We have all recently become familiar with the idea of “close reading,” which is highly recommended by David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core standards and now the president of the College Board. Simply, this means that the students should be able to interpret the text without reference to prior knowledge or context. The meaning is on the page and no background knowledge is necessary. On its face, this seems odd. How would a student understand the Gettysburg Address without prior knowledge of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, “our forefathers,” slavery, and the nature of a democratic government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”)?


Reader Eric Brandon comments on the origins of “close reading”:



Close reading was definitely intended for fiction. The close reading that David Coleman espouses comes out of the New Criticism literary tradition, and it was definitely meant for poetry. The idea is that the meaning of the text is the words. As such, background knowledge, context, authorial intent, and so on just don’t matter much if at all.


Also, this type of close reading, since it instructs the reader to ignore context, history, etc. is not good for nonfiction either. Imagine students trying to make sense of the 3/5’s compromise while reading the US Constitution without references to history.


Textual analysis is very important, but it cannot be done in a vacuum. This is a huge problem with New Criticism. David Coleman has simply transported this problem right into the heart of the Common Core standards. What a monstrosity he hath wrought.


Finally, I disagree with the idea that the study of fiction and literature are extras that can be dispensed with because parents can fix this at home. If one of the goals of education is to give students the knowledge and tools to understand their own lives and cultures, then the study of fiction and literature should have a central, not marginal, place in education.


I would go further and advocate that students be exposed to film studies as a discipline before leaving the K-12 system. Just imagine all the videos and movies that students are watching, but no one is really giving them the sort of education that would help them truly understand what they are watching and how the creators of what they are watching are trying to affect and manipulate them.


There would be plenty of time to add this sort of content to the K-12 curriculum if we would just stop wasting so much time on excessive standardized testing.