The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

As you are no doubt aware if you are an education policy geek like me and/or even a mild political junkie, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in his efforts to pander to the Republican base that will never nominate him for President anyway, announced a few months back that he was instituting a “review” of the Common Core State Standards here in New Jersey.  I’ve shared my thoughts about the process issues associated with that review in the companion piece to this one. The short version is that this past Thursday night, September 17, 2015, Governor Christie’s Common Core Review Farce Commission held the first of three public meetings to solicit feedback from the public about the standards.  Please note that each speaker was allotted a whopping 3 — count ’em, yes, 1, 2, 3 — minutes to provide feedback about the whole of the Common Core standards.

So, for what it’s worth, here is my 3 minute critique of the Common Core ELA standards:

I am here to discuss two major flaws in the ELA standards: (1) their insistence on privileging “close reading” and use of “textual evidence” over reading texts as products of their broader historical, social, and political contexts, and (2) their insistence on ignoring the reader’s experience as a participant in making meaning of texts.

First, as a lawyer, I had to learn multiple approaches to analyzing the Constitution.  There is originalism a la Justice Scalia, in which judges purport to divine the original intent of the framers of the Constitution and then apply that intent to analyses of statutes and fact patterns.  This is akin to the Common Core’s approach: for example, a high school ELA standard reads: “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.” See CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5. This is one approach to literary analysis.

The problem, however, is that like Justice Scalia, the ELA standards rely on only this one party trick, this one way of analyzing, interpreting, and making meaning of texts. The ELA standards end their analysis at the author’s choices and author’s intent.  The standards ignore the idea that it is possible — and, indeed, sometimes critical, to analyze how understanding of a text has changed as society has changed.

For instance, between 1898 and 1954, the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not change.  However, the Plessy v. Ferguson court interpreted that text to condone “separate but equal” while 56 years later the Brown vs. Board of Education court interpreted that very same text as prohibiting “separate but equal.”  The words did not change: society did. No ELA standard requires students to grapple with the impact of social conditions on understanding texts.

Second, the ELA standards suffer from not capitalizing on teenage self-absorption.  Reader response theory is the theory that a text’s meaning arises in the transactions between readers and texts. For instance, the students I taught in western Maine made sense of The Great Gatsby very differently than did my wealthy, suburban peers back at my high school in Short Hills, NJ.  Both offered valuable perspectives that deepened my understanding of the text.

In discussing the ELA standards, David Coleman famously said: “…as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” It is heartbreaking that his philosophy permeates the standards.  In truth, each human being makes meaning out of the texts she encounters.  Our standards should reflect this truth, and indeed, literature classes built around this truth help our teens to move from self-absorption to empathy, a net gain for our democracy.

As you review the ELA standards, I implore you to fundamentally re-imagine the standards so that context and reader response theory are once again offered as meaningful analytical frameworks. Justice Scalia’s originalism adds an important layer of insight to Constitutional analysis, but his approach is not — nor should it be — the only one available to lawyers and judges.  Similarly, English teachers across New Jersey need standards that allow them the freedom to offer their students multiple analytical lenses. Our children deserve no less.

Thank you.

P.S. For more insight on this topic, please read Seton Hall education professor Daniel Katz’s essay titled “Dear Common Core English Standards: Can We Talk?

3 thoughts on “The Common Core’s Scalia-esque “Originalism”

  1. Well written. I totally agree that there should not be one way of interpreting text. I graded essays written using this approach and the essays were so predictable because the children were taught to use certain key phrases and follow steps to ensure they get all their points. It made me sad as an educator that the students were being taught writing as a way to acquire as many points as possible.

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  2. The standard you cite is particularly problematic because it gestures in the direction of two critical approaches that the standards don’t support.

    Starting with “Analyze how an author’s choices…” suggests that the reader is supposed to be trying to get inside the head of the author and determine his intent. This is a head fake toward E.D. Hirsch’s approach to criticism based on divining authorial intent.

    Shifting at the end to determining “its aesthetic impact,” one must ask “impact on whom?” The student? Is this based on the student’s response to the text? Or the canonical white, adult male reader? There is no answer to that question, because ultimately, the critical approach of the Common Core is not clearly stated, just implied.

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