Saturday, December 6, 2014

What David Coleman Doesn't Know About Literature

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.

Huck Finn

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.

Gettysburg Address

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.


  1. "The other is the inability to distinguish between his own experience and the possibility of any other. " THIS why is I believe that Coleman may have Asperger's - he cannot see another perspective, he does not see the importance of context, and he dismisses the value of any emotional connections to literature, history, or one's students.

    1. I think it may be narcissism rather than Asperger's.

  2. Once again, the One Right Way, stifling all thought. And to me, while it can be interesting to analyze only what is contained in the four corners of the page (wasn't that a fad some years ago?), it's so much more interesting to have context and make associations. The more you see patterns and make connections, the more you see the interrelatedness of everything and the more you understand.

    My favorite line is "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."

  3. "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)."

    This is always why his vision was such an easy sell to our rulers, like Gates, who fancy themselves as having discovered the one true path.

  4. Great piece, Peter. Thanks for describing the absurdities in Coleman's approach to literature.

    Coleman's essay provides evidence that many of the problems critics see with the Common Core are there from the start. Coleman has no interest in nurturing the talents or interests of young students. He wants them to do what they're told.

    Anna Shah, a New York parent advocate, told me about Coleman's essay. Her twitter is @SOTHVNY and she administers the Hudson Valley Against Common Core Facebook page.

  5. Cause or effect? Coleman and ETS and AP? I taught APUS from the early 1970s in the bronx through the early 1990s in Scarsdale hs. When I first started it I went to a conference for new AP teachers. It was wonderful. We reveled in the practical wisdom given to us by top teachers who repeatedly said, "There is no right way to teach APUS."

    What happened since then caused me to tell my superiors in the early 1990s that I would no longer teach it because of the increased competitiveness of the course and test and the change in ETS philosophy from "There is no right way to teach APUS." to ACHTUNG! THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO TEACH APUS...OUR WAY!

    That was a dozen years before Coleman joined them but it is quite obvious they think (stink) the same way.

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  7. Were you quoting David Foster Wallace? I love this post!

  8. Coleman just doesn't seem very interested in the standards, does he? Whatever you think of this style of teaching, it was possible under the old standards, is not required for the new ones, and his questions don't always mesh cleanly with cited CC standards (are we analyzing how "individuals... develop and interact" or the role of characters in a text?). It is hard to tell if it has been a misdirection all along, or... what?

  9. After reading this:

    "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."

    I was expecting that his example questions would blow my socks off. I was completely underwhelmed. My socks are still on. Yawn.

  10. In second piece on the CCSS reading standards, I quoted a little exchange between Carol Burris and Michael Petrilli on Twitter. In my first piece that she had recommended to folks, I postulated that Coleman was dedicated to the New Criticism school of thought from the post-war period. It wasn't hard to suss out of his standards and ideas. He wrote standards that are so utterly text centric that even if you believe that readers have some role in meaning making, you are almost entirely unable to divine that role from the standards except in the form of "test detective" seeking the best, TRUE, meaning that is entirely bounded within the confines of the text. No history. No social perspectives. No reader experiences. Intertextuality only in service of understanding author constructed allegory. Coleman strikes me as everyone's least favorite College English 101 professor -- entirely convinced that texts have singular best meanings and readers are tasked in English class with that and only that.

    Anyway, Principal Burris asked Michael Petrilli what he thought of the New Criticism school of thought.

    Petrilli, almost as if one cue, said, "You mean that stuff David Coleman loves? Not terribly impressed. That's not what we are talking about here."

    The context was a discussion on the ELA standards.

    You really cannot make this stuff up:

    The upshot? You and I are correct about Coleman. He's a man who is slightly younger than I am but has constructed himself as the nation's College English 101 Professor from 1955.

  11. Please don't knock Coleman..after years of ignoring the works of Mark Twain I am now going out to get Tom Sawyer! He is right, that question you included about Tom Sawyer just makes me want to consume great literature! I had a tingly feeling of surprise in my gut that might not leave me.

    As Twain said, "To succeed in life you need ignorance and confidence." Apparently Coleman has both along with no credentials :)

  12. There's something for everyone here.

    Those of you gift-shopping for blindingly novel insights may enjoy Coleman's claim that "poems are often built on structure."

    Or if you're in the mood for some mixed metaphors, you may enjoy his description of the two frequently-repeated lines in Dylan Thomas' famous "Do Not Go Gentle" villanelle: these lines, Coleman tells us, "anchor his poem like pillars."

    Or, if you just fancy an ugly sentence, this one thuds along like a dead dog making an involuntary descent down the stairs: "At stake in good questions is not just reading well but delivering the opportunity to engage in conversations with the finest minds and artists."

    I know - it's churlish to make fun of him for being a so-so writer, when there are so many more serious charges to lay at his door. But I meantersay. If you're going to recreate high school English for the whole damn country, you'd better at least be something pretty luminous yourself, not just a run-of-the-mill English grad with a bit of patter.

    1. "Or, if you just fancy an ugly sentence, this one thuds along like a dead dog making an involuntary descent down the stairs...."

      You really need to post a "please swallow your beverage now" warning before writing sentences like that. Now I have to go clean my monitor. ;-)

  13. You could have saved yourself a lot of writing by telling us what Coleman does know about literature.

  14. About Hamlet, DC would have hated my Elsinore Castle Family Health Services group therapy sessions. That approach is definitely not within the four corners, but it created the hook that made the play comprehensible for my inner-city students.

  15. Bernardo's line, "Who's there?" takes on added meaning in the light of the Warwickshire dialect Shakespeare made ample use of. It becomes drawn out to "Who's th--ere?" or "who's the--heir?" Having learned this from a self-described, disheveled, English, Shakespeare scholar, has illuminated the text for me, far beyond anything Coleman has the capacity to understand.

  16. Nice post thank you Paige