Thanks to Nicholas Tampio at Aljazeera America, I discovered a special piece of work from David Coleman, architect of the Common Core and Master of the College Board, a man who has singlehandedly tried to redefine what it means to be an educated human being.
In a fairly massive essay entitled "Cultivating Wonder " (published with an austere cover featuring a giant question mark, so maybe it's "Cultivating Wonder?"), Coleman lays out in great detail what's wrong with his ideas about how, exactly, literature should be taught. Okay, yes, that wasn't his intention, exactly, but then sometimes authors reveal things beyond their actual intentions. The essay may not have changed my mind about how to teach literature, but it gave me a clearer picture of what's going on in Coleman's hubris-engorged melon.
So much depends on a good question. A question invites students into a text or turns them away. A question provokes surprise or tedium. Some questions open up a text, and if followed never let you see it the same way again.
That's the cold open, followed by a restatement of the aged old baloney-- that efforts to improve reading in this country have hit a wall as proven by flat reading scores. Nothing in that premise is correct, including the idea that 8th grade reading scores tell us how well reading is going in this country. But Coleman wants us to understand that we need him and his insights not just as educators, but as a nation. Two paragraphs in, and Coleman has established a familiar tone-- he is not here to share some ideas and techniques teacher to teacher, but is here to give his superior insights to the nation full of lesser beings who are hopelessly lost and failing. Some reformsters may pay lip service to the accumulated wisdom of the vast army of professional educators; Coleman never does.
Coleman says that the Core "challenges students to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter" (though he doesn't illuminate this with specific examples of either-- one of the things that remains striking about Coleman is that he never acknowledges or expresses respect for the expertise of anyone who's not a dead author). You may think I'm being picky, but I'm just trying to read like a detective.
At any rate, Coleman is going to show us how it's done by using five awesome questions connected to five reading standards to open up five texts. I am not going to walk you through all five, but we'll take a close look at a couple just to see what this genius is up to.
Coleman decodes to aim high right off the bat, and his first question is this:
In what tone of voice does Bernardo ask "Who's there?" and how do you know?
As anyone who has taught Hamlet knows, this is not a bad question. Shakespeare sets a mood of dread and anxiety in the first few pages of the play by giving us two castle guards who are on edge. Coleman wants us to know that he has taught Hamlet to Yale students and inner city New Haven high schoolers, and he wants us to know that students don't always catch the importance of that exchange. Thank goodness he was there to help.
After breaking down the whole scene in what qualifies as a legitimate reading, Coleman calls it "extraordinary" that Shakespeare doesn't just have Bernardo come out and say, "I'm scared." But if we were allowed to look beyond the four corners of the page, we'd know it's not extraordinary at all. Shakespeare is a huge fan of Opening Exposition Via Minor Character. In Romeo and Juliet we learn of the violent feud from a set of passing servants. In Julius Caesar, we learn about the current political unease of Rome from two unimportant citizens. And the notion of showing rather than telling is fundamental to drama.
Coleman's lesson misses much. He notes that Shakespeare doesn't give much in the way of stage directions, but, trapped between the four corners, he doesn't move into a discussion of why-- that the playwright was there to give the directions himself-- or what that might mean to us in terms of what has and has not been handed down (in fact, he also does not address that we don't really have an absolutely authoritative version of the text we are so closely examining).
Coleman's lesson also ignores the nature of drama. "Rarely when we read a script does it explicitly state how one might say the word or direct the action. But by examining exactly what the script says and then making inferences from this evidence, the playwright's art comes to light." (Watch those dangling modifiers there, Mr. Coleman). Well, duh. Every acting and directing student ever has learned that. I explain it to my students like this: A novel is done, complete. The text is finished. But a play is not finished until it is performed. Hamlet is much-beloved precisely because it is not only rich in what's there, but it is rich in possible choices for the actors who perform it (just how crazy, or not, is Hamlet, and how does that madness or not-madness progress; and what can we figure out about Gertrude; how do we settle on a version of Ophelia who is not too weak and not too strong).
Coleman does not claim that his question is the be-all and end-all, but he still comes across like a man who has discovered how to use a can opener and now believes he has found the secret to being a five-star chef.
An Athlete of God
Coleman next works his way into Martha Graham's essay "An Athlete of God." I'm not going to wade too far into this except to note just a couple of Colemanisms.
Most notably, he has selected a work in which Graham has laid out what she thinks and feels about practice and dance, so I guess sometimes when you grow up, people do give a shit about what you think and feel after all.
The other is the inability to distinguish between his own experience and the possibility of any other. At one point he says, "The mystery of what Graham means can be illuminated only by further reading." He walks us through his own progression of understanding as he reads, but he does so as if his own response to the work unfolds in the only way that anyone's response can. This is a repeated problem of Colemanism-- in David Coleman's world, the only way smart people think is the way David Coleman thinks, not just in conclusions, but in process. There is only one path to the truth, and David Coleman is on it.
What is the role of Tom Sawyer in the first chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
If Coleman had wanted to illustrate the limits of Colemanism, he could not have picked a better work with which to do so.
First, the sheer volume of critical writing about the novel is huge. If ever there were a moment for Coleman to drop a "as critic Smarty McThinksalot says..." quote in here, this would be it. At the very least, he might acknowledge there are continuing debates about many of the conclusions that he presents as settled and decided.
Coleman does, for instance, tackle the end of Huck Finn, one of the most contentious literary puzzles in American letters. Hemingway said that Huck Finn is the source of all American literature, but he also said, "If you read it you must stop where... Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating." Many critics have written extensively about whether or not the ending fits or works or is genius or suckage. If we could step outside of the four corners, we would probably observe that Twain himself stopped after chapter 18 and walked away from the book for about two years.
But Coleman simply observes that "one of the most striking developments of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the final diminished stature of Tom Sawyer. Tom enters awkwardly near the end of the novel and offers very little-- he is merely childish. The smallness of Tom at the end of the book shows how much Huck has grown." He observes this as if this is not a point on which critics from big-time PhD's down to students in my class disagree with vehemently. And his view is a hard one to sell, since the ending sees Huck give Tom complete control of Jim's escape, losing his own hard-won agency and self-direction.
Huck Finn is a work that can provide an opportunity for rich debate in a class, but in Mr. Coleman's class there is no need for debate, because there's only one correct answer.
Props to Coleman for his willingness to return to the scene of the most famous critical crime perpetrated in the name of Common Core, but whatever else we can say about Coleman, there's never been any question about his gigantic brass balls.
This is not any real improvement over earlier CCSS advice about the address. Coleman wants us to ask about the use of "dedicate" in the text. This is (though he doesn't say so) Coleman's response to the question of how one can teach the Gettysburg Address without teaching what it's about. In Colemanism, it's about the use of a vocabulary word. It's about playing compositional tricks with the word "dedicate." The Address is a writing exercise and Lincoln is a very clever boy-- he is presenting "a master class in vocabulary."
Coleman takes a moment to reject questions like "What is Lincoln's purpose in the speech?" It is "generic" and does not "arise from a specific encounter with the text." It's "more complicated, less reading" and "more open to cliché and canned response."
This is Coleman exhibiting (yet again) his lack of teaching background. Because, let's talk about canned response. If I have Mr. Coleman for class, and for every literature question there is only one answer that shows I have thought properly about the work, and that answer is always the same, and I want to Do Well in that class, I will spit that answer quickly straight out of the can. Coleman claims that general questions "just don't work. Generic questions that may seem deep often put teachers and students into automatic pilot rather than the alert attentiveness that real reading requires." Not like, you know, the REALLY deep questions that Coleman wants to ask. I don't suppose Colemanism allows for the possibility that how the question is asked, how the follow-ups are asked, the context of where the students are in interest and understanding-- that any of those factors might matter.
Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night and One Art
Coleman wants to compare and contrast the poets' use of a repeated line with and without variations. Once again we are more concerned with structure than content, though Coleman again allows himself the luxury of packaging his own responses as critical absolutes. Finals stanzas behind with "breathtaking direct address" and "both of these lines take your head off." I'm going to breeze past this one because Coleman would now like to tell us
Seven Things Worth Bearing in Mind
When it comes to this question stuff.
1) Beginning matter and are often worthy of sustained attention As with many Coleman insights, I want to say, "No, duh. Do you think you're offering something bold and new here?"
2) Great questions follow the author's lead. Coleman writes, and I am not making this up, "Good questions begin in humility." What he means is that what's within the four corners of the text is more important than the best gesture of our brains.
3) The text is the star. Again, stay within those four corners.
4) Great questions have a simplicity that allows students to get started by observing and gathering evidence and gradually to earn larger insights and ideas. In other words, there is only one true path to understanding.
5) Great questions provoke a sense of mystery and provided a payoff in insight that makes the word of reading carefully worth it. This one deserves some extra attention, because it reveals a level of Colemanism not always noted. Not only does Coleman assume there is only one pathway to truth, but he assumes there is only one motivation for traveling it. There's only one way to feel as if reading a work carefully was worth the trouble, only one reason that people dive into complex texts and come out the other side being glad they did. Only some works are really worth reading, says Coleman, and there's only one reason to engage them.
6) Great questions draw on advantages of students reading together by sharing what they have noticed and seen. Unless of course, there's only one correct answer that proves they've been noticing and seeing properly, in which case the only group discussion will be centered on the question "What do you think he wants us to say is the answer?"
7) Some great questions do not follow these principals and may even break them. Well, there's something I can actually agree with.
Is The Whole Thing Crap
Ironically, Coleman's question ideas are not in and of themselves terrible, and many of us use them in limited and appropriate ways. But this is definitely one of those "if your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail" situations.
Coleman repeatedly fails to distinguish between his own experience of the text and Universal Truth. This leads him both to believe apparently that if he just figured something out about Bernardo, he must be the first person ever to see it, that his own reaction to a line is the universal one, that his path into the text is the only one, and that things that do not matter to him should not matter to anybody. Of all the reformsters, he is the one least likely to ever acknowledge contributions of any other living human being. For someone who famously said that nobody gives a shit about your thoughts and feelings, Coleman is enormously fascinated by and has great faith in his own thoughts and feelings.
The frequent rap on Coleman's reading approach is that it is test prep, a technique designed to prepare students to take standardized tests. But the more Coleman I read, the more I suspect it's the other way around-- that Coleman thinks a standardized test is really a great model of life, where there's always just one correct answer, one correct path, one correct reading, and life is about showing that you have it (or telling other people to have it).
Sadly, it often seems that what David Coleman doesn't know about literature is what David Coleman doesn't know about being human in the world. Life is not a bubble test. There is a richness and variety in human experience that Coleman simply does not recognize nor allow for. His view of knowledge, learning, understanding, and experience is cramped and tiny. It's unfortunate that circumstances have allowed him such unfettered power over the very idea of what an educated person should be. It's like making a person who sees only black and white the High Minister of National Art.