dismiss skeptics as ignorant extremists who are happy to settle for mediocrity. The thing is, once examined, these claims are far less compelling than they appear at first glance. It’s not that they’re false so much as grossly overstated.  [Source:, Common Core’s Five Big Half-Truths, 9/4/14]

In earlier eras, federal education policies stressed the need for “value-free” education. The idea was that in a pluralistic society, no particular approach to values can be shoved down a child’s throat.

Such a claim was always false, because you cannot completely disassociate facts from values. You can’t, for example, teach children about centuries of American history, or millennia of human history, and refuse to even engage in a discussion about which systems of government (economic freedom, Communism, fascism) result in more or less successful outcomes for human beings. Facts imply values, and (rational) values imply a reliance on facts. While opinions certainly differ on complex matters such as abortion and homosexuality, it’s still valid to talk in terms of right and wrong when — for example — talking about the correct answers to a mathematics problem, or the theme of a novel, or the impact of slavery on the Southern economy both before and after the Civil War.

Of course, all that has changed. Under Common Core, public schools have dropped the pretense of being “values free” and subjective. Your son’s questions assuming the validity of FDR’s “freedom from want” speaks volumes about just how “common” today’s core curriculum can be expected to be.

At root, the real “debate” here isn’t about what the standards of education should be. It’s about: Who decides? The government — or parents? Does the federal government have primary responsibility for determining how children are educated, including which Presidents will be identified as the great ones? Or should parents enjoy the freedom and responsibility of doing this in a free marketplace for education, phasing out the public school monopoly once and for all? If public schools are so great, then why are politicians so unwilling to end this monopoly? They surely don’t think people would opt out of the public system if it’s so great, do they?

The frightened answer from most people, sadly, is that because some parents are not highly educated, enlightened or responsible, we must put the federal government in charge of coming up with a one-size-fits-all, mandated, command-and-control system that must work for everyone equally. If it doesn’t — well, get over it and shut up about it. That’s why some people are calling public education, particularly under Common Core, “Obama Ed.” In principle, it’s the same as “Obamacare.” Government monopolization wipes out freedom, independence, competition and innovation. Education desperately needs these attributes — even more than grocery stores, cell phones and cable television stations.

Those who believe that a government monopoly is better equipped to handle something as sacred and important as the education of a young mind are — very often — the first people to send their children to private schools. (The Clintons, Bushes and Obamas come to mind as high-profile examples.) This proves that they know what they’re saying isn’t true; and they choose to ignore it.

They’re politicians and part of the elite of our society who will never want for a thing. But the rest of us don’t have that luxury. Real minds and lives are at stake here, and “Common Core” is only the latest — and more ridiculous — of programs to make it look like the federal government really knows what it’s doing for education.

The joke is on those who think it actually has a clue. Common Core is nothing more than a command-and-control monopoly emanating out of Washington DC — mouthing the words for a field they have no ability to manage, and no right to control.


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