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“At the risk of deviating from the standards of close reading, this requires some context”

Mark Palko waxes indignant about corporate postmodernism.


  1. JSE says:

    I don’t really get it. Close reading isn’t postmodernism, it’s the opposite of postmodernism. It’s a very, very traditional way of thinking about literature. We learned it in high school 25 years ago; is there a reason we should be getting rid of it now?

    By the way, I certainly didn’t know that the Gettysburg Address was literally delivered at a funeral (more precisely, per Wikipedia, at the dedication of a cemetery). I don’t feel I understand the speech or its meaning or its force any better now that I’ve learned that.

    • Andrew says:


      The issue is not that it’s close reading, it’s that it’s close reading with a forcible detachment from historical context. From the Wikipedia entry on Postmodernism:

      One of the most well-known postmodernist concerns is “deconstruction” . . . depends on the techniques of close reading without reference to cultural, ideological, moral opinions or information derived from an authority over the text such as the author.

      So there does seem to be something postmodern in reading and discussing the Gettysburg address with no reference to the Civil War or the Battle of Gettysburg.

      There’s also this part of the instructions (quoted by Palko):

      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.

      It seems a bit silly to think that not giving background context is a way of “leveling the playing field.”

      • JSE says:

        I know zlicherooni about deconstruction but as I understand it, what that Wikipedia article is pointing to there is something that deconstruction _has in common_ with traditional ways of reading.

        But I admit of course that the objection to that piece of curriculum has nothing to do with whether it’s rightly labeled “postmodern” or not!

      • Steve Sailer says:

        From the Jewish Daily Forward, an insight into Mr. Coleman’s obsession with “close reading:”

        How did Coleman wind up in the middle of the 21st century’s curriculum wars? His path started at his parents’ dinner table, and wended its way through selective New York public school Stuyvesant High, making an important pit stop at his bar mitzvah.

        Coleman gleaned many lessons from his bar mitzvah, said Jason Zimba, a Common Core co-writer and lifelong friend who taught mathematics at Bennington College, where Coleman’s mother Elizabeth served as president.

        “The idea that the child’s serious attention to this venerated, beautiful text is valued by the adults and even the rabbi is to David a beautiful thing,” Zimba said. “I’ve listened to him talk about that.” …

        The experience of conducting a deep exegesis at age 13 framed Coleman’s thinking about education. “The idea that kids can do more than we think they can is one of Judaism’s most beautiful contributions,” he said. Asking 13-year-olds to give a prepared speech in front of people they love is a bold charge, not unlike encouraging disadvantaged kids who don’t see themselves as academically minded to take AP courses. “I wish kids could encounter more stretched opportunities like that in school — all kids,” he said.

        • dl says:

          Steve Sailor, so your point is that the guy is Jewish. Fantastic contribution. Does it ever bother you that, no matter how much time you spend spamming blogs, most people will see you as a disreputable bigot whose time passed 70 or so years ago?

  2. sarang says:

    This seems more “well-wrought urn” than Derrida: “[new criticism] emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object.”

    By the way I’m intrigued by the link to “”. People often seem to link to blogspot with weird URL extensions, I’ve never understood why…

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is why we need the Church to interpret the Scriptures.

  4. D.O. says:

    Of course successful teachers would object to forcing them to do something new. The whole idea of the education reform is to make somehow inexperienced and lagging teachers to teach at least at a minimally competent level (or replace them, if possible).
    But teaching the Gettysburg address without context is downright insane. It’s not a bit of lyric poetry, you know.

    • jrc says:

      C’mon. Everyone needs to know how to count in “score”. That requires no context. The whole part about “brought forth upon this continent a new nation” – that could be any nation, and he could be referring to any old Civil War in the second paragraph. They’re all great – nations and wars and whatnot. Mostly interchangeable. Also – and here’s the best part – there’s this:

      The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

      See – Andrew was right, this is about post-modernism* – because basically this is a lesson in literary irony. Now it is just the words, detached from the meaning, that matter, even though the words were spoken by someone who believed the thing mattered, and not the words. – OK, for real, part of me thinks that is what this is about, but I can’t quite believe the whole thing is totally ironic. On the other hand, this, from the actual teacher’s guide that is mentioned: “Students might notice that the fact is, everyone now remembers Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, and that is something worth discussing later.”

      * Here is the longer context from wiki – I tend to disagree with Andrew that the above pedagogical suggestion is post-modern, but I also think we probably mean different things by the word, and I don’t see a lot of value in debating the “right” interpretation here.

      Wiki on Derrida and Deconstruction (as part of post-modernism) – One of the most well-known postmodernist concerns is “deconstruction,” a concern for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida. The notion of a “deconstructive” approach implies an analysis that questions the already evident deconstruction of a text in terms of presuppositions, ideological underpinnings, hierarchical values, and frames of reference. A deconstructive approach further depends on the techniques of close reading without reference to cultural, ideological, moral opinions or information derived from an authority over the text such as the author. At the same time Derrida famously writes: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (there is no such thing as outside-of-the-text).”

      • D.O. says:

        Re: “The world will little note,…” Somehow it seems hard for educators (and others) simply say that a great historical character can be wrong, and really this is probably one part of the speech that is better off without the context.

  5. jrkrideau says:

    This close reading approach reminds me of the bible story about the golden calf. I had no idea why a bunch of people made a statue of a calf and worship it untill years later I realised it was probably a symbol of the Apis bull.

    BTW, do the kids get any hint that Gettyburg is in the USA?

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