Alice in Mandate Land

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the intellectually astute Alice meets the verbally evasive Red Knight, who proposes to sing Alice a song. The name of the song, says the Knight, is called "Haddock's Eyes."

"That would be the name of the song, then," Alice remarks. "No," says the Knight, "that's merely what the name of the song is called. Its actual name is 'The Aged Aged Man.' But that's only the song's name. The song itself is called 'Ways and Means.' " And so on, until it turns out that the song really is "A-Sitting on a Gate."

Carroll's conundrum about the name of the Red Knight's song illustrates the basic objection to the Michigan State Board of Education's Proposal for a Required Core Academic Curriculum for K-12, issued a few weeks ago in draft form.

The Proposal describes itself as a "list of student outcome expectations." If the Proposal were the Red Knight and Alice asked it what students would learn if it were enacted, the Knight would reply dodgingly, "This is what they are expected to learn." Parents, and concerned citizens ought to reply, "Yes, but what will they learn?" The Proposal is as cagey as the Red Knight about that basic question.

This is less true in its curricular recommendations for science and civics than it is, say, in its curricular recommendations for English Language Arts. It's much harder to be vague in science than in other areas, and in civics there are certain documents, like the Bill of Rights, whose specificity is unavoidable. A chain, however, is only as strong as its weakest link. Given the vagueness in the fundamental areas of language and literacy, essential to all rigorous thinking, it's hard to see how the ambitious and often specific goals set in other areas would be met. Perhaps the science and civics curricula should have been models for the English Language Arts curriculum.

In the introductory section entitled "Learning as Understanding," the Proposal's authors make the dubious claim that an obsolete approach to learning stressed "the dissection of learning into discrete facts and skills, which were often transmitted to the learner through lecture and recitation." The Proposal implies that this was erroneous and ineffective.

Instead of memorizing the rules of grammar or learning new words, students, the Proposal urges, should be creatively reasoning about them. The Proposal's authors insist that "it is no longer sufficient to simply 'know' mathematical facts; learners must be able to 'understand' the concepts behind them." Like the Red Knight, the Proposal retreats from things (from facts) to the names of things and finally to what the names of things are called. The Proposal does not give us learning; it gives us "expectations" about learning. It does not intend to inform students about facts; it intends to inform them about the "concepts" alleged to lurk in some manner "behind the facts."

"The nature of knowledge has changed," the Proposal assures us, and "the nature of learning is viewed differently now." Maybe so. But the Pythagorean Theorem is the same and as true today as when Pythagoras developed it, five centuries before Christ. As the Greek thinker Heraclitus concluded more than twenty-five centuries ago, an understanding of the world can begin nowhere else but in facts about the world. Regarding English Language Arts, the Proposal stipulates, for example, that "the goal should not be that students are able to list the events in a story, but that they develop understanding for why the author told the story." In common sense terms, however, story is identical with events in a story; the events are the story.

What would happen if this shoddy reasoning were transferred to the section on biology? Would it make sense to say that students have no need to be able to list the facts that led Darwin to formulate the theory of evolution as long as they develop understanding for why he formulated it? That would be an absurd offense against what science is. But students who think that an author's motive for writing a story can be divined without a knowledge of his story will be sorely unprepared to grasp the link between Darwin's facts and Darwin's theory.

The State Board of Education's Proposal is more of the same fuzzy thinking that has produced declining achievement scores and increasing functional illiteracy in the schools. It substitutes a promise of goods for the goods themselves. For the moment, the Board has missed an opportunity to offer a concrete, commonsensical framework for what students will actually learn in Michigan public schools.