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What Common Core teaches about common values

People protest at the Common Core Education Forum

People protest at the Common Core Education Forum at Ward Melville High School on Nov. 12, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Learning how to distinguish between fact and opinion would seem to be a pretty fundamental piece of any education. In the bizarre world of U.S. public schools, though, it's proving to be controversial.

For several years, schools across the U.S. -- with significant help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- have been putting in place something called Common Core, a set of standards on what students from kindergarten through 12th grade should learn on topics including English, mathematics, science and history. Along the way, they've faced ample criticism, some of it reasonable. Teachers, in particular, think they haven't had adequate preparation.

One strain of criticism in particular, though, sounds more like an assault on learning itself. Consider the argument of philosopher Justin McBrayer, of Fort Lewis College in Colorado: He complains that Common Core undermines moral education by teaching that some questions -- Who was the first president of the United States? -- have factual answers, while others -- Is it wrong to eat meat? -- don't.

Specifically, it requires that students be able to "distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text." In a thoughtful and philosophically careful way, McBrayer suggests such an approach will actually confuse kids into thinking that rights and wrongs are nothing but opinion. "If it's not true that it's wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees," McBrayer writes, "then how can we be outraged?" He notes that many students today don't think cheating is wrong, and he attributes this to their being taught that "moral facts do not exist."

It's a powerful point, but made in a somewhat deceptive way. Do we really need absolute and metaphysically founded moral facts to be outraged at murder, or to see cheating as bad? I don't think so. History, evolution and anthropology explain perfectly well why certain values - against people killing for fun, for example -- have been etched deep into most of our emotional natures: These values influence and channel behavior in a way that is hugely conducive to human well-being in groups.

We've evolved to have these values because they work pretty well, as tested by countless societies in the past.

Indeed, modern science has gone a long way toward understanding how social norms of behavior and institutions emerge to support cooperation. It also suggests that we shouldn't be surprised to find a diverse range of beliefs and values among distinct societies and cultures facing different challenges. Values of right and wrong can legitimately differ, which makes "moral facts" a lot more uncertain than ordinary facts.

So I'm not distressed at all that kids are being taught that moral claims aren't "true" or "false" in any absolute way. Such knowledge might even save them from a dangerous strain of thinking -- belief in the absolute status of moral values -- that's been a source of conflict on earth through history and still is today.

Being conscious of where values come from invites introspection: Why do I hold these values and not others? Is it because I'm just lucky to have the right values, and others the wrong ones? Or is it because I've been immersed in a culture with these values? Kids growing up to ask such questions are more likely to understand others and be more tolerant of their differences.

Of course, it may well be true, as McBrayer argues, that our educational system is indeed failing to instill the values most of us hold dear. If lots of college students think that cheating is OK, that is a serious problem. But that's not a problem with Common Core.

Teaching kids to have values that make for better societies is a good idea. Indoctrinating them with illusory certainties isn't. Ultimately, students need to learn about the world in all its difficult ambiguity.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."


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