COMMENT: Common Core & Postmodernism—Is There A Connection?

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In my May 7th, 2014, blog post I talked about Common Core. In my earlier post I pointed out that Common Core is an attempt by educators to standardize teaching curriculums across the US with the central goal of raising the US’s reported dismal world standing in science and math. I mentioned the following tweet by comedian Louis C. K.:

“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Well, apparently a third grade teacher teaching in NYC saw Louis C. K.’s tweet and wrote a response: A Teacher’s Words to Louis C.K. I’ll leave you to read this teacher’s response in full. For my purpose here, a couple of quotes will suffice. Here’s one:

In math, we’re now focusing on the concepts underlying the problems—so that students understand not just how to solve a problem, but why that’s the right strategy, and how to apply their knowledge to other problems. These changes are indeed driven by Common Core, a new set of multi-state learning standards that challenge students to think rather than compute, and that provide all students with problem-solving skills that will follow them through the rest of their academic careers and into their adult lives.

Here’s another:

It’s incredibly important that we make this shift, even if it takes time to get it right, because this new way of approaching math allows our students to build a stronger foundational understanding of math concepts. When Louis’ daughter masters this math, she’ll find herself open to the possibilities of more advanced mathematical thinking.

At times like these I find it useful to pull out a continuum that I first encountered while reading Systemic Intervention by systems thinker Gerald Midgley:

worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention

As I mentioned in my May 7th post, “critical thinking” has become the battle cry for Common Core. In my earlier post I suggested that Common Core rests on a foundation of postmodernism. I agree with the teacher above: Common Core does represent a huge shift especially in the areas of methodology and intervention. Heck, students are now being asked to write letters as a part of subtracting two numbers. So, for the rest of this post I’m going to assume that Common Core represents a huge shift in terms of educational methodology and intervention. In my opinion, that’s not where the focus should be. I would suggest that Louis C. K. gave “thanks” to the wrong part of the Midgley continuum. Rather than thanking Common Core for making his daughters miserable, maybe he should have “thanked” postmodernism. Is there a Common Core – postmodernism connection? You bet there is, and it’s a connection that no one seems to be looking at critically (speaking of critical thinking). Rather than debating whether a student should “write a letter to Jack” (which would be an intervention—see my May 7th post), let’s debate whether we should be filling the minds of kids with postmodern bunk. I have had my suspicions that there is a Common Core – postmodern connection (which I have blogged about before—see my April 2nd, 2014, post where I talk about educator Henry Giroux’s postmodern credentials), but let me just put it out there: Does Common Core embody and express a postmodern worldview? I think it does but I’d enjoy hearing from others on the topic. Here’s the continuum I come up with:

postmodernism <==> social constructivism <==> Common Core <==> writing a letter to Jack

Yes, no, maybe? Please, point me to where the postmodern leanings of Common Core are being debated.

So, what’s wrong with postmodernism? Looked at another way, what’s wrong with using postmodernism to frame math and science. As I have blogged about before, scientists are now speaking out on why a postmodern framing of science is a disaster. I’ll point the reader toward two books in particular:

  • A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science edited by Noretta Koertge (1998).
  • Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (2014).

But let me mention an example that I ran across in an unexpected place.

Recently I read a 2011 book by psychiatry professor Nassir Ghaemi entitled A First-Rate Madness—Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Apparently Dr. Ghaemi has been very vocal about his concerns surrounding postmodern frames within the field of mental health. In a footnote toward the end of A First-Rate Madness, Dr. Ghaemi mentions his review of Mania—A Short History of Bipolar Disorder by David Healy. Click on this link to read Dr. Ghaemi’s review of Healy’s book. Consider this quote from Dr. Ghaemi’s review:

[P]erhaps the most important matter to discuss in relation to this book is its underlying philosophy. It is a postmodernist interpretation of psychiatry, through and through. This is not to imply that Healy has read and studied Foucault or postmodern theory; it is to say that our culture is infected with these ideas, and this book is a symptom of that condition. Karl Jaspers taught that we always ascribe to a philosophy, consciously or unconsciously. A critique of any book needs to also try to see what its underlying conceptual assumptions are, and then to see if these assumptions are valid.

There you go: “our culture is infected with these [postmodern] ideas.” It would be silly to not ask if Common Core is infected with postmodern ideas. And Jaspers is right: “we always ascribe to a philosophy, consciously or unconsciously.” Jaspers says casually what Midgley above is saying formally: if you encounter a methodology and the interventions it entails, then there is a philosophy or worldview that holds both methodology and intervention. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hiding your philosophy or worldview, now, that’s a bad thing. So, come on Common Core, tell us your philosophy, your worldview, your paradigm shift. You have to have one. Dr. Ghaemi, in his review of Healy’s book, continues thus:

All this talk of “disease-mongering,” for instance, may perhaps be itself a symptom of a disease: the postmodernist disease. This is an affliction in which one thinks there is no such thing as Truth, or even truths; that all ideas are opinions, each more or less relativistically valid, or, perhaps (following Foucault) valid only in the context of “discourses” (cultural contexts) driven by power relations (wealth, social class). This is the world of Foucault and it has seeped into our culture, so that many of us in the Western world have imbibed these dogmas in our bones.

Yeow! Is Common Core spreading a postmodernist disease? No one that I know of seems to be debating this issue. Notice that the above quote reveals many aspects of the postmodern disease as Dr. Ghaemi calls it:

  • postmodernism holds that there is nothing approaching Truth.
  • all ideas, especially scientific ideas, are opinions.
  • everything is relative.
  • it’s all about discourses or narratives (i.e., letters to Jack)
  • it’s all about power relations

I’ll throw in another that Dr. Ghaemi does not mention: it’s all about liberation. I think this is the “bottom line” that we need to keep in mind:

This is the world of Foucault and it has seeped into our culture, so that many of us in the Western world have imbibed these dogmas in our bones [many times without even knowing it].

So, when Common Core educators talk about huge shifts, are they talking about a huge shift toward the postmodern world of Foucault or even Marx? Naomi Klein talks about what she calls “disaster capitalism”—capitalists creating markets within the rubble of a disaster (i.e., setting up charter schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina). Maybe we should talk about “disaster socialism.” Is it possible that proponents of Common Core are using crumbling and underperforming schools as an opportunity to spread the dogma of postmodernism? A bit further along in his review we hear Dr. Ghaemi make the following observation:

The postmodernist critique is, in great measure, a reaction to the positivistic philosophy of science that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet the options are not the two extremes of postmodern nihilism or positivistic dogmatism. There are other perspectives, such as Karl Jaspers’ pluralism (expanded in the Continental tradition of phenomenology) or William James’ pragmatism (expanded later in the works of WVO Quine, Daniel Dennett, and others). There is indeed, dare one use the word, a spectrum; and like all debates, the partisans at the extremes make the most noise.

Is Common Core and the postmodern foundation that holds it centrally about nihilism, or is it on some kind of continuum? I think this is a question we should entertain. Is Common Core and the postmodern foundation that holds it “a reaction to the positivistic philosophy of science that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries”? Is the big Common Core shift a shift toward postmodernism with its desire to liberate us from positivism? I think this is a debate that we should have before we move our entire school system over to Common Core. As a side note, John Bowlby (and many other systems thinkers of his time) deliberately tried to take up a middle ground between abject reductionism on one end, and New Agism on the other.

Let me end with the following caution delivered by Dr. Ghaemi in his review of Healy’s book (sans references):

Daniel Dennett recently gave a remarkable lecture titled “Postmodernism and Truth” in which he makes the point that postmodernist professors of literary theory can afford to be relativistic because they never get sued. Doctors do not have this luxury. I have a simple question for adherents to the doctrine that there is no Truth: would they give lithium in toxic trough serum levels of 4.0 mEq/L to a patient? The fact is that, in medicine, we have a deep moral responsibility precisely because there are truths, because we know how to kill as well as help, because indeed (according to the Institute of Medicine) up to 100,000 patients in the US are killed by medical error yearly (not to mention systematic dogmatism). If we can kill, and we can be sued, and we can be held responsible for right and wrong action, then there are truths, and extreme postmodernism is false, or at least, unrealistic. Healy the clinician knows about these realities but Healy the historian is not explicit about them. In fact, by devoting an entire chapter to analogizing the current psychiatric view of bipolar disorder to Stalinism, he is treading onto dangerous territory.

I think what Dr. Ghaemi is referring to here is the realization that postmodernists tend to condemn things like Truth, and science, and modernism, and positivism, and empiricism, and after they are finished spewing forth, they get into their automobiles, drive across bridges, visit their medical doctors, and ride up elevators to their apartments high above the ground, and feel safe about doing so. As a colleague asked me recently: “Would you rather drive across a bridge designed by a modernist or a postmodernist?” To me the answer is clear: modernist! So, maybe we should be asking, “Do we want to go to a doctor trained after Common Core or before Common Core?” How about a plane designed after Common Core or before Common Core? Call me old fashion but I’m going to stick with trains, planes, and cars designed and built before Common Core. And I’ll bet most proponents of Common Core will too.

So, parents, you may wish to “thank” postmodernism for the pain and anxiety your children are feeling. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. And educators, ask yourself, “Have I imbibed postmodern dogmas in my bones without even knowing it” (paraphrasing Dr. Ghaemi from above). Is it possible that the US’s reported dismal world standing in science and math is in large part attributable to the slow creep of the “postmodern disease” (as Dr. Ghaemi calls it) into our educational system? Everyone, use your critical thinking skills to reflect on a possible (nay, likely) connection between Common Core and postmodernism. Before you drink the postmodern Kool-Aid, think about what you’re doing. A young mind is depending on your ability to engage in this type of critical reflection.