A colleague sent me this link from the Washington Post. He is especially interested in history and he wrote to me about this lesson plan. Needless to say, he was horrified, and wanted me to explain how Common Core could promote such anti-historical thinking (an instructional approach that seems like an affront to historians and history teachers everywhere).
Here was my answer:
The problem here is that different disciplines conceptualize close reading differently. In literature/English, the idea is to give a close analysis of the language and rhetoric of this kind of text (and the lesson in the link you sent me illustrates that quite well). Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.
However, historians read very differently than literary critics—they would be interested in the sources of this speech (what led to it, what shaped it), and what it's implications were (how did the Gettysburg Address change the world?).
As such, a literary reading might look at this text on its own, but the historian would want to compare this with earlier speeches (most likely Pericles' Oration) and relevant documents (the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even some secondary documents about how the Declaration was thought about by Americans in the 1860s)… Etc. Close reading in one tradition examines the language within the document without concern for its external connections, and in the other close reading requires the connection of a document with its context, etc.
I personally have no problem with the literary analysis of the Gettysburg Address in an English class, as long as kids do a historical reading of it in a history class. (This dual treatment is not required for all historical documents, but for one this important, it seems appropriate).
A great book about Lincoln's little speech is the one that Garry Wills wrote many years ago; in that book he provides a chapter that could have emerged from the kind of assignment emphasized in the Washington Post article… but all the rest of the chapters focused on what led to the speech and what the outcomes of the speech have been. I think that is the right balance for most historical documents; a lot more historical close reading than rhetorical close reading. Please don't just notice my championing of the historical approach to such texts; I'm defending the literary reading, too.
When Cyndie Shanahan and I studied mathematicians, historians, and chemists, we found that they all had a specialized conception of close reading; each quite different from what a literary or rhetorical analysis usually provides. I want students to learn to do them all. That means I like the lesson described in the link above, and yet, I see not just what it does, but what it doesn't.
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