I once heard a wise professor of education remark to his class that behind every educational approach stands a picture of the human being. “But many of you,” he said, “will teach for thirty years or more, and no one will ever ask you what image you hold – what picture of the human being shapes your education.”

What image stands behind American education today? Is it a mechanistic picture or a human picture? The Common Core State Standards are rolling out in state after state, redefining much of American education. Designed to help students prepare for college and the workplace, they are also purported to cultivate creative and critical thinking and problem solving. While these are important goals, it is unlikely that the standards will advance them.

The very concept of standards is better suited to the world of machines and factories than to children and schools. When the phrase Common Core standards first started to circulate in educational circles, I did a web search for the term. The only entries I found were for building materials.

Standards are necessary when we want uniform products. But children are not meant to fit a single mold. While they have much in common, each is a unique individual, and education needs to build on both their commonality and their individuality. We have fallen into the trap of treating children as if they are small machines that can be calibrated according to our sense of timing. If a child today fails to develop at the pace prescribed by the standards, there are apt to be serious consequences – the child may repeat a grade, or enter special education classes, or her teachers may be penalized or even fired. It is hard to see how an education based on fixed standards and high-stakes testing can help children achieve their full humanity.

As an early-childhood educator I am most concerned about the Common Core standards for the kindergarten age, since these seem especially ill-matched to children’s development. They require that over ninety skills be achieved by the end of the kindergarten year. Some of these skills are sensible enough, but many others are far better suited to later grades. To meet the standards, teachers increasingly rely on long periods of teacher-led instruction, worksheets, homework, and tests. As a result, they can provide little time or support for child-initiated play and hands-on exploration, both of which prepare children for an active, creative life.

The Common Core standards are said to be evidence-based, but the evidence for what is now expected from kindergartners is slim. The kindergarten goals heavily emphasize short-term gains, many of which disappear after a few years. In the end, we have arbitrarily created a new pathway of development for young children, and concretized it with official standards and high-stakes tests. Many teachers see how inappropriate this new pathway is, but do not have the freedom to make necessary changes.

As a result, children may unconsciously begin to think of themselves in mechanistic terms. They feel inferior to the computers they are taught to handle before they learn to handle themselves or the world around them. They hear us say that the brain is like a computer, but they don’t realize that the brain came first and the computer is an imitation. They hear us praise artificial intelligence, but do not understand how pale it is compared to the human intelligence that combines heart and mind. We hand young children our phones and tablets, forgetting to offer them our lullabies and nursery rhymes. We should not be surprised, then, if they increasingly look to machines for comfort and companionship. Without realizing it, we are shaping children to fit a mechanized world, not raising them to inhabit a human world.

It is time to be grateful for every child who comes before us, and for the wonder of human life itself.

What do young children really need? From birth onwards, they carry a deep drive to grow and learn. They want to find their way in the world using their bodies, emotions, and minds. They have a sense of their own path of development, what they should do next, and how they should do it. How else does a one-year-old know it is time to walk or a two-year-old to speak? No one tells young children to do this. From deep within, they know what they need to master next, and they watch others doing it. Then they develop the ability to do it for themselves.

Children cannot become mature human beings by themselves. They experience our love and warmth as a cocoon that protects them from harm. They need us to set appropriate boundaries and guidelines, yet give them as much freedom to explore as they can handle. They need us to be both strong and compassionate, people who understand the importance of living a life that is good and beautiful and true. And they need our faith in their ability to find their own way in life, so they can fulfill their own unique purpose. In short, they need us to strive to become full human beings, so we can help them do the same.

What does it mean to be a full human being? It means that our whole nature is activated and integrated – our thinking, our feeling, and our willing. Individuals may be naturally more gifted in one area than another, but all of these elements are necessary for a full life. Being human means we have body, soul, and spirit, and we embrace the heavenly world as we do the earthly. We stand like a bridge between the two; our feet curve gently to touch the earth, and our heads reflect the dome of the sky. In between, our hearts reach out to one another.

Such a picture of humanity raises the question: where does a child come from before he or she rests in our arms? George MacDonald suggests an answer:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into the here.

And William Wordsworth, in his poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality, reminds us that we come to earth “trailing clouds of glory. . . . Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” We hold the newborn and sense her great journey. She is full of life’s possibilities, like a bud ready to open, petal by petal. How can we think, a few years later, that all this glory can be reduced to a series of test scores? Education is caught in a great denial of what it means to be a full and integrated human being. It is time to be grateful for every child who comes before us, and for the wonder of human life itself. Wordsworth speaks of this gratitude in the closing lines of his Ode:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.