Do “cold” readings of our historical documents “level the playing field”? (by Sandra Stotsky)

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Two of the many bizarre ideas that the “chief architect” of Common Core’s English language arts standards has mandated in our “national standards” or told teachers outright are the notion that teachers should do “cold” readings of historical documents like the Gettysburg Address and that doing so “levels the playing field.”  Both ideas suggest the thinking of someone who has never taught in K-12.   Worse yet, they contribute to historical illiteracy.

Aside from the fact that context-free reading was not developed or promoted by Yale English professors Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren as a reading technique for historical documents, no history or English teacher before the advent of Common Core would approach the study of a seminal historical document like the Gettysburg Address by withholding introductory information about its historical context, why it was created at that particular time, by whom, for what purposes so far as the historical record tells us, and clear language archaisms.  Nor would they keep such information from being considered in interpreting Lincoln’s speech.  Yet, that is exactly what David Coleman, a Rhodes Scholar from YaleUniversity (who majored in English literature according to an Internet-based rumor), has been advocating to puzzled educators. He has categorically declared: “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.”

Fortunately, a few educators have begun to explore whether having relevant background knowledge for a historical document helps or hinders comprehension. “Background Knowledge & Close Reading,” posted by Vivian Mihalakis on May 30, 2012, recounts her informal observations of two groups of readers in a professional development workshop, one without the background knowledge of Lincoln’s speech, the other with background knowledge. According to Mihalakis, the group without background knowledge began by trying to figure out when the speech was given, calculating what four score and seven years amounted to, and then zoomed in on only the final line in the speech. They saw Lincoln’s central argument not as a call for increased devotion to preservation of the Union, but as a call to continue fighting for “the cause,” which they did not define.”  On the other hand, the group with background knowledge “focused on what lay within the four corners of the text, and they engaged in a close reading of the entire text.  The other group did not. And because the facilitator did not provide or solicit background knowledge, the depth of their conversations was remarkably different. In other words, the playing field was far from level.”

Not only is there no research to suggest that in keeping the historical context for a historical document a secret, the teacher ensures equality in student effort to understand it, there is nothing to suggest that historical ignorance serves the cause of social justice.  We have good reason to worry about the content of the proposed national history and social studies standards that the Council of Chief State School Officers threatens to release this year if an animating idea behind Common Core’s English language arts standards is that ignorance makes us equal.