The Common Core and National Security

When did you first learn that pressure cookers could be used as bombs? One possibility is that you study military conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and knew, before April 15, 2013, that insurgents use them to make IEDs. But it is much more likely that you, like most other Americans, learned about such bombs after the Boston Marathon explosions. Most civilians who walked by the backpacks that fateful day could not imagine such an attack.

Imagination is a crucial ingredient in stopping future terrorist incidents. One of the major recommendations of "The 9/11 Commission Report" is that Americans need "to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination." Before 2001, U.S analysts had clues that al Qaeda might use aircraft as weapons, but few policy makers fleshed out that scenario or how to respond to it. One of the few that did, Richard Clarke, admitted to the Commission that he became aware of this possibility while reading Tom Clancy novels.

To stop surprise attacks, Americans need to think beyond what the past justifies. In other words, Americans need to cultivate the more fluid faculty of imagination and not just the rule-bound faculty of understanding.

How will the Common Core enhance, or hurt, national security? The Common Core literature states that rigorous national curriculum standards will prepare students to compete in the global economy. A richer country, presumably, will make America a stronger country. Perhaps. Rigor (from the Latin rigorem, "stiffness") can work against ingenuity, arguably the main engine of American economic growth and soft power. For now, consider how the Common Core transforms the way Americans think about war and peace.

The Common Core promises to transform what students read, how they read, and what they write after they read. Class time will be dedicated less to fiction and more to nonfiction. The Common Core promises that English teachers will still assign literature such as Shakespeare, but the Common Core also requires teachers to prepare students for college and careers by knowing how to analyze nonfiction texts about, for example, science and history. The Common Core guidelines recommend that 8th graders should read about 55 percent nonfiction and 12th graders 70 percent nonfiction. The Common Core specifies what it adds to the curriculum; we ought to spend a moment thinking about what it subtracts.

The Common Core demands students ground arguments in intelligence rather than intuition, objectivity rather than subjectivity, texts rather than feelings. Although the Common Core keeps fiction in the curriculum, the Common Core reigns in creative teaching, reading, and writing. David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core, made this point in a public lecture: "As you grow up in this world you realize people don't really give a **** about what you feel or think." It is questionable whether this approach toward education will make Americans better parents, children, siblings, or citizens. Let us stick to our question about whether it will make Americans safer in the long run.

One of my colleagues teaches a course on Middle East politics. The course relies heavily upon history and social science but also includes several novels. Why? Americans learn about Muslims mainly when there is a revolution, a bombing, a protest, a controversy, or some other unusual event. We rarely think about how Muslims raise families, practice piety, start a business, fall in love, or do any other quotidian activity. American domestic or foreign policy will only be just -- and effective -- if we can mentally insert ourselves into the places of people around the world.

Think, for example, of the good caused by Khaled Hosseini's novels, The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and now, And the Mountains Echoed. Most Americans, I venture, do not know any Afghanis personally and, if we form a judgment based on news coverage over the past decade, then we may think the worst about them.

And yet Hosseini's novels inculcate in us an emotional attachment to Amir, Hassan, Mariam, Laila, and many other Afghanis. We differ from these characters in some respects, but we also identify with their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. We realize that people are complicated all over the world and that, for instance, while some Pakistanis favor the judicial punishment of stoning, others do not. We recognize that there are many ways to practice Islam and that young people in Afghanistan (like many of us) wonder about how to adapt traditional gender roles to the modern world. Through Hosseini's novels, many of us feel like we have friends in Afghanistan.

Novels are not sufficient to stop conflicts or atrocities, but imaginative literature promotes mutual understanding between peoples. To thwart the Taliban and al Qaeda, we need to imagine a world without them (at least in their militant variants), and one way to cultivate that imagination is to write and read fiction.

The Common Core reduces class time dedicated to literature and changes how students approach texts, to focus on acquiring facts rather than ruminating on stories or ideas. All pedagogical shifts induce expected and unexpected consequences. One consequence of the Common Core is that students may not be as prepared to imagine threats to national security as well as how to make peace with peoples around the globe.