America always has had strange outliers on the margins of our politics, from half-secret movements like the Know-Nothings to the left-wing crazies of the late 1960s. My eighth grade teacher referred to those on the farther shores of our politics as the “lunatic fringe.”
In more recent times, most of the nuts have been right-wing nuts. When I was young they opposed putting fluoride in the water, seeing that as a Communist plot. Indeed, they saw Communist plots everywhere. The head of the John Birch Society wrote a book claiming that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an active agent of the Communist conspiracy. Asked about this once in Hillsdale, William F. Buckley Jr., said Eisenhower wasn’t a commie, but a golfer.
Well, classic communism is gone. Nobody talks about fluoride any more. But we still have a conspiracy-haunted fringe, and in Michigan today their latest cause is fighting what are called the Common Core Curriculum learning standards.
I have to say, I didn’t see this one coming. Usually, nutty causes have their roots in something real. There really were, for example, actual Communist spies who did steal some of our secrets.
There is, however, no reason that anybody anchored in reality should oppose Common Core. It is all about giving American, specifically Michigan, students the skills they need to succeed in life, in higher education of whatever form and in the workplace.
Common Core doesn’t spell out a curriculum and doesn’t push sex education. It is a set of learning goals. That’s the kind of thing Republicans historically favor. Indeed the whole idea is an initiative of the National Council of Governors, most of whom are Republicans. The main champion of Common Core is Georgia’s deeply conservative Sonny Perdue. But you’d never know that in Michigan.
Here, a coalition of Tea Party zealots in the legislature is doing everything it can to prevent our state from adopting Common Core. Their leader, State Representative Tom McMillan of Rochester Hills, tied up a subcommittee hearing yesterday by asking endless irrelevant questions. By the way, that characterization is the judgment of his fellow Republican, subcommittee chair Tim Kelly, who eventually cut him off. But there is a real problem. Though our state’s department of education has adopted Common Core standards, as it now stands, they are unable to spend any money to implement them without legislative approval. These standards, by the way, simply spell out the math and language skills kids need to succeed.
But many of those opposed have been whipped into a frenzy by the cable TV demagogue Glenn Beck, who thinks Common Core is a plot, possibly drummed up by the United Nations, that will lead to Washington taking over education and scanning our kids’ eyeballs and brains.
Well, it is in fact pretty clear that if the loonies effectively block Common Core that will cripple Michigan’s ability to be competitive just when improving education has never been more important. That’s something everybody from John Engler to Jeb Bush has said. We probably always will have a lunatic fringe, and that’s okay.
The trouble comes when they are allowed to run the asylum.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.