Common Core Teaches the Gettysburg Address Without Historical Context
Note: The title of this post was meant to attract readers. I hope the post itself clarifies that I believe much of the outrage expressed over this specific unit has been misplaced.
Working in private schools over the course of the past fifteen years has allowed me to control what I do in the classroom. I am not subjected to the latest fads adapted by state and federal government that purportedly track learning in the classroom. The latest fad is something called Common Core, which like every other standard is quite controversial. I don’t claim to be an expert and will refrain from drawing any conclusions one way or the other. What I do find interesting, however, is this story surrounding how Common Core proposes teaching Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The story has received increased traction over the past few days and will likely continue to do so in the coming days.
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.
The suggestion not to provide historical context is viewed – rightfully so – as problematic. The unit does indeed fall short of providing sufficient historical context, but not entirely, and the lesson plan as a whole facilitates a close reading of Lincoln’s speech. In fact, that this is being promoted for use in the 9th and 10th grades is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, much of the outrage expressed does little more than harp on the above paragraph without going through the 29-page document. Diane Ravitch is not happy, but she does little more than quote the offending paragraph and cite a recent editorial by Paul Horton, who is equally outraged. No surprise that FOX News picked up on the story, but neither the interviewer or interviewee seems to have carefully read through the unit.
Given my unfamiliarity with the history curriculum in the public sector and with the application of Common Core, I am curious as to when this unit my come up during the school year. Do public school students learn American history in the 9th and 10th grades? If so, then wouldn’t this unit be introduced in the section on the Civil War and, if so, wouldn’t students already be familiar with what has transpired by the time Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg in November 1863?
The other thing that seems to be lost in some of the commentary is that the author does not suggest that the teacher never introduce historical context, but that it not be done at the beginning. I sometimes do that when teaching a text. In those cases I have students look at word choice, tone, and the overall structure. Of course, a sophisticated understanding of any historical document is only possible within the right context and as I’ve already stated this unit could clearly use more. That said, it’s not entirely absent. For example, in the section on teaching what Lincoln meant by “unfinished work,” the instructor is encouraged to make the following points:
It is worth going through each point with some care.
“Increased devotion to that cause” What cause is this? The cause is to win the war and to preserve the nation.
“to resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” What would it take to ensure that those who died accomplished something? Lincoln implies that the living need to ensure that they win the fight, so that those who have already died did not die having accomplishing nothing. The unfinished work includes the fact that the struggle continues for a new birth of freedom.
“that this nation should have a new birth of freedom” According to the address, when was this nation’s first birth of freedom? In the first line of the address, Lincoln describes the birth of freedom in this country in 1776.
“That government… shall not perish from the earth” What if Lincoln ended before this last phrase, and ended with a “new birth of freedom?” Lincolnends his speech generalizing his defense of self-government to apply across the globe (“the earth”). This returns to the theme of day one, the speech is not only about the survival of a place, but an idea.
The unit also charts some of the differences between the “Nicolay” and “Bliss” versions of the events – just the kind of lesson that the folks at FOX and others could have used before criticizing the president for “intentionally” dropping “under God” from his recitation for Ken Burns.
Read through the unit for yourself. Critics are right to point out the lack of sufficient historical context, but there is a good deal of very helpful material to work with and build on depending on your particular goals. I may utilize some of it for my upcoming unit on the Civil War.
Addendum: I wanted to share this comment from a friend who works in the area of history education here in Boston. It offers some clarification on what educators mean by context. Very helpful.
It’s a misreading of the word “context” to assume it means historical context. That’s not what it is about at all. Close reading strategies–which is what this lesson is promoting–is learning to read the text for text sake. It’s a reading/literacy strategy. It is arguably foundational to being able to read something–period–before it can be read IN CONTEXT. It’s a literacy term, not a disciplinary term. The expectation is that you will build disciplinary understanding on the literacy skill/comprehension of students, not exclude them. There is sufficient confusion out there about this. Please don’t add fuel to the fire by getting people riled up over non-existent slights.
Background context is sort of “historical context light”, if you will. It’s more like–don’t get hung up on a famous person said this. What does the text alone say? THEN add in layers. The idea is that if every teacher–history, math, English–employes these strategies, students will show broad-based improvements. So this IS for a history class, but not the ONLY thing you are expected to do with the text. These outlines just show how to apply the particular principle–here, close reading–but how teachers integrate that is well within their own purview.
People are freaking out over CCSS more because of the idea of it than anything it actually says. Diane Ravitch doesn’t like it because it doesn’t list the Great Books of the Western Canon as it’s foundation. She’s only ever taught grad students though. She’s never taught struggling readers, so I take her conversion with a grain of salt.