Looking to the Founders: Is Common Core Common Sense?

Author: David Yee
Created: 10 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read

When looking to the Founders on the topic of education, probably the finest example to turn to is Noah Webster.

Often called the "Father of American Scholarship and Education," his primers were used for more than five generations. teaching children to read and write while secularizing their education.

Common Core education is a modern political hotbed, mostly along the red/blue divide. It's a revolutionary way of teaching students and is an attempt to standardize learning throughout the United States. But is it really what we need? Why not just do things the way they've always been done?

What would Noah Webster think of Common Core? Would he think it worthy of copying it and calling it his own?

Many of the men we call our Founding Fathers were brilliant and well-read students of the arts and sciences. Popular myth likes to purport that the Founders were largely self-taught (or even home schooled), but the fact remains that 30 of the 55 constitutional delegates were college graduates -- an astounding percentage for the time period.

George Washington was probably the least formally educated of the Founders who served as president (he held a diploma in land surveying). Yet, he held formal education in such high regard that he left endowments for three different universities in his will.

But there was a serious problem with education in those times. A problem that Noah Webster sought to champion.

In particular, there was no universal way of teaching subjects like grammar or spelling.

Probably the most notable place to see this is in the U.S. Constitution, which is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors by today's standards.

Modern "grammar Nazis" would pounce on the Founder's misuse of the word "it's" in Article 1, Section 10. Pennsylvania was occasionally spelled with only one "n" and several words spelled phonetically, like "chusing."

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The stylized capitalization of most nouns in the original parchment was a practice that wasn't largely common for the day, just a preference of the calligrapher, Jacob Shallus, who produced the parchments in a single weekend.

Noah Webster abhorred the variance in learning and sought to champion the English language, and went so far as to commit plagiarism to do so.

Webster's first dictionary offering drew extensively from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language published in 1785.

Though his methods questionable, Webster's hopes to unify how Americans learned was a unique and noteworthy endeavor. His ideas taught 5 generations of Americans, with some still used today.

Common Core math gets numerous criticisms, but most revolve around the issue of "not doing it the old way."

The problem is, in modern life -- with calculators on a cell phone, tablet, or computer -- we don't need to know the old way, but we do need to know whether or not we got a feasible answer with the calculator. The principle of "garbage-in, garbage-out" in computing and calculation is real. We need to know enough about the process to understand when we have made a mistake inputting the data.

In short, Common Core math creates a new algorithm that helps students solve math problems mentally, think more like a computer, and makes them algebra/calculus ready students -- something the old systems and algorithms didn't do.

Common Core social studies are often criticized because of their "irreverence" toward our political history. One critical article singled out this quote in a criticism of common core:

"But who are "We the People"? This question troubled the nation for centuries. As Lucy Stone, one of America’s first advocates for women’s rights, asked in 1853, “‘We the People’? Which ‘We the People’? The women were not included.” Neither were white males who did not own property, American Indians, or African Americans—slave or free."

The article then pointed out that this was unnecessarily guiding students to the conclusion that the Constitution is an evolving document.

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Sarah Palin has recently endorsed several different congressional candidates solely on her opposition to Common Core and what it teaches.


Palin, like the 99 women currently serving in the U.S. House and Senate, would have not been able to vote, much less serve as lawmakers had the Constitution not evolved. The fact that only the masculine pronoun "he" was used in the Constitution when referring to the president or members of Congress indicates that the Founders had not envisioned women with equal rights or status in the new government -- a case for strict interpretation would only serve to subjugate women's rights.

Is it really that bad to teach children to question the government or its past actions? Do we learn more when we accurately acknowledge the past?

George Washington firmly believed that we needed to evaluate our actions and right wrongs where necessary -- to think that we shouldn't openly evaluate our history violates its very founding.

Noah Webster, in his first primer, stated that "democracy is generally a very bad government, It is often the most tyrannical government on earth; for a multitude is often rash, and will not hear reason."

Students need to consider the positives and the negatives of our history and political process; creating a positive future often requires an honest reflection on the past.

Above all else, criticisms of Common Core revolve around the premise that we shouldn't depart from "the old way" of teaching. The unfortunate truth is that the old way isn't working.

America ranks 29th in math and 22nd in science compared to other industrialized nations. Students in Vietnam, once considered a helpless puppet-state needing our support, outperform American students in all subjects.

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A large part of the problem is non-standardization of American education. States like New Jersey and Massachusetts hold their own in the world stage, yet other states like Alabama and Mississippi drag down the American average.

Whether or not Common Core stands as "the" standardized method of teaching American students, we need to have more standardization in how students are taught.

Schools and teachers should be accountable for performance, even if that performance is only measured by a test.

I think that Noah Webster would jump at the chance and challenge of standardizing education in America once more. While Common Core might not be his first choice, I doubt he'd want to leave things the way they were. Webster was a believer in American exceptionalism, and would be offended and heartbroken by our slip in the world's standing.

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