History does not repeat itself. Those who forget the mistakes of the past might not be doomed to repeat them.
Each historical era is its own world. It is fertile soil out of which the next historical era will grow. What one means by “era” wholly depends on what one is investigating. History is valuable not because it teaches sobering lessons, but because it explains the world in which we live today. In doing so, it might help point us to the future.
This means that every word that has ever been uttered, every action ever taken and every thought ever written cannot be properly understood without understanding the world out of which they grew. Some people might call this “context”. Certain philosophers might call this “structure”. Whatever one calls it, it is necessary to at least try to understand it in order to appreciate the events of the past.
That is why literalist interpretations of any historical text is the stuff of folly. Biblical literalists worship words written down during the 2nd century Roman Empire, and translated during Elizabethan England, without bothering to understand either of those worlds. Inevitably, they invest in these words meanings that only someone from 21st century America could comprehend. Another way of putting it is that Biblical literalists tend to plunder scripture in order to justify some previously arrived at bias.
It is probably even worse for people who fancy themselves Constitutional literalists. Typically, people who claim to only follow the letter of the Constitution keep some shadowy notion of 18th century America in the back of their minds. It is ironic that, whenever these literalists reveal their impressions of the Founding Fathers, the Fathers seem to hold the same exact biases as the literalists. Constitutional literalists plunder the Constitution and American history to justify positions conjured up in their 21st century American gut.
The historian Jack Rakove warned against literalist interpretations of the founding documents in his book Original Meanings. In his depiction of the Founding Fathers, he demonstrates that many of them said and meant different things at different times. Sometimes this was due to changes in their opinions. Most of the time, it was due to altering their message to gain approbation with whatever audience they were addressing at the moment. In terms of the Constitution, they realized they did not have everything figured out about how a republic such as the one they were making was supposed to work. For example, Article III, which deals with the federal court system, was vaguely short because they did not have a solid idea about how it would function or what its powers were. They left plenty of grey area in the Constitution in the faith that future generations would figure it out.
The Founding Fathers knew they did not have all of the answers. Unfortunately, many of us alive today are not smart enough to know that. They assume the Founders carefully placed in their words some definite and eternal meaning for ensuing generations to discover. The fact that the Founders wanted to leave enough room in the Constitution so their progeny could apply it to the unforeseen circumstances of the future is a sinful idea in literalist circles. To them, every word in the Constitution has a definite meaning by which those of us who live in the present must abide.
If the designers of the Common Core get their way, the next generation will be nothing but literalists. Take these standards from 11th and 12th grade social studies:
1) ” Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”
2) ” Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.”
3) “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”
And it goes on like that. To the Common Core-istas, the text is everything. The audience for whom the text was written, the historical circumstances out of which the text arose, training the reader to recognize their own biases when reading the text, does not play a role whatsoever. As a teacher of history (not social studies), I know this is a myopic and plodding way to analyze any historical text. It is one of the most low-level exercises in which students can be engaged. Sure, we want students to be able to understand the meaning and structure of text. However, this understanding is just a preliminary point on the way to explaining why a particular text made sense within a particular historical moment. After this comes the questioning of the text. Not only do we wish to question the veracity of the text, we wish to question its place in history.
History teachers do these things with texts because we know it helps students recreate the past. We help students recreate the past because we want them to understand the present. We want them to understand the present because we want them to be engaged citizens. Revealingly, the word citizen does not appear once in the Common Core. There is much talk about primary and secondary sources and analyzing structure and providing evidence. There is nothing about civic values or engagement with the wider world. If we were to teach these things to students, they might start understanding their own places within our society. Heck, they might start writing texts of their own.
This seems to be the biggest fear of the Common Core crowd. This endless consumption of text is aimed at killing imagination. David Coleman, the man assumed to be the granddaddy of the CCSS, is notoriously repulsed by children using such squishy things as imagination and emotion. Apparently, there is no room for these things in the 21st century for which we are preparing our children. We want to train our children to be locked into the text. We want to train our children to be consumers of text.
But who will be writing the texts that our kids will read when they grow to be 21st century adults? What will be the veracity of these texts? Whose purposes do these texts serve? Why are these texts being produced at this particular historical moment?
The Common Core is silent on these questions. It is silent because they want our children to remain silent. The Common Core is designed to make silent consumers out of future generations. Only those who come from families with the wealth to avoid a Common Core education will be encouraged to innovate.