Feminism and the “Common Core”: What Would John Adams Think?

John AdamsIn 1755, a twenty-year-old John Adams had recently decided to become an attorney.  In order to do so, he needed to study under a practicing attorney first.  For that privilege, he would need to pay said attorney for the apprenticeship.  How did he earn money to pay his mentor?  He did what any of us would have done:  he rode 60 miles on horseback from Braintree to Worcester, Massachusetts to be a teacher.  HA!  (My career took the opposite direction.  I worked in a law firm before I became a teacher — as a secretary, but still — and upon my departure to pursue teaching, I told the office manager, “If I’m going to work around people who behave like they’re in 8th grade, they may as well be actual 8th Graders.”  But I digress…)

Until I began reading David McCullough’s John Adams, I had no idea Adams had a brief career as an educator.  By the several accounts I’ve read, it was a job he considered boring and frustrating.  He’d have rather been writing sermons (which he may actually have done during class time) or debating the politics of the day with people for whom potty training was a more distant memory than it was for his young charges.  Yet, teach he did, and a passage Adams wrote about his experience stopped me dead in my tracks.

“I sometimes, in my sprightly moments, consider myself, in my great chair at school, as some dictator at the head of a commonwealth.  In this little state I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and revolutions of the great world in miniature.  I have several renowned generals but three feet high, and several deep-projecting politicians in petticoats.  I have others catching and dissecting flies, accumulating remarkable pebbles, cockleshells, etc., with as ardent curiosity as any virtuoso in the Royal Society….At one table sits Mr. Insipid foppling and fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers as gaily and wittily as any Frenchified coxcomb brandishes his cane and rattles his snuff box.  At another sits the polemical divine, plodding and wrangling in his mind about Adam’s fall in which we sinned, all as his primer has it.”

I read this over many times, struck by its forward-thinking regarding women, its respect for divergent learning types, and the underlying thread of affection he clearly felt towards his students.

For an adult male in those days to see far-reaching and powerful politicians in the form of the little girls he taught was pretty revolutionary and, 250 years later, still too much of a rarity. It also precedes his meeting his wife Abigail, so it cannot be attributed to their powerful emotional and philosophical bonds. Twenty-one years later, when Abigail Adams wrote in 1776 to her husband, advising him to “remember the ladies” in the new laws the young country will form, those were unusual and bold demands for the time. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation,” she wrote to him. John expressed surprise and concern, replying:

“We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; … that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.”  (bold emphasis mine.)

Though in action, he was fairly dismissive of her claim, his marriage to her and reliance upon her advice harkens back to his observations of the little girls in his classroom in 1755.

That Adams saw the “polemical divine”  in another child – a young mind troubled by the book’s teaching that all mankind is born sinful – shows tremendous sympathy for the delicate psyche of a child and the impact such religious teachings may have. In struggling to determine his own life’s path, Adams chose law over the clergy, though his father was a deacon. While later in life, he declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” he also insisted, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” I wonder if these seemingly conflicting sentiments were at all informed by his time as a teacher, and the role religion played in his upbringing.

Adams’ writing shows great admiration for the natural curiosity and awe of childhood discovery. Looking at his students collecting and dissecting, and seeing them as future members of the Royal Society shows tremendous respect for their innate learning styles, and the importance of fostering exploration in children. I imagine if he were alive today, that he’d be a fan of Maria Montessori and dismayed by the new Common Core curriculum, with its increased rigidity, uniformity, and tail-wagging-the-dog testing. His attitude towards the slower learners was on the condescending side, but still laced with affection and astute observation. I love how he compared “Mr. Insipid’s” fascination and love of his own fingers to a prideful and prissy Frenchman, obsessed with showing off his jeweled things. I’m not sure who comes out looking better in that comparison, but at least the child’s behavior is more age-appropriate.

I’m left to wonder what John Adams would think of our society today. Women continue to face enormous obstacles gaining a foothold in politics.  Educational reforms value conformity over individuality, and an emphasis on Results (with a capital “R”) rips the creativity and respect for individual learning styles right out of a teacher’s toolbox. I have a feeling, were he around today, John Adams would be viewing us with skepticism and a furrowed brow.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville PatchKveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice.  Aliza’s piece, Leaving Gender At The Door, earned her a BlogHer 2013 Voices of the Year award.  Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/public domain

  • A

    this is such an unfortunate post.

    i thoroughly enjoyed reading more about john adams and you paint a lovely picture. but let’s be honest: adams was the topic of this post, not the common core, or even his potential thoughts on it. there is only a single line or two about the common core state standards, and therein it is mislabeled as a curriculum and weighed down by a negative value judgment that is wholly unsubstantiated. and then the common core is conflated with a bunch of bullshit ed reform pushes like high stakes testing and disregard for learning styles–none of which the common core calls for or requires.

    and i guess the bigger point is this: why should i care what a white man who has been dead for over 200 years would potentially think about our current educational policy climate–one that actually ensures that it educates minorities and women, affording us all the right to an education–a system that adams certainly didn’t take much care to set up while setting up the rest of the nation?

    • Aliza Worthington

      Hi, A. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

      First of all, you’re completely correct – I should have called the Common Core “Standards,” rather than a “Curriculum,” so my apologies.

      The negative value judgment stems from the implementation of the Standards, the unfortunate effects of which are hardly unsubstantiated. See: http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/states-fighting-back-map/ and/or http://education-curriculum-reform-government-schools.org/w/2013/08/more-states-reject-on-common-core-standard/.

      As for your larger point asking why should you care, it’s of course, up to you to determine if his experience and observations are relevant today. We do look to the Founders for guidance and insight (within context, hopefully) about many things – the place of religion in government, the Second Amendment, issues regarding privacy and autonomy. I was simply doing that with regards to education, since Adams had a bit of hands-on experience in the classroom – which is more than I imagine can be said for many of the people at the helm of Pearson, I’m afraid.

      Thank you again, and would love to continue the conversation.



      • A

        thanks for the reply and correction, Aliza.

        however, i still think it’s worth separating the standards themselves from their implementation.

        so many states and districts have adopted these standards, but aren’t preparing teachers for implementation (ie through professional development, time to digest and adjust their instruction, etc). and on top of the new standards, they’re also layering high stakes testing and teacher evaluation systems. as an educator, i’m totally against the testing and eval systems … as well as poor or non-existant support for implementation of the CCSS. but that doesn’t mean that i’m against the common core itself.

        in and of itself, the common core is a great step in the right direction for education. if it weren’t, all the professional organizations would have decried it. but instead, associations like the national council of teachers of mathematics, the national PTA, and many, many others, have stated their support for the standards. you have to cite fringe orgs to find critique of the standards themselves, because all the people who are leaders in education are happy with the common core.

        and you characterize the standards as having rigidity and uniformity that i don’t see there at all. in fact, from a math perspective, the authors of the standards avoided elevating either conceptional understanding or procedural fluency (which has been a HUGE issue in math ed for YEARS … we refer to them as “the math wars”). instead, the CCSSM authors gave both merit and allowed room for curriculum and instruction that favored both. this is the epitome of giving room for flexibility and local control. nowhere in the standards does it say *how* math content and skills should be taught … only *what* content and skills should be taught. this is not anew–this is the function of state standards documents, which have been around for decades now.

        you also set up the common core as a foil to montessori, but if you look closely at the standards for mathematical practice, you’ll see that the philosophy is actually very similar and complementary.

        i actually think that adams, as you describe him, (and, assuming we care 🙂 ) would be a proponent of the common core state standards are they are written.

        how they’re being interpreted and paired with ed reforms that undermine education is another thing all together … if your title had been “feminism and ed reform: what would john adams think?” i wouldn’t have had such a bone to pick with your assessment–because as you point out, there is plenty that is problematic in the ed reform movement … you just happened to pick (in my humble opinion) the one thing that ISN’T problematic to focus on.

  • Anne Born

    It’s a very complex issue, getting into the mindset of someone living in 1755 America. I like to think the founders would be proud of all of us for defending their version of democracy for as long as we have. And I sincerely believe they would be shocked and delighted that women are represented now in so many ways they could not have imagined. This was an excellent analysis of his text – in context. Thank you.

  • Excellent summary, Aliza. I think Pres. Adams was far ahead of his time in many ways, the most obvious being in the political arena.

    My own study and understanding of Adams would tell me that today’s America would disappoint him in so many ways. The issue of the importance of Women in society would certainly aggravate him, as I’m sure, as pointed out in many of his marital correspondence, he held women (and his wife in particular) as moral and political equals. I’m sure he felt that with the new republic he helped create, the natural progression of the nation would lead to full women’s suffrage.

    As for the Common Core…well, I, for one, feel that Adams would be dismayed by the lack on individualism allowed or supported in the standard for ANY child…As a teacher, he was keen to each child’s interest and needs, and as with any good teacher, doubtlessly knew how to harness that student’s potential – not something we are seeing at this point in our educational system.

  • So much to think about- I appreciate the analysis and interpretation.I could not agree more that we need more curiosity, independent thinking and problem solving in our schools.

  • Very interesting post, but I must say that my mind went in another direction while reading. I live in Adams’ beloved city of Quincy and happen to be an attorney as well. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think about the changes that are happening in the legal field. Could he imagine so many taking on such burdensome debt for law school? The lack of jobs in the legal field? The outsourcing of work? I do wonder….

  • SlyNine

    What obstacles do women face going into politics other than they just don’t do it. You can claim it’s socialisation, but it’s just a claim. In the UK despite 10% of the people entering into politics being female around 30% of the positions are filled by women. That indicates discrimination and preference going the other way.

    Girls get better grades for the same work, http://www.dailywire.com/news/8071/study-yes-theres-grading-bias-%E2%80%93-favor-women-pardes-seleh

    Judged more harshly for the same behavior. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/06/22/naughty-girls-more-likely-to-get-away-with-misbehaving-study-sho/

    The equality in education act in the 90’s combined with the AAUW modified the curriculum to suit girls styles of learning, DESPITE girls already out performing boys. Despite boys being at a developmental disadvantage at the same age when entering school.

    Girls are graduating at much higher rates, and with much better marks. Government still spends 3-4 times more money putting girls into higher education than boys. With a emphasis on female only programs.

    Why do you guys insist on living in upside down land. It’s time to look at the objective facts and stop pandering to this bullcrap.

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