There’s a compelling article online at The Atlantic, on David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core State Standards, the “national curriculum” that most of the states in the country will be following in 2014-15. Coleman has impeccable credentials: Yale, Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford, a man of letters whose conversation, as the piece states, ”leaps gracefully from Plato to Henry V.” Now, it appears, Coleman wishes to impose his own high academic standards on students from kindergarten to high school. Moreover, he has a very deliberate approach to learning, and to reading in particular. He embraces what in the 1940’s and 1950’s was called New Criticism, a movement in U.S. universities that emphasized sticking tenaciously to the text of whatever one is reading. In other words, all discussion in a classroom about a particular text needs to be based on the text itself (or, alternatively, needs to be compared to another text). New Criticism cautions the reader not to go beyond the text to consider, for example, the biography of the author, the social or historical period in which he/she was writing, or, for that matter, even one’s own personal feelings, attitudes, and experiences in relation to the text. As Coleman famously stated at an April, 2011 presentation for educators sponsored by the New York State Department of Education: “no one gives a sh** what you feel or what you think [about the text you are reading].” He doesn’t want students to take what they are reading and connect it to their own lives, or describe how they feel about what they’re reading.
I have serious problems with that. Too many students already feel alienated by the material they are asked to read in school. The best teachers are those who can actually help the student make critical connections between what they are reading and their own lives. Now, teachers all over the country are going to be trained (are, in fact, being trained at this very moment) to stop doing this, and instead, are being told to force students’ noses into the text, so to speak, so that they can start inhaling deeply. My prediction is that this is going to create a whole new generation of reading-phobic children. There’s actually a good word to describe this whole approach to teaching: read-i-cide (think, homicide, suicide, regicide, parracide …).
Coleman also insists upon using “difficult, complex texts,” in the curriculum, just like the kind of material he is used to reading. I think this is going to be a non-starter for many students. Now, I love difficult, complex tests. Right now, I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest, an 1100 page sardonic romp through a semi-apocalyptic future (it has 388 footnotes!). But I’m not sure that assigning this novel to a group of semi-tuned-out ready-to-drop-out high school students is going to transform their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we need to dumb down the curriculum, and in some schools (probably in many schools), I believe that this does go on. To expose great literature to students is incredibly important. I’m all for that. But to require the reading of difficult, complex texts, and then to further require the students to engage in a close exegesis of the material, is to ruin the joyous process of reading. And that’s a crime.
Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of the hundreds of specific “standards” from the Common Core State Standards, which students will be required to master starting in 2014-15. It’s a language arts standard for sixth grade students:
”Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.”
Now, if someone asked me to do this while I was reading Infinite Jest, and told me I’d have to know it before I could graduate, I’d be totally turned off. I would probably stop reading the book and never pick it up again. I’m reading Infinite Jest because I love it – I get pleasure from it. I don’t want someone telling me to get a pair of foreceps out and start picking in there for every little minute fragment of textual grit. Just leave me alone and let me enjoy myself! Part of what fascinates me, and saddens me, about Infinite Jest, is something that goes beyond the text (and thus is forbidden to explore in this New Criticism approach of Coleman’s): David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. This incredibly brilliant, utterly magnificent writer chose to end his own life. That brings up a lot of stuff for me, especially since I’ve struggled with clinical depression in my own life. But that kind of biographical connection is now firmly out of bounds in this new “Coleman classroom.”
I think people need to stand back and take a good hard look at what is really at stake here. This guy, and his organization Student Achievement Partners, was asked by the U.S. Department of Education, to write educational standards that teachers, administrators and students are going to have to follow religiously into the foreseeable future. Just imagine if the founding fathers had hired Student Achievement Partners to write the Bill of Rights for them. The First Amendment might have read something like “Congress shall make a law prohibiting the free exercise of one’s right to enjoy a good book without someone breathing down their neck.” I think it’s a big mistake to entrust so much power in the hands of one person. It may look good from the outside (“oh yes, higher standards developed by a scholar with impeccable credentials, I’m all for that!”‘). But the implementation of this national curriculum is going to make No Child Left Behind look like something that Maria Montessori and John Dewey cooked up. Perhaps I should mention in passing, that aside from a little tutoring at Yale, David Coleman has no classroom teaching experience. Might that be a red flag? I think, textually speaking, I’d have to say: yes.