Teaching Opinion

Civic Literacy and the Power of ‘Close Reading’

By Leo Casey — October 23, 2014 9 min read
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The conversation between Deborah Meier and Leo Casey continues today.


If there is one defining feature of the controversies over the Common Core State Standards, it is the near universal refusal of critics to address and engage the standards themselves. There are a seemingly endless number of nefarious objectives that have been imputed to the standards. There are arguments about how the standards were developed. There are attempts at guilt by association that tie the standards to high-stakes standardized tests and school privatization. But there are precious few critiques that actually discuss the standards and the instructional shifts they embody.

How do we explain this strange silence? Could it be that if we focused on the actual standards, the extravagant claims that are made against the common core would be impossible to sustain? Take the standard that 11th and 12th grade students should be able to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” Or take the standard that they should be able to “evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.” What is wrong with them? I would be hard pressed to explain how such standards would not be embedded in the Habits of Mind, with their focus on perspective and evidence, which you and your colleagues developed at Central Park East and Mission Hill.

One of the few critiques of the common core that delves into the substance of the standards is a Rethinking Schools essay by Daniel Ferguson, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core.” Ferguson takes aim at one of the key instructional shifts behind the common core, the idea of moving to a ‘close reading’ of important political texts such as King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. Against the common practice of providing students with contextualized, simplified summaries of these texts, the common core’s ‘close reading’ stresses the importance of having students engage in detailed, in-depth inquiries into the meaning and purposes of the author’s actual words and arguments.

I think it is instructive, Deb, to examine Ferguson’s argument, both for what he gets wrong and what he misses entirely. He argues that the “close reading” is the work of David Coleman, chief author of the common core, and that Coleman is a formidable and negative influence in American education, with a business background and ties to education reformers like Michelle Rhee. Whatever his shortcomings, Coleman is neither the inventor nor the most adept practitioner of a “close reading,” which has a long history of use in the history of ideas and philosophy. One need look no further than Danielle Allen’s recent powerful ‘close reading’ of the Declaration of Independence, Our Declaration, with its compelling argument that equality is at the center of the Declaration and our national patrimony, to see how vacuous this objection to a ‘close readings’ is.

Ferguson insists that the singular focus on the words and argument of a text that defines a ‘close reading’ is misplaced: You can’t understand the text, he claims, without first grasping what is outside of it.[1] He is particularly concerned with the historical context of the text, and with the relations of power prevalent in that context. To understand King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he contends, you must first understand the history of the civil rights movement and the system of Jim Crow segregation it was struggling against.

But this dichotomous opposition of text and context, of written discourse and history, is a crude and unhelpful approach. What distinguishes a “close reading” is not a denial of history, but an insistence that the reader not deploy ‘a priori’ views of history that preempt a deep understanding of the argument of the text. Indeed, as Danielle Allen demonstrates so well in her book on the Declaration of Independence, it is through a ‘close reading’ of the text that we can acquire a richer and fuller understanding of history.

Take King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” In the many years I taught American history, my inner-city students would enter the class with an understanding of King and the civil rights movement that went something like this: The civil rights movement arose in opposition to a system of racial segregation that treated African-Americans as second-class citizens, separating them from white people in inferior schools and other facilities. African-Americans were forced to sit at segregated lunch counters and ride in the back of the bus. King was the moderate leader of the civil rights movement and a peaceful spokesman for the rights of African-Americans, and he opposed advocates of violence such as Malcolm X. He was assassinated, but segregation was ended.

A ‘close reading’ of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” demonstrates the utter inadequacy of this simplified and sanitized view of history. In evocative accounts of the conditions of the Jim Crow South, King points to the central role of systemic economic exploitation that left African-Americans in “an airtight cage of poverty,” and describes the regime of terror, with its brutal violence and lynching, that was used to enforce segregation. In fierce prose, he recounts the daily assaults on the dignity and humanity of African-Americans that characterized life under Jim Crow segregation.

A very different, deeper understanding of King emerges from this ‘close reading.’ The “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to criticism from ‘moderate’ Southern clergymen who complained that his Birmingham campaign of non-violent direct action disrupted good social order and ignored the slow pace of social change. It incorporates the implicit democratic socialism that lay behind his lifelong battles on behalf of poor and working people. Most importantly, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” makes what is arguably the most compelling case ever crafted for nonviolent civil disobedience, firmly rooting it in Western moral and philosophical thought. It places the willingness to confront power and authority by nonviolently breaking the law at the very center of the civil rights movement. One can’t read the letter carefully without concluding that King was a radical activist with a broad vision of moral righteousness and social justice.

When I imagine how to teach “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail” using the technique of a “close reading,” I think of the considerable number of lessons it would take to do it properly, going through the text and its arguments with care. King’s argument on behalf of nonviolent civil disobedience would require a number of lessons by itself, given its references to thinkers from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and its citation of the ideas of ‘natural law,’ the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the democratic obligation to accept punishment when breaking laws.

What is a “close reading” if not an embodiment of the educational idea that “less is more,” that deep, rich learning takes place when we give educational priority to depth over breadth—one of the Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools? And isn’t the idea of an instructional shift away from mile wide, inch deep survey courses to a much smaller number of ‘close readings’ a potentially powerful point of leverage and organizing tool against the damage that has been done to our schools these last years by the imposition of wall-to-wall standardized exams and test prep? To claim that the instructional shift to ‘close readings’ was designed to “make for better standardized test questions,” as Ferguson does, is not just wrong-headed and absurd; it is harmful to the cause of creating a positive educational alternative to high-stakes standardized testing.

At the core of these issues, Deb, is a central question we have been discussing these last few weeks, the civic mission of schools in a democratic society. In American education, we place a great deal of emphasis on what our students should know and be able to do if they are to become fully literate and fully numerate. But what do our students need to know and be able to do if they are to become full citizens in a democratic society?

There are some answers to this question that you and I would find terribly inadequate and deeply troubling, such as the fixation of the Democracy Prep charter schools on the multiple-choice test of factual information on the U.S. government that immigrants must pass to become United States citizens. Both students and staff at Democracy Prep schools are expected to pass this exam to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills, and disposition of a democratic citizen.

But if democracy has as its core the conversations between citizens, the debates and the deliberation over what is our common good, as we have been maintaining these past few weeks, we need a much more robust conception of civic literacy than a minimal factual knowledge of the workings of government. Our students need to be able to understand and evaluate political arguments by others, and to construct political arguments of their own. They must master the vocabulary, the syntax, and the grammar of democratic political language. That is civic literacy.

What better way to master that democratic political language than to engage in ‘close readings’ of important American political texts like the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail?” The history of struggles for freedom and equality in the United States is in many ways a history of ongoing political conversation over the meaning of the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence. Just think of how generation after generation of Americans fighting for freedom and equality have conceived themselves within the political language of that declaration, from the tracts of the abolitionists to the Gettysburg Address, from the Working Men’s Declaration of Independence to the “We Are Americans” Declaration of the Homestead Steel Workers, from the Seneca Falls Declaration of the Rights of Women to the “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Our task is to educate our students to participate in that ongoing conversation.


[1] Ferguson uses an argument from authority to support this account, citing Paulo Freire that “reading the world always precedes reading the word.” A Freirian approach that gives preeminent place to the “world” produces a “critical reading” of the text which, he says, is superior to a “close reading.”

Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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