In this mini-essay, left as a comment, Bob Shepherd notes that Common Core testing assumes that there is only one correct answer when interpreting literature. This, he says, is a complete rejection of reader-response theory, which had been prevalent for many years. Shepherd has many years of experience writing curriculum, assessments, and textbooks.
“Years ago, I was doing a project for one of the major textbook publishers—writing for a high-school British literature textbook. I was given an assignment to write a lesson on Robert Burns’s poem “A Red, Red Rose.” This poem begins, you may remember, with the following lines:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
One of the questions that I asked about the poem was, “Why does the speaker compare his beloved to a red, red rose?” And the answer I wrote for the answer key was something like, “The speaker wishes to communicate that his this person is attractive and that he loves her, and so he compares her to a red rose, which is a traditional symbol of beauty and of romantic love.” I could have elaborated: Probably through association with blood and with blushing, the color red traditionally symbolizes intense emotion, or ardor. Roses are attractive and share this property with the objects of romantic affection. For these reasons, it became conventional to speak of someone as being “a red rose” in order to communicate that a) she (or, more rarely, he) was beautiful and b) that she (or, more rarely, he) was an object of ardent emotion, and c) that that emotion was one of romantic attraction. The speaker is therefore using a conventional symbol.
I could have added that the reason why the poet chose to express this in a simile rather than in a metaphor (“O my Luve’s a red, red rose”) was probably as mundane as to fill out the meter. I could further have explained that it is the beloved not the speaker’s feeling that is compared to a rose, for later in the poem, the speaker uses the same word, Luve, in direct address:
And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
The editor wrote back to me saying, “Don’t presume to tell students that there is ONE CORRECT interpretation of the line.” I responded, “What should I say instead?” She wrote back, “Say, ‘One possible reason is that red roses are traditional symbols of beauty and of romantic love.’” I pointed out that if I were to follow her advice, I would have to include a similar disclaimer (“one possible”) in almost EVERY STATEMENT made about any work of literature in the book, which would make for awkwardness. She informed me that I was being overly directive and not respecting the students’ right to his or her own interpretation and that this made her question my suitability for the job she had asked me to do.
Let me hasten to add that I do understand where that editor was coming from. She held a version of a reader response theory of literature that goes something like this: a text means whatever the reader constructs when reading it. This grotesque misunderstanding of what “a reader’s construction of a text” can reasonably mean had become the de facto orthodoxy in ELA lit texts at the middle-school and secondary-school levels. I call this a grotesque misunderstanding because a text is an act of communication and as such depends, usually, upon shared usages and upon the belief on the part of the reader and the writer that communication across an ontological gap of a communicable meaning is possible. To deny that—to say that any text can mean anything—is to undercut the very notion of communication, of transmission across that gap from one subjectivity to another. Part of teaching people how to read literature is to teach them about conventional usages and what those can reliably be taken to mean.
Now, one might say, but wouldn’t an alternate reading like the following be acceptable?
The convention of the red, red rose as a symbol of feminine beauty is part of an complex of objectifications found in poetry and song produced by men, particularly in the Cavalier and early Romantic periods, and the speaker probably uses this because he is a conventional, unthinking, objectifying pig.
The editor might have had a student response like that in mind.
But here’s the problem with that: the editor would be confusing significance (meaning as mattering to the reader) with interpretation (meaning as the intent of the author). Failure to observe this distinction leads to a lot of complete nonsense in writing and speaking about literary texts. The differing responses are to differing matters–what the author intended and what significance what the author did has for a particular reader.
So, how does all of this relate to the new tests?
Well, one remarkable characteristic of the new tests is that they have COMPLETELY OVERTHROWN what was the STANDARD CHURCH ORTHODOXY in K-12 ELA–the prevailing Reader Response/Constructivist/The Author Is Dead orthodoxy that texts have alternate readings, constructed by readers, that have to be respected. For the most part, the questions about literature on the new exams assume that THERE IS ONE CORRECT ANSWER. Am I the only one to notice that? Did millions of English teachers and textbook writers who were of the “readers construct texts” or “reader response” schools of thought suddenly change their minds about this?
No, their minds were changed for them, de facto, by people constructing the new tests based upon the new standards.
Shouldn’t I be pleased about this, given my defense, above, of the “one true” reading of the line from Burns? No, and here’s why: What we mean by “What does this mean?” itself differs depending upon whether we are talking about intent or significance, and intent itself is by no means cut-and-dried, simply there for discovery. Getting at intent involves a great deal of knowledge of matters like literary conventions and genres and techniques and historical periods and the thought and practice and life experience of the author and much, much else. So even if we made the assumption that any question on a standardized test must deal with intent and not with significance, it would still be the case that particular passages would be open to varying interpretations.
And the relevance of extra-textual matters to interpretation raises another issue with regard to the approach to literature instantiated in the new standards. Students and teachers are encouraged in these to follow a New Critical procedure—to examine closely the text itself, without reference to external materials. But intent does not exist in a vacuum. If someone leaves a note saying, “Tie up the loose ends,” it matters whether the note is from a macramé instructor or from a mob boss worried about possible informants! Texts exist in context.
When I examine the new tests and the questions asked on them, my overwhelming impression is that the questions were written by people who hadn’t the subtlety to understand what a complex business learning to read carefully and well is. As often as not, the questions FAIL because the question writer did not himself or herself understand some subtlety. Let me give an example to illustrate what I mean.
Suppose that a question on one of these tests reads as follows:
Which of the following best describes the attitude of the speaker in the first line of Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”?
A. Ardent affection
B. Casual interest
The test writer would probably think that answer A. is the correct answer.
But consider this: A deconstruction of that first line would look beyond the verbal intention—the intended communication—to other factors getting at significance. Why did the speaker use a hackneyed, conventional expression? Why did he express the conventional association in a simile instead of in some more sophisticated way? Do the facts that he chose a hackneyed convention and chose the simile, most likely, simply as an easy way to fill out the meter suggest that he did not give this poem much work or thought? In other words, is this first line suggestive of someone who is not as serious as would be another poet who, in this circumstance, would bother to say something original and real? I’m reminded of a fellow I knew when I was a kid who had written what he called a “general purpose love song.” He said to me, “The beauty of this song is that I can throw any girl’s name in there. Miranda. Amanda. Sweet, sweet Jane.” Is the casualness of Burns’s line related to the fact that in the last stanza, he’s outta here?
“Hey, you’re great. Really. I’ll be thinking about ya. Outta here.”
Hmm. Suddenly the wrong answer starts to look as though it might not be so wrong after all because now we are talking not about intent but about significance. Is this an accurate reading of the significance? I love Robbie Burns. I have participated with great delight in Burns dinners (though I shall always pass on the haggis). But he was a notorious womanizer, and this poem is a piece of tossed-off minstrelsy and not a great work of art like his “Song Composed in August” or “To a Mouse.” I don’t mean to take away from the poem by saying that. It’s a perfect specimen of its type. But it’s a conventional type. It’s a “My Darlin’ Clementine,” not Yeats’s “The Folly of Being Comforted” or Millay’s “Love Is Not All” or Burns’s own “John Anderson, My Jo.”