“Common Core’s odd approach to teaching Gettysburg Address”
Without beating you over the head too much with an explication of the failings of textualism as an approach toward legitimate (rather than expedient and self-serving) interpretation, I’ll try to place it in some — ahem — context, especially for those who believe a “critical reading” of a text like that of the “Gettysburg Address” can be shorn of its context and read in a populist manner based on how reasonable people, kept ignorant of context and the historical and social complexities of the time of its composition, delivery, etc., might conceivably be able to “re-imagine” the “meaning” once freed from all that ancillary stuff that is, like, over 100 years old and such.
From the WaPo, Valerie Strauss:
Imagine learning about the Gettysburg Address without a mention of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, or why President Abraham Lincoln had traveled to Pennsylvania to make the speech. That’s the way a Common Core State Standards “exemplar for instruction” — from a company founded by three main Core authors — says it should be taught to ninth and 10th graders.
Let me interrupt here to note that, pace the headline of the WaPo piece, such instruction on how to teach the address is not an “odd approach,” but is rather an intentionally incoherent and illegitimate one, designed — and yes, designed is the correct word here, because the purpose of such curricula as exemplified by this example is to strip, deconstruct, then re-imagine an intended, historically-specific and intended text, from a particular contemporary political stance that, were the actual historical and social context appended, would prove nonsensical (and this applies even if the contemporary political stance is merely to remove the historical political realities that surrounded the construction and delivery of the original utterance — to retrofit the meaning of the original into the usurped meaning of the leftist rewriting of that original.
The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.
First, before I grow annoyed, let me say this: there are perfectly legitimate reasons for teaching “close readings” of texts “with text-dependent questions” and without — initially, at least — providing any historical context. But those reasons are rather advanced, and speak to things like learning how to construct an argument, how to create a narrative voice, how the text’s narrative is designed to function — often on multiple levels — depending on speaker voice, tone, and specific machinations reserved for the study of, say, narratology. Which is to say, the legitimate reasons to work such an assignment should be relegated to advanced studies in composition and argument — and certainly not to “History/Social Studies,” where the very names of the discipline suggest that to ahistoricize and de-socialize an important document is to do it violence from the perspective of those areas of study. Learning, say, how someone like Hayden White approaches an historical text, or how a geneology differs from a narrative for purposes of ascertaining potential bias in a written history — these are questions that fall outside the purview of examination of a primary text for purposes of history / social studies, at least if the objective is to try to deliver a true “close” and “critical” reading of that text.
What is happening here, however, is that Common Core seems to be, for whatever their reasons (be they ignorance or cynicism, political naivety or political opportunism), intentionally conflating questions of compositional bias with questions of historical and social importance — a conflation that makes no sense when the object is a primary text being studied in a discipline that necessarily militates against such perversions.
The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman, now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”
The unit is listed on the Web site under History/Social Studies Lessons. However, Appendix B of the Common Core English Language Arts standards lists the address under “Informational Texts: English Language Arts.” The lesson is available for teachers around the country to use; it is, for example, on New York State’s Common Core Web site, Engage NY, as an exemplar for teaching the Gettysburg Address to ninth- and tenth-grade students. (When you click on the document, the unit is labeled as a “draft.”)
The unit reflects the overall approach to the Common Core standards, which emphasize the “close reading” of text in order for students to be able to analyze and gain meaning for the written word [my emphasis]. This mission is clearly stated in the “Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3 – 12,” written by Coleman and Pimental to help education publishers create new resources for the standards. It says in part:
At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself. In aligned materials, work in reading and writing (as well as speaking and listening) must center on the text under consideration. The standards focus on students reading closely to draw evidence and knowledge from the text and require students to read texts of adequate range and complexity. The criteria outlined below therefore revolve around the texts that students read and the kinds of questions students should address as they write and speak about them.
The standards and these criteria sharpen the focus on the close connection between comprehension of text and acquisition of knowledge. While the link between comprehension and knowledge in reading science and history texts is clear, the same principle applies to all reading. The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text.
– All of which sounds high-minded until one recognizes that there is no “text itself” without the presumption that behind that text was an intentional agency whose meaning will on the majority of occasions be best understood by recognizing that, in the example of a public address by a President, the meaning the speaker wishes to supply is tied to context of its delivery, its stated intent, and its historical situatedness.
Therefore, to claim that we can draw evidence of anything other than that which respects how texts can be structured to achieve a particular goal of either making clear or disguising the intent behind it, is silly: learning how words can be used outside of their specific contexts — and that involves the intent that created them and placed them in that context — is merely a primer on how to learn to “interpret” without appealing back to the production of the text and the agency of that production.
Or, to put it another way, it is a crash course in creating “close readers” who are being trained to kill the author in order to claim that a text’s “plain meaning” can be ascertained without acknowledgment that behind it lied some agency intent on communicating a desired and intentional meaning.
I ran a post last year by an English teacher who was getting professional development in teaching the address to students. Jeremiah Chaffee wrote in part:
This gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage.
Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.
The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”
(This is baffling, as if Lincoln delivered the speech in an intellectual vacuum; as if the speech wasn’t delivered at a funeral and meant to be heard in the context of a funeral; as if we must not think about memorials when we read words that memorialize. Rather, it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.)
Precisely correct: close reading of “words” must first assume that the words are words — are language — and with assumption comes the prerequisite of acknowledging intent. Having acknowledged intent, we allow that the possibility exists that a writer or speaker is breaking from contemporary convention and reworking language in a way that defamiliarizes it — something we find often times in great and transformative works of literature.
But in specifically occasional addresses or speeches meant for public consumption and built on the hope that the message as intended is clearly understood and so clearly delivered, removing the context and pretending the words exist in what Chaffee calls an “intellectual vaccuum” is, as I noted above, not only incoherent, but rather obviously intended to legitimize as intepretation something that is nothing more than an act of creative writing, the end goal of which is historical revisionism.
It is important that we see this and immunize ourselves against it.
Lincoln wasn’t an egret. And his address wasn’t etched on a shoreline by the talons of some feeding birds. Yet to read the Gettysburg Address in the way Common Core advocates is to approach the text just that way.
It’s wrong when opportunistic prosecutors or justices do it. And it’s wrong when it is allowed to pass itself off as “critical reading” or “close reading, ” the implication being that it delves more thoroughly into a text by disallowing the author of that text any control over what it means.
That way lies madness. Or at the very least, the progressivism we see now.
Which, I told you so. But fuck if you’d listen, you networked lawyers who have conspired to keep our eyes on the local and not really examine the structural that continues to drive us toward tyranny. Because traffic!
More’s the pity.