Posted by Curt on 2 December, 2013 at 3:47 pm. 1 comment.



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.

Strauss continues:

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.

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