Criticism and the Common [sic] Core [sic]

The Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] in ELA certainly are “common,” but in the pejorative sense of the word. They are received, vulgar, uninformed, base, mediocre, pedestrian. One would expect that people putting together a single set of standards to be used by everyone would have consulted scholars and researchers with significant expertise in the many domains that the standards were going to cover. So, for example, you would expect that they would have talked to linguists about how people acquire the grammar and vocabulary of a language. You would expect that they would have talked to literature professors about what it would be useful for graduates of 13 years of general education to know about literature. You would expect that they would talk to folks who train actors and directors about what people need to know about speaking and listening, theatre, and film. None of this happened. Gates wanted a single national bullet list to key depersonalized education software. Lord Coleman presented himself as ready to do the job—an act of astonishing hubris, given that he had almost no relevant expertise himself. And, instead of consulting people who knew something and thinking through, anew, what standards in ELA should look like, he and Susan Pimentel simply reviewed the lowest common denominator groupthink of existing state standards and created a new list based on those and on their own quaint prejudices. The old state standards were almost completely content free, and so is the CC$$ bullet list. It’s a list of vague, abstract skills.The doleful consequences for our nation are clear.
When I first reviewed these “standards,” it looked to me as though a group of small-town business people–the tailor and the owner of the MiniMart–had hacked them together based on their vague, inaccurate, wildly gap-filled memories of what was taught in their English classes back in the day. One would have gotten similar results if Gates had hired Lord Coleman to write new “standards” in medicine and had sent him to a cabin in Vermont with a copy of Galen and the 1859 edition of Gray’s Anatomy to base the new standards on. In domain after domain, these “standards” are incredibly backward and full of holes and lack coherent, systematic development of bodies of knowledge in the student over time. If you look at the language “standards,” for example, you will find that they reflect PRESCIENTIFIC, folk theories of how vocabulary and grammar are acquired and aren’t informed by the vast amount of learning that linguists have done about these subjects over the past 60 years. It’s as though we had new “standards” for the Navy that warned about sailing of the edge of the Earth. It’s as though we had new “standards” for Physics instruction that tell us to teach that objects naturally seek their place, that light travels through the luminiferous ether, and that fire results from the presence of phlogiston in combustible bodies.
Accomplishment in English results from two distinct modes for gaining knowledge and ability. One is unconscious ACQUISITION. The other is conscious LEARNING. This is a fundamental distinction in the contemporary cognitive science of learning. But these “standards” aren’t informed by such understanding. They treat apples as though they were carburetors. And what should students gain from their English classes? Well, they should acquire and learn DESCRIPTIVE KNOWLEDGE of the areas that English covers (examples of descriptive knowledge: what a couplet is, who invented the detective story [Poe], what the Puritans and Transcendentalists believed and how these beliefs affect the history of ideas in the United States, who Mary Shelley was and what she wrote and why it was important, what a pastoral poem is and what conventions it relies on, the elements of the hero’s journey, how a sonnet is structured, and so on)]. They should also acquire and learn PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE in these areas (examples of procedural knowledge: how to plan a fable [short, animal characters behaving like humans, a conflict, a moral], techniques for achieving sentence variety, how to put together a Works Cited page, how to speak melodically, how to format a play or a film script, and so on). And, of course, learning in the various domains would be scaffolded over the course of the 13-year period of instruction.
But choose ANY domain of ELA and ANY subdomain (e.g., literature: prosody, genre, literary motifs, conventional symbolism, styles and movements, critical approaches, film structure, etc.; writing: sentence structures, ways to connect ideas; rhetorical techniques; figures of speech; planning pieces of various types, etc.) and you will look in vain in these “standards” for systematic development of students’ knowledge and abilities over time. The “standards” are a randomized mess.
Let me give one example. Let’s consider ways of approaching or making sense of literary works. Collectively, those are known as critical approaches or critical lenses. There are many ways in and out of literary works, and the CC$$ in ELA teaches NONE OF THEM, though it makes lip service to ONE of about twenty-five major approaches (what I call the CC$$ New Criticism Lite). What is the value of learning a variety of ways of making sense of a story or poem or play or film? Well, among its many functions, learning procedures for doing various types literary criticism gives people toolkits for making accessible works that otherwise wouldn’t be.
So, for example, one approach to criticism involves consideration of the intellectual biography of the author—Biographical Criticism (What experiences did he or she have? What ideas was he or she interested in?) So, for example, you will be able to read William Butler Yeats’s poems “Leda and the Swan,” “The Magi,” and “The Second Coming” with understanding if you know that Yeats was a mystic and believed that at various times in history, the spirit world intersected this world and disrupted everything, creating a new age. Zeus got with Leda, who gave birth to Helen of Troy, which led to the Trojan War and the Heroic Age. God became man, in the form of Christ, initiating a struggle between paganism and Christianity resulting in the Christian era. Something new and very destructive and disruptive is about to occur in our time, and we don’t know what it is yet.
Another approach to criticism looks at how literary works are informed by ideas, politics, social life, and so on at the time of their composition—Historical Criticism. So, what are we to make of Plato’s weird little Allegory of the Cave from the Republic? Well, it can only make sense if you have some background in ideas current in Plato’s time. Plato was impressed by Greek mathematics. He thought that one could conceive of/think about perfect forms like a perfect point or triangle that could not be found in the world. In Greek, there was one word, psyche, for both “mind” and “soul.” So, Plato decided that you couldn’t find perfection, of mathematical forms, of truth, of beauty, of virtue, or of anything else, by looking at the world but that you could discover these simply by thinking carefully—by using your mind/soul and making repeated stabs at the problem (the famous Socratic Method). Without this background, Plato’s little parable will be completely opaque because its basic ideas are foreign to us, which leads to a second function of criticism: it extends our range of understanding beyond our own conventional understandings derived from our current milieu.
Another approach involves learning about genres and their characteristics—Genre Criticism. When we know the type of thing a work is and the characteristics of that type of thing, we can see what we couldn’t before. So, from ancient times, there was fantasy literature involving nonordinary things—banshees and fairies, strange monsters, weird places, etc. But in 1817, an 18-year-old girl (!) named Mary Shelley created a new kind of story involving extremely weird, non-ordinary things. She borrowed an old fantasy/folklore motif—the creation of a Gollum, or artificial man, but she added a twist: she made the story SCIENTIFICALLY PLAUSIBLE, based on the science of her day, by creating a mechanism borrowed from what were for her contemporary scientific studies. The mechanism was “animal electricity,” or galvanism. In so doing, she created a new genre of literature (at 18!!!!), the science fiction story. Fantasy and science fiction are both about weird, strange occurrences. But the latter genre differs in two respects—it must be scientifically plausible, and it must present a warning about the possible negative consequences of scientific/technological hubris. Once a student knows this about sci fi, he or she will read or watch works in this genre with renewed understanding, and he or she will be more likely as an adult to follow Robert’s Rule:
Now, all of this might sound complicated and irrelevant to teaching K-12 graders–kids. But it’s not. Most of the major approaches to criticism can be practiced at very, very simple levels. The great literary scholar Paul H. Fry, in his Theory of Literature, illustrates this by presenting very, very simple explanations of a picture book story, Tony the Tow Truck, using a wide variety of critical approaches. Or, have a look at Frederick Crews’s delightful books on criticism, The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, in which he applies various critical approaches to Winnie the Pooh stories.
One could imagine a set of standards that was actually informed by expertise. Such a set of standards for ELA might contain a thread to develop students’ procedural knowledge of ways to make sense of literary works—a literary criticism thread. A subdomain. And that thread would start very simply and then build, systematically, over 13 years, knowledge of and ability to use the major approaches to literature. One of the fundamental distinctions (and divides!) in literary criticism is between interpretation as recovering the author’s intention versus interpretation as thinking about the significance of the experience of the work to the reader. This is the difference between “What do you mean?” and “What does this mean to me?” That’s a distinction that can be PRACTICED very, very early on—by very little kids.
If Lord Coleman and Lady Pimentel, appointed by Gates the deciders for the rest of us, had bothered to consult literary scholars, they might have learned some of this. They might have learned that EVERY SUBDOMAIN in ELA consists of a body of acquired or learned descriptive or procedural knowledge, and they might have set about producing a scaffolded, spiraled, systematic outline for teaching that knowledge over time. For example, the “standards” contain a speaking and listening strand/domain. So, what are the elements of speaking? Well, these include pitch and intonation, stress, length, rhythm, pace, volume, timbre, articulation, enunciation, diction, respiration, facial expression, eye contact, gesture, stance, posture, proximity, register, silence and pauses, movement, dialect, paralinguistic vocalization, body language, and resonance, to name a few. Trained speakers, such as actors, have command of all of these. They know that they can make their voices more melodic, and more pleasant to listen to, by lowering their average pitch and then varying their pitch around that center, slightly heightening the normal variations in pitch that are used in everyday speech. They know that they can use variation in pitch and rhythm to avoid sounding monotone. They know that they can make their speech more engaging by making strategic use of gesture and body language and eye contact and body language. They know that they can create surprise and interest by strategic use of pauses or unusual timbre or register or pitch. They know that they can control timbre in various ways so that they don’t sound shrill or nasal or otherwise awful. And all these things can be simply taught and practiced. One could imagine a speaking and listening strand that actually did that (and much else) over time and so produced adults who were good at public speaking and performance. But as with other domains and subdomains in ELA, look for these in the content-free CC$$ and they are not there.
Going up the Common Core stair,
I met some knowledge that wasn’t there.
It wasn’t there again today.
How can I possibly learn this way?
But doing what I have suggested here would have required the deciders for the rest of us to have consulted experts who actually knew something about the various domains and subdomains that the “standards” purportedly “cover.” And it would have required rethinking what “standards” in ELA might look like and mean. Instead, the makers of the CC$$ relied on their own received, hackneyed, backward, uninformed notions and on the execrable existing state standards and produced an almost completely content free list of vague, abstract skills that has led to a dramatic devolution of ELA curricula and pedagogy because of the high stakes attached to tests on them.
For a brief outline of types of criticism (think: ways to approach a poem, story, play, film, etc.), go here:

Copyright 2020. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This post may be freely shared as long as it is unchanged and this copyright notice is retained.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Ed Reform, Poetry, Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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