Below is a post I did for Catholics for Classical Education. Please visit their site at www.catholicsforclassicaled.com.
Over the last decades, a popular teaching style in English classes was to have students derive the meaning of a text by examining what it meant to them. This technique failed to have students determine the meaning or intention of the text according to the author. Undeniably, students should be able to interpret the text for what the author actually writes; failure to do so results in an inaccurate, self-centered interpretation.
In reaction to the need for students to understand the meaning of a text based upon what the author writes, the Common Core requires something called “close reading.” Teachers instruct students NOT to consider anything but the text in hand to determine its meaning and make conclusions. This is a useful technique for dissecting information presented in a text, but not in ascertaining the facts or truth to draw conclusions.
The “close reading” technique starts with reading the passage cold, no surrounding information regarding the author, subject or historical context is provided. The student “reads like an investigative reporter” and highlights important phrases or sentences. After a thorough reading, students are given “text-dependent” questions that must be answered only from the text presented. Conclusions and arguments made by the student must also be qualified with evidence found solely in the text. (sounds a lot like test-prep for high-stakes testing)
I did a little experiment with the “close reading” technique and my eighth-grade daughter. She was instructed to read the following passage and highlight important phrases (shown in bold below). She answered two questions I provided based solely on the text.
“Of course, the word ‘religious’ implies some ideas and beliefs that are fundamental. Among these we may reckon the belief in the immortality of the soul, its future existence in eternity, the belief in the existence of a Higher Being, and so on. But all these ideas, no matter how firmly the individual believes in them, may be critically analysed by any person and accepted or rejected accordingly, until the emotional concept or yearning has been transformed into an active service that is governed by a clearly defined doctrinal faith. Such a faith furnishes the practical outlet for religious feeling to express itself and thus opens the way through which it can be put into practice.”
1. Is the author making an argument between the ideas of holding beliefs and faith?
Yes. The author believes being religious or having faith is more than just believing in the principles of religion, but feeling the need to practice your faith. The author thinks that the word “religious” implies peoples wide-held beliefs in God and the existence of “eternity” and the “immortality of the soul. Some people might “firmly believe” these fundamentals, but until they reach the point of spiritual “yearning” to “transform” their faith in “active service” it’s not complete.
2. Based on the text, do you think the author supports freedom of religion?
Yes. The author is making an argument for people to practice what they believe and says a faith that does so allows an “outlet for religious feeling to express itself.” Based on this statement, he is saying that expression of religion is good.
The passage is from Mein Kampf written by Adolph Hitler. The author’s content for religious expression, specifically Jewish, is not unmasked in the selection above. Clearly, this is an exaggerated example of how the wrong conclusion can be drawn if one must rely solely on the text. Certainly, I am not suggesting that teachers are currently promoting Hitler because of Common Core, that would be absurd.
The point of the exercise is to show that there is no way to determine the actual truth or meaning of an author, the legitimacy of an idea, or the accuracy of an event depicted in a text using the close reading technique. What is possible, is the misrepresentation of a person, idea or event by using selective texts. It allows a close, but not too close, insight into what is being read, thus preventing a 360 degree view of the text, only a directed glance.
While I am happy to say good-bye to the era of students interpreting texts through a narcissistic lens, I’m skeptical the new “close reading” technique is an adequate solution for enriched understanding.