Talk to personal trainers these days, and they will tell you that while bulging biceps and carved calves are valuable, what really matters is the strength of your core, the central muscles that ensure the body's stability and balance, the platform on which everything depends.
On that word "core" I want to hang an analogy that applies the notion of an indispensable platform to teaching and learning. In 2010 the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The standards represent one of the most promising developments in the decades-long effort to improve our country’s public schools. You may be thinking that you've heard that before. In the 1980s and 90s states throughout the nation adopted curriculum standards that were supposed to transform education. Yet here we are today still struggling with the persistent problem of academic underachievement. Why did our earlier efforts to establish standards not have the intended effect, and how are these new standards different?
Some states developed robust, muscular learning goals; others turned out rather anemic and feeble guidelines. For example, on the vital skill of discerning cause and effect, one state specified three detailed goals: explain how a cause and effect relationship differs from a sequence of events, distinguish between long-term and short-term cause and effect relationships, and show causal connections between particular historical events and ideas and larger trends and developments. In contrast, another state simply asked students to relate the causes and consequences of historical events to subsequent events. Similarly, when it came to student performance assessments, some states adopted evaluations that require students to do heavy lifting; others asked students to do little more than breathe. The state-by-state unevenness of standards and their evaluative instruments rendered them ineffective as engines of coordinated national reform.
The Common Core State Standards are not designed to supplant any of those standards, weak or strong. Instead, they seek to bolster all standards, not by identifying content-specific goals but by promoting an "integrated model of literacy" that encompasses skills in writing, speaking, and listening. At their heart, however, is the skill of “close, attentive reading” that will enable students to “pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” a skill as necessary in the workplace as in the classroom.
So how might these standards, based on a "vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," change teaching? For one thing, they emphasize the close reading of complex, challenging texts in all subjects, including math and science. To illustrate what close reading might look like in a high school class, consider how a teacher might apply it to the Declaration of Independence. After discussing the Declaration’s role in the American Revolution, she might zero in on its structure and language. She might examine the logic of its argument, leading students to discover that it is actually a three-part syllogism with a major premise — when a government destroys the inalienable rights of the people, the people have a right to abolish it — a minor premise — the King of Great Britain is destroying our rights — and an inevitable conclusion — therefore we have a right to abolish his rule.
She might ask students to critique the rhetorical impact of Jefferson’s use of repetition, or she might help them unpack the word "people" to see how Jefferson employs it to suggest unity among thirteen contentious colonies. In keeping with the standards, throughout the discussion she would ask students to support their responses by citing evidence from the Declaration itself.
This sort of teaching would help students understand the structure of a text, assess the logic of an argument, and develop an awareness of how language is consciously deployed to achieve meaning and impact. If students entered college with even a rudimentary grasp of those skills, they would have a substantial head start in mastering college-level writing. Every freshman composition teacher in the nation would rejoice. I know because I taught freshman comp for years. My colleagues and I did not expect to turn out prose stylists in two semesters, but if we inculcated the skills I mentioned, we headed into summer satisfied with job well-done.
The rigorous and sophisticated instruction called for by the new standards will, in many cases, require considerable teacher training, just one of the many expenses involved in implementing them. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if states will spend the millions required at a time when they are cutting education budgets. Evidence suggests that they will and, in fact, are. California is shifting administrative funds to cover some implementation costs, and the Santa Fe school district is devoting federal funds to Common Core teacher training. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is leading education reform initiatives that include the standards. New York has developed EngageNY, a website that provides implementation resources to teachers, principals, and administrators. Kentucky has aligned its teacher education programs to comport with the standards. The list goes on.
It is important to stress that the Common Core Standards are not mandated by the federal government or anyone else. Moreover, they do not represent an effort to micromanage the classroom or tell teachers what to teach. Focusing on essential skills, they leave plenty of room for teachers and curriculum specialists to develop specific content, those bulging biceps and carved calves. As their name indicates, the Standards concentrate on the core, the sophisticated literacy that prepares students for college and career and that constitutes the indispensable intellectual platform on which everything depends.
Richard R. Schramm is vice president for education programs at the National Humanities Center.
Addressing his professional colleagues in the preface to the first edition of his Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, the sober and unflinching Richard von Krafft-Ebing assured them he understood his duty to ward off the idly curious public. “A scientific title has been chosen,” he wrote, “and technical terms are used throughout the book in order to exclude the lay reader. For the same reason certain portions are written in Latin.” The translator of its 12th edition did not heed this due diligence. The case histories are all in English, and the “technical terms” Krafft-Ebing coined, such as “masochism,” would soon come into common usage.
Or perhaps they already were: it’s not clear when the translation appeared, though the scanned copy available at the Internet Archive looks like something printed in the 1920s or ‘30s. The paperback copy of Psychopathia that I found at a garage sale as a teenager (back in the pre-online, Betamax-era dawn of civilization) was a cruddy reprint of that edition, likely pirated in the early 1960s by somebody cashing in on the loosening of obscenity standards.
Krafft-Ebing would have been aghast to think of a wide-eyed adolescent reading his evidence that the limits of the human libido reach all the way to the limits of the human imagination -- if anything, a little beyond them. Kids these days have probably witnessed everything the Victorian-era sexologist describes on video by the age of 13, but the book sure did boggle my mind.
Time jades you. Sitting down to read John A. Long’s popular science book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex (University of Chicago), I felt immune to the kind of astonishment that Krafft-Ebing elicited in me ages ago. The cover – which should win a prize, by the way -- shows two fossilized dinosaurs in flagrante delicto, with a black censorship bar to keep things within the bounds of decency. Part of the humor, of course, is that the mentality that would be shocked by the scene is practically as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves.
It’s an astonishing book, even so. And in a couple of ways.
The author -- who serves as vice-president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- devotes roughly a third of the space to recounting how he and his colleagues at the Melbourne Museum identified the earliest known fossilized embryos of a vertebrate – discovered, complete with umbilical cord, in fish from 380 million years ago. Besides its age, the fossil revealed that the mother had been carrying her fertilized eggs, rather than just depositing them in a safe place.
The team announced its findings in a paper that ran in the journal Nature in 2008. It so happened that this roughly coincided with Queen Elizabeth's visit for the opening of its Royal Institution of Australia (described on its website as a “national science hub” for research and education). A computer-animated clip showing the prehistoric mother and child ran during the festivities, and Long spent a couple of sleep-deprived days answering questions from reporters around the world. Someone later calculated that the discovery netted “around $2 million worth of media coverage,” and within a week of announcing the fish’s scientific name, Materpiscis, a Google search found it appearing on almost 50,000 sites around the world.
The media frenzy sounds grueling, but it’s much less interesting to read about than Long’s account of subdued excitement in the laboratory, as the researchers figured out what they were seeing under the microscope. It was, Long explains, “the first known case for fishes, our distant ancestors, that involved the male copulating with the female rather than spawning in water like almost all fishes today do.” Long suggests that this intimate moment occurred on the ocean floor; and, given structure of the partners’ genitalia, the female was probably on her back as the male mounted her. (The missionary position has never seemed as old-fashioned as it does just now.)
Another paper in Nature from 1998 by a different group of Australian scientists determined that the earliest evidence of sexual reproduction of any sort can now be dated to somewhere between 1.68 and 1.78 billion years ago. Mind-bending as the temporal scale here may be, Long’s survey of the evolutionary history of sex is accessible and absorbing, and could be adapted for the screen easily enough. Which, given the rise of creationist museums, would probably be a good idea
But if it were, much of the audience would be shocked. Nothing prepares you for learning just how polymorphously perverse nature really is. Despite the enormous differences between Long’s book and Psychopathia Sexualis, they are both catalogs of behavior at its most extreme.
That doesn't mean gay penguins, either. A few years back, the heteronormative propaganda of March of the Penguins was undermined by news that Silo and Roy, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo, were raising a chick together – with similar arrangements emerging at other zoos around the world. This is not shocking. Same-sex erotic activity has been reported in about 450 species.
No, what we're talking about here is animal behavior that wouldn’t be appropriate to mention in a diversity training video: Female porcupines seen using a stick as a dildo, masses of grunions (a kind of fish) having regular orgies on the beach in California, and male bedbugs that impregnate by stabbing the female’s abdomen and ejaculating in the wound.
Once the glans of their partner’s penis has been inserted, female Chinese fruit bats perform the impressive feat of bending down to lick the exposed portions of his genitalia. This is the first known case of a non-human mammal “practicing [fellatio] as part of the stimulation leading to mating,” notes Long, “more or less as foreplay.” The Chinese scientists who reported the behavior indicate that “mating pairs spent significantly more time in copulation” when the female performed this acrobatic maneuver, as one may well believe.
The pages on necrophilia in Psychopathia Sexualis were, as I recall, particularly disturbing. Long points out that snakes and tortoises have been known to commit it – presumably as a result of confusion, rather than by preference. And there’s a kind of spider the very name of which recalls one of the technical terms Krafft-Ebing introduced: the Harpactea sadistica. The male has “needle-like structures” used “to stab the female and deposit his sperm directly into her ovary, eliminating the need for any courtship niceties.”
Well, all sorts of bizarre stuff is bound to emerge in the course of 1.7 billion years. Every kink its own genome. But the really strange thought is that most of this behavior must have proven its worth in the struggle to survive. Not the necrophilia, let’s hope. But who knows? After reading The Dawn of the Deed, it’s hard to think of anything as an unnatural act.
Given the work before us, I will go into my first class today and try to meet my students as simply and directly as possible. Some of this work comes from the past, some from the state, and some from what we in my department have agreed to do. Some of this work will come from what we carry with us, some from what we find blocking the way between us, and some from what we see up ahead. We variously work ourselves into the work of the other.
Education is labor-intensive and expensive because it falls upon the tangled mess of human relationships struggling to find the work that works best. We just can’t know the work before we work it. We hate the work we can’t make work, and we love the work we can. It takes time, and it takes money. And for some, more than others. Work, like love, is what we find when we find ourselves in what others have done.
The best teacher I ever had loved me for my work and I loved her for hers. With a blue pen, I put words on college-ruled pages in a three-ringed notebook. Those words helped me find what I loved about the world. About books. About school. About small towns. About rivers. About music. About words on pages. She met me simply in the classroom and surprised me by what she loved. I knew I could talk to her and she would help me find myself in what others had done.
I know you had a different teacher, but it’s still true.
Let me put it another way. We are always reaching back into what has already been made. We do this with all of our body. It is very hard and very easy. We do it when we want to. And we do it when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. We are always standing together splashing each other in joy and sorrow with what we have made.
But there are also some of us who are pressing our noses against the window of what’s to come. I’d like to see more of us breathing into that glass. I’d like college to be more like that kind of pressing and breathing and working. Let us make work at college a place where we are both in and at and outside that window. What’s out there? Who?
I know money is power and circulates in ways most of us don’t see. You probably have more than I do. Or I have more than you. We certainly have more than they do way over there. Still, we don’t have more than those who have decided what gets taught. Soon they tell us – as they always tell us — that we’ll need to do more with less because they’ll be putting more of their money elsewhere while putting more of their power upon us. After all, it’s their money. And it’s their power. How do they do this? I try not to cry about it.
And by not crying about it, I mean, I try not to cry about the tangled mess of education and power and money and work and how each of us finds our way in the world. It may be that we need better direction or better technology or better learning outcomes or better threats. It’s hard to know really.
But each day, we still show up at the knowledge factory. We know what our work is.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of the department of English and modern languages at Angelo State University, in Texas, where he teaches courses in composition, literature, creative writing, and English education.