Saturday, November 23, 2013

Anthony Esolen on the Common Core Standards for literature and English

Anthony Esolen assesses the best of the model essays recommended by the authors for the Common Core State Standards in literature and English and discovers it is riddled with errors:
The best essay by far, for both style and organization, is a report on the economic effects of the Spanish Flu, in the United States after the First World War.  No other essay in the set comes close.  To read the others, after this one, is to stumble down the side of a ravine.  Yet I would not want one of my students to have written this essay, not in a hundred years.
The writer, however, makes a number of assertions about the Spanish Flu that are either plainly wrong or just contradictory:
These problems, which do not have to do with the style of the essay, are pretty easy to notice.  They are boulders in the reader’s path.  All you have to do is to pause and look.  But the author did not do that, nor did his teacher, nor did the mechanics of the Common Core Curriculum.  For the mechanics, the crucial thing is that the author presents “evidence” for his claims, and not whether the evidence is really evidence, or whether the pieces of evidence are consistent with one another, or whether the author draws just conclusions from the evidence.  They apply the rubric of their very badly written checklist: the author “develops the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.”  Again, this is their model essay, and it is the best of them all, written with no time constraints and with opportunity for “feedback” (note the mechanical term) from the teacher.
In the process of critiquing the essay, Esolen, an English professor at Providence College, points out the sophistical view that Common Core takes of literature:

The authors believe that the humanities are subordinate to rhetoric.  We read a poem by Keats in order to see, or to pretend that we see, how he uses images or odd words or a cunning series of expressions to persuade us of some peculiar point of view.  The authors do not read poems at all, really.  They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text.  When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table.  But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities.  We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human.  We do not invert the order of ends.  We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see.  We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it.

Read the rest Anthony Esolen on the Common Core Standards in literature and English.

1 comment:

Lee said...

My understanding is that interpreting "text" is a fairly ponderous undertaking, whereas dead cats have been known to bounce.