Dr. Duke Pesta received his M.A. in Renaissance literature from John Carroll University and his Ph.D. in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature from Purdue University. He is currently a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and the academic director of Freedom Project Education. He is also in demand on the speaking circuit as one of America’s foremost authorities on the dangers of Common Core.
TFP Student Action: Could you please give some background information about yourself and your education?
Dr. Duke Pesta: For the last twenty-one years I have been a university professor. My educational background is almost exclusively Catholic from kindergarten through my first masters degree. As a professor, my specialization has been Shakespearean and Renaissance Literature. I have also done a lot of work with Christian apologetics. I teach everything from the Bible through Dante through C. S. Lewis, and am very interested in the ideals of Christian philosophy as they manifest themselves in the Classics. I have also written an elective Bible class for the state of Texas. Students who go to a Texas public high school are now able to take an elective course on the Bible, and we had quite a fight with the ACLU folks down in Texas, but we won that battle.
I am currently a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and as you mentioned before, Common Core became an issue with me because of its appearance in the Catholic schools a few years ago. Parents didn’t have any idea where it came from, what it was, or who put it there. I do Common Core talks both for Catholic organizations as well as other groups.
TFP: Could you explain how you found out about Common Core? You said it was in the Catholic school system? What exactly motivates you to fight against Common Core?
Dr. Pesta: About five years ago, I became alarmed by the fact that young people were arriving in college with poor skills. Not only did they have poor reading and writing skills, but they were also politically indoctrinated. They hated their country. I had freshmen in college who didn’t even understand their Faith after having been in Catholic schools all their lives, and they were quite turned off by the idea of organized religion in general.
So it dawned on me that I was going to have to get involved earlier. I kept my university job, but I was looking for ways to get involved in education for younger kids. I wrote a humanities curriculum for a completely online homeschool group called Freedom Project Education whose purpose is to live-stream teachers into homes, thereby giving children an opportunity to learn in an alternative way from the public schools. We even have some Catholic school clients that use some of our courses.
A number of moms and dads in Green Bay, Wisconsin approached me and asked me to look into Common Core because they didn’t know what it was. Two years ago neither did I. It quickly became obvious to me that Common Core was not only an existential threat to public and private schools, but also to homeschooling as well. So that is where it all crystallized for me, and I have not had a break since.
TFP: As a Catholic, which aspects of Common Core do you find most objectionable?
Dr. Pesta: Everything. First, it was all done behind closed doors. The people who own the copyright to Common Core are not accountable to taxpayers. Private organizations, basically, are transforming American education, and we as parents can’t get to them. Bill Gates is putting up all this money behind closed doors to do this. Organizations such as the NCEA (National Catholic Education Association) have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation to implement Common Core. The way it’s all being done troubles me.
Second, Common Core is a Trojan Horse. It is an ideological conduit into our schools for a pedagogy that has is anathema to Christian values. At its core, it is an anti-truth curriculum. At its core, it is a secular progressive curriculum that is antithetical to what traditional Catholic education stands for.
For me it’s the twin things: The ideological nonsense that comes with Common Core and the federal imposition, much like what they have done with healthcare. We can see how Obamacare is being used to go after Catholic and Christian organizations, forcing them against their consciences to provide abortion services. So you are seeing a similar mindset with Common Core in terms of how it will federalize education.
TFP: Could you describe the whole worldview so to speak, the philosophy of Common Core and how that will harm children?
Dr. Pesta: If you only give me one word to describe what Common Core is, the word that I think best captures it is “statism.” It is a redefinition of the role of parents, children, and schools in education. It seeks to divorce kids from their local traditions, their family backgrounds, and the religious traditions kids come from. It drives a wedge between and redefines parenthood and childhood, seizes more opportunity to oversee what goes on in kids’ lives, and convinces kids that they belong first to the government, and only in secondary ways to local communities.
TFP: The Common Core English Standards are continuing the trend of destroying classical literature by removing Western Classical and Christian Literature from our curriculum and replacing it with so-called “Informational Texts.” As a professor of English you are surely very sensitive to this. Could you please describe this transformation and explain why Classical Literature is so important?
Dr. Pesta: Absolutely. I fight Common Core broadly for a variety of reasons, but on a personal level this is the thing that distresses me the most. And it’s not just a Common Core thing. It precedes Common Core. In the universities they have been doing this for years now.
At the core of Western culture is literature. When you look at the great literature of the Western world, from a Catholic perspective – from Augustine to Dante, the classics from the last 2,000 years – all of it underscores, reinforces and explains the Judeo-Christian heritage of our country and of Western culture. That has been the stabilizing force for 2,000 years. Children learn best through storytelling. When our children learn stories, that is really when they begin to respond and grow, and the primary stories of Western culture have all in one sense or another defended, articulated, espoused, and expanded upon our Judeo-Christian origins and heritage.
The war on the Classics is precisely that. We are transforming English and Humanities departments, as well as Reading courses at the lower level. We are moving them away from good books to a much more activist and militantly political platform. They are reading Environment Protection Agency pamphlets under Common Core. They are reading President Obama’s own Executive Orders issued directly from the White House.
When you read the Classics, you are really doing critical thinking because it deals with issues like truth, justice, war, and love. Those are the things we want our children talking about. They are being yanked out now and being replaced with very tendentious readings, most of which are not even literature.
TFP: One author who wrote about Common Core described Classical literature as the literature of heroes, and the modern literature as the literature of the anti-hero.
Dr. Pesta: Yes. Look what has been done with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The greatest Christian epic ever written and the post-modern progressives have made Satan the real hero. But it is even beyond that though. You said hero vs. anti-hero, I think that it is a very good way to define it. I consider it to be a bit broader, because that is an individual take: This is civilization vs. anarchy.
The 2,000 year civilization that we have built has given us, the laws and freedoms and liberties, freedom of conscience; this has evolved very painstakingly over 2,000 years. So much of Common Core literature is actually dystopian. It’s not just anti-hero, it’s anti-civilization. It’s pulling apart at the seams the religious values, the cultural values, marital values, the ethical values that for 2,000 years have made us prosperous and stable, have allowed us to progress in terms of human and civil rights, that’s all being ripped apart now in a socialist, Marxist, apocalyptic, anarchic way. And it’s really bad for kids. You have heard probably quite often that we have many clinical psychiatrists, developmental child specialists who rightly call this “developmentally inappropriate.” It’s borderline child-abuse, this kind of destabilization and de-civilization kids are being exposed to. That includes the radical sexualization of our kids.
TFP: Could you elaborate on that more, the Sex Education standards.
Dr. Pesta: People get annoyed about this, the proponents of Common Core especially get annoyed by this. The National Sexuality Education Standards are not technically Common Core, and I do make that very clear in my talk.
However, look at the pedagogy that has grown up around Common Core. People say that Common Core is just a set of standards, not a curriculum. That, I think, is a bald-faced lie. Our teachers don’t know how to teach Common Core; no one has ever taught that before.
When our teachers showed up in the fall one year, they found that Common Core had replaced their traditional books, worksheets and textbooks. The only tools we have to teach Common Core, to teach our teachers how to do it, are the textbooks, the curriculum, the workshops that were created by private education companies like Pearson that are working directly in conjunction with the people who wrote the Common Core Standards. The pedagogy is tailored to the standards.
In order to understand Common Core I firmly believe that you have to look at the textbook companies and the pedagogy together with the Standards. If you do that, you will notice as many people have – Phyllis Schlafly was one of the first people to catch on to this, she wrote a very compelling letter to every single American bishop two years ago warning them about this – that the pedagogy is highly sexualized, highly inappropriate.
One of the driving forces behind this is the National Sexuality Standards document. The people who put that together really don’t like the abstinence-based approach, as you can imagine. Back in 2009, a committee of a number of different groups got together to create these standards which are a radical rethinking of how we teach kids sex.
TFP: That is very shocking. They slip something in that is more controversial like sexual education only after they have their foot in the door with the other standards.
Dr. Pesta: Common Core is the camel’s nose under the tent. Common Core which is so radically, quickly, and quietly transforming American education is really the point of access for all of this. And that gets us back to the Catholic schools. Every time we talk to Catholic people who support this, they don’t deny it’s happening or that it’s all over the place, they don’t deny that the Sexual Standards are there, they just say that we’ll be able to take it and modify it. The words you keep hearing are, “We’ll be able to adapt it. We’ll be able to Christianize it.”
But let me ask you this: How are you going to do that when there aren’t any Catholic Common Core textbooks? How are you going to do that when there is no Catholic Common Core pedagogy? Why would you take something that you have to so dramatically alter, just to make it palatable for Catholic kids.
TFP: Common Core is very much imposed on parents and districts. You gave an example of a school district in California that prohibited parents from giving their children a leg up by tutoring or going ahead of the curriculum.
Dr. Pesta: That’s not just in California. There have been dozens of school districts that are actually threatening moms and dads on their district web sites not to let their kids do any math other than what is prescribed at that grade level. No matter what math your kid is capable of doing, no matter what math your kid submits to the teacher, they will not be able to go beyond the class. They will have to stay with their peers.
And that is a hallmark of Common Core. This is Outcome Based Education. This is one-size-fits-all education. I like to call it “social justice curriculum.” God made us all differently, right? This is one of the existential threats to Catholic education from using Common Core.
The premise of Common Core is that it is socially unjust that some kids can do math at a high level and most of us can’t. So rather than create a math paradigm that allows kids to really thrive, we have created a math paradigm that insists that every kid is going to be comfortable with a little math, and no kid gets to do math that their peers can’t do. That is what we mean by “social justice.” And as Phyllis Schlafly pointed out, this is absolutely inimical to Catholic education. God gave each of us different strengths. God did not make us to be the same person. And so you have a curriculum with a fundamental basis that does not allow kids to become what God in His wisdom made us to be, but in the name of some twisted notion of “social justice,” makes kids become all the same by holding them back in the areas they could get ahead and artificially propping them up in areas that they fall behind, so you have this odd notion that equality means we are all in the exact same place.
TFP: Does this impose equality then?
Dr. Pesta: Yes, in an “Outcome Based” way. Every kid comes out at the same level. Whereas Catholic and Christian education historically takes kids where they are and helps them become the best they can be, which sometimes means allowing a kid to advance way ahead in one subject and simply be average in another. That befits the world as we understand it, not the world that the progressives understand.
TFP: It’s incredible how Common Core speaks so much of “excellence” yet puts so much time and energy to keep students at the same level.
Dr. Pesta: “Excellence” to them does not mean what we understand it to mean. “Excellence” to them is the imposition of the “social justice” value system. Our kids should willingly cede what they do well in the name of this progressive “greater good.” Even if you manage to get rid of all the sex and graphic violence, even if you manage to purge the “exemplar readings” of all the dystopian, apocalyptic garbage, how do you reconcile the fundamental aims of a one-world government and keeping all kids on the same plane with the very core premises of Catholic education?
TFP: It’s fundamentally flawed.
Dr. Pesta: Well, the other thing about it is that nobody forced the Catholic schools to accept it. Why in the world did we make such a huge leap with our Catholic schools? Many of them, in the very first year they could, got rid of the textbooks and pedagogy they were using (which was clearly superior to the public schools) and adopted Common Core completely on faith. Instead of putting our faith in a thousand-year tradition of Catholic education that has never failed and always worked, in the very first year many put their faith in an untried, untested public school curriculum. How do you justify that?
TFP: There is a growing reaction against Common Core nationwide. Could you explain what you have seen? Is there any hope for us?
Dr. Pesta: There is a sign of hope, hope in the midst of despair. On a grassroots level, the more parents learn about it the more they hate it. A new Gallup poll in Alabama showed that 70% of Alabama parents want Common Core removed from the state. That’s shocking. In one year, the number of parents who know about Common Core has tripled. So that’s good news.
Unfortunately, Common Core is a hugely bi-partisan problem. It’s not a Democrat or a Republican issue. In my mind, it is a “political class” vs. the-rest-of-us issue. The federal government has done a very good job of sending a lot of tax-payer money to states that have adopted Common Core, and even in “red states,” like Alabama, Republican politicians just don’t want to give that money up. In Wisconsin, we arguably have one of the most conservative governors in the country with Scott Walker. We have a Republican controlled House and Senate. I have personally given more than 120 talks in this state, and there are dozens of other activists who have been lobbying there. They will fret about it, come out and say it’s bad, but they will not move legislatively on it. So we will see what will happen.
TFP: What can parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens do to stop Common Core in their local school district or their state?
Dr. Pesta: Number one: awareness. If 10% of American moms and dads wake up to this fight, it will be turned back. There are many moms and dads asleep at the switch, and this is our fault as Americans. For a long time now, we have unquestioningly turned our kids over to the public schools, and never given a second thought as to “who, what, why.”
Whenever there is a school election, what is it, 8% turnout? That’s the problem. We need to get parents aware of what is at stake here. The big problem about Common Core, is not so much what it does – which is pretty atrocious – but if we don’t fight back we will have ceded so much control to the feds that we will never get it back again. That’s why Common Core has to be killed.
But even if we killed Common Core tomorrow, we would have to turn our attention back to the states and start yanking this stuff out of the states. But we are getting more and more moms and dads aware and it's working. Once you do that, the only people who can help are your state legislators. We have to remove it on a state by state basis.
If even 10% of what I have told you is right, then we really have to wake our Catholic schools up. We need to get our bishops and priests much more aware of what’s going on. Of all the bishops I have talked to about Common Core, there was only one who I spoke with who actually understood what Common Core is. The others had no idea. And yet these are their schools.