Backseat Driving in the Clown Car

Backseat driving in the clown car: that’s what pundits are about, today.

In The New York Times, David Brooks tries to turn that around, making out that is those who disagree with him who have the red noses and squeeze horns. He mounts a defense of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) based on the idea that those he shills for are the wise and considerate and caring–and that everyone else is either raw material or the lunatic fringe (both left and right).

Education, to Brooks, “is to get students competitive with their international peers.” What the students need in their personal lives, or want, these don’t matter. What communities need, in terms of citizens and contributing members, doesn’t matter. And anyone who disagrees with Brooks and those he advocates for is a nut. A clown.

As he does with his own person, Brooks does a good job of dressing CCSS in gowns of gravitas, covering the pretense and parody at its heart, hiding the large, floppy shoes and bulging, striped pants.

If it weren’t the result of clowning, CCSS would have been developed in an entirely different way. As it is supposed to prepare students to be “college ready” and as potential employees, creation should have been in the hands of college professors and representatives from business–as well as public-school teachers and administrators, providing both understanding of needs and goals and of the practical aspects of education. Parents should be consulted, as well. As it is, CCSS was the creation of politicians and their lackeys, as even Brooks describes it:

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards.

Politicians and their top appointees: that’s who created CCSS. These aren’t people who understand either the needs of education, its goals, or the ways students learn as they grow. And… ha, ha, ha… “consistent and rigorous standards”? That’s like calling a clown’s yardstick adequate measurement. Only a clown can tout “standards” developed by people with no knowledge of the subject matter as “consistent and rigorous,” at least not with a straight face. The rest of us should simply laugh–and would, if this weren’t so deadly serious.

Furthermore, as Brooks says, his serious education reformers rely on partisan think tanks for validation, as clowns would (clowns upon clowns, of course) instead of on professional organizations (the AAUP comes to mind) where real understanding of needs and possibilities lie:

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards.

Clearly superior? On what scale? Brooks doesn’t say. To address that, he would have to stop clowning around.

Brooks, with a straight face, touts the superiority of CCSS English Language Arts:

The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

As an English professor, I believe this is as useless in preparing students for my classroom as the “old standards.” It reflects an out-of-date attitude toward literature, one reflecting the New Critics of fifty years ago and not the way we approach the study of literature today. A text, for one thing, isn’t “evidence.” And “reading comprehension” requires much more than text-centric writing. What Brooks imagines as the needs of a contemporary English classroom is as far removed from the reality of college today as a clown’s unicycle is from the Tour de France.

The tragedy of all of this is that Brooks actually believes what he is writing. He has no idea that it is he who is the real clown. And not even a significant one. He’s simply another red nose crammed into the back seat.

This is too bad. Education should not be a circus.

14 thoughts on “Backseat Driving in the Clown Car

  1. small point – in a number of states the top school officer and thus the member of CCSSO is directly elected by the people, not appointed by the Governor. That is particularly true out West, for example in AZ where my high school classmate (not someone with whom I agree) now Attorney General Tom Horne was before that Superintendent of Public Instruction. CA also elects. For a complete list see this link:


  3. I read Brooks’ opinion essay this morning. As a retired English teacher, I cringed to hear him proudly state the new standards “encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.”

    I wonder if he knows that the reality of these so-called superior standards in the classroom actually discourage the reading of whole works of fiction and rely only passages without context. As a matter of fact, the preferred reading drills involve dry, non-fiction bits that are boring and over-written as possible. To their way of thinking, an entire novel is rubbish.

    Forget about nuance, imagery, lively characters or exciting plot lines. According to the CCSS, those are useless concepts, and very likely have nothing to do with job skills.

    The end result will be a generation of Americans who dislike reading and most likely will never understand what it is to read for pleasure.

    • To identify nuance, imagery, lively characters and exciting plot lines, one must scrutinize the text and study specific passages as evidence. Why would you mock this idea? How did you teach it? Intuition? I’m not a fan (at all) of Brooks or Common Core, but your criticism (as well as Barlow’s) of this process is really odd. That is unless you think students explaining their “feelings” about the story– without any evidence–is a credible teaching tool. Great strategy if you are interested in educating narcissists.

      • When we make literary texts sufficient evidence on their own, we do a disservice to the literature. Personally, I only mock close reading as an end in and of itself. There is much more to the study of literature than this one tool. Our criticism isn’t of the tool (who would criticize a screwdriver?) but of belief that this one tool is sufficient. To argue that it is, now THAT is odd. As to feelings… well, there is a strong argument that reader interaction with the text is more important than the text itself. To me, that’s only another tool. As one who falls within the “cultural studies” tradition, I see works of literature as entertainments that teach us about the cultures we encounter. Therefore, I always try to teach them in context… something that many of the supporters of CCSS don’t see as important at all. There’s no point, for example, in close-reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, if you don’t already have some understanding of the backgrounds of the Civil Rights Movement.

  4. Pingback: David Brooks’ Amateur Cheerleading for the Common Core | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. Pingback: David Brooks’ Amateur Cheerleading for the Common Core | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. OK, so now the following New York Times op ed contributors have editorialized in favor of some type of market based ed reform: Brooks, Bruni, Blow, Kristoff, for sure. Not sure about Douthat and Nocera. Does that just leave the two women, Collins and Dowd? Keeping my fingers crossed that the women will prevail on the side of sanity. In the ’60s we called The Times “the newspaper of the ruling class.” I guess not much has changed.

  7. By the way, just for laughs–

    David Brooks’ father is a retired English Professor who worked in my department for many years. Although Prof. Brooks isn’t what I would have called a progressive or radical pedagogy proponent, he certainly had stepped into at least the 20th Century in terms of the way he understands reading and writing. If they ever talked about the profession at the dinner table, it sure seems like Son Brooks wasn’t listening very carefully….

  8. Pingback: More on the Clown Car | Academe Blog

  9. Pingback: Standards circus: Who’s the clown? — Joanne Jacobs

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  11. Pingback: ‘Why do you believe you need the Common Core?’ - The Washington Post

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