Reading Without Understanding -- Common Core Versus Abraham Lincoln

Valerie Strauss, an education reporter for The Washington Post, recently posted an excellent and very critical blog on the inadequacies of the Common Core's decontextualized approach to teaching primary source documents. Because this is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, she focused on a sample a high school social studies and English unit called "A Close Reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address."

Strauss was outraged, calling on her readers to "Imagine learning about the Gettysburg Address without a mention of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, or why President Abraham Lincoln had traveled to Pennsylvania to make the speech. That's the way a Common Core State Standards "exemplar for instruction" -- from a company founded by three main Core authors -- says it should be taught to ninth and 10th graders.

I recently published an article about Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg on the History News Network website where I looked at the historical context missing from the Common Core Unit and drew some very controversial conclusions about Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery and racial equality in the United States. This is my contribution to discussion of both Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address and problems with Common Core.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered what he considered to be "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of a cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania to a crowd of about 15,000 people. Lincoln spoke for less than three minutes. There are no photographs of the speech because he gave the address before the photographers were set up. The speech itself was less than 300 words long; yet Pulitzer Prize award winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson has argued it was the "foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."

In an online video, David Coleman presented a sample three-to-five day common core unit designed to guide students and teachers in a close reading of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and "develop college and career ready skills identified in the Common Core State Standards." Common Core's proponents selected the Gettysburg Address because they believe:

"Lincoln's speech is arguably one of the most important speeches within the historical canon, and yet is equally regarded as one of the most eloquent speeches ever made. Its brevity does not rob the speech of its rhetorical power, but rather confers a poetic resonance to Lincoln's words. Nor does its length compromise the sophistication of Lincoln's argument, which is tautly constructed within the framework of remarks meant to dedicate a graveyard. In short, the speech is a perfect example of the kind of text whose clear exegesis and compelling examples offer vivid and concrete avenues for close reading."

As Strauss pointed out, Common Core's treatment of the Gettysburg Address highlights both some strengths and major weaknesses in its approach to teaching and learning. I have no problem that students spent most of the three-to-five days "translating" the Gettysburg Address into their own words and rewriting their translations, although they did spend far more time writing their versions than Lincoln did his. An interesting assignment built into the unit is to have students identify words that are missing from the text, such as slavery, union, soldier, or blood, however it is not clear how students will know these words are missing without broader knowledge of events.

What concerns me most is the instructions given to teachers about how to promote student understanding. Key questions all focus on the writing process and vocabulary acquisition. Teachers are specifically instructed not to ask "erroneous guiding questions" that require knowledge of historical context and research that takes students beyond the words in the text and gives actual meaning to the words. Specifically, teachers are told not to say, "Lincoln says that the nation is dedicated to the proposition that 'all men are created equal.' Why is equality an important value to promote?" They also must not ask students to draw inferences from the text through questions such as "Why did the North fight the civil war?" or "Did Lincoln think that the North was going to 'pass the test' that the civil war posed?" But in my experience, these are precisely the questions that interest students in the meaning of the document and its historical significance.

Students should discuss whom Abraham Lincoln includes in the promises laid out in the Gettysburg Address. Who were the people in his government of the people, by the people and for the people? Was Lincoln proposing a more inclusive concept of men that recognized the full humanity of Blacks, non-Christians, and possibly even women, or was it the same limited notion endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776? Answering these questions requires knowledge of history and that students and teachers move far beyond the text of this one speech.

A first clue to what Lincoln believed about race and equality comes from debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 when Lincoln declared, "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . ." Later, in his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln expressed support for the Corwin Amendment to the United States Constitution that would have barred Congress from interfering with the domestic institutions of the states including "persons held to labor or service" such as enslaved Africans.

On August 22, 1862, in a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, made clear his goal during the Civil War was not to end slavery in the United States. Lincoln wrote, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it."

One month before the scheduled issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln equivocated on ending slavery again. In his annual Message to Congress, he recommended a Constitutional Amendment providing for gradual emancipation that would not be completed for another 37 years, taking slavery in the United States into the 20th century; compensation, not for the enslaved, but for the slaveholder; and the expulsion, supposedly voluntary, of formerly enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa.

Even when slavery ended, Blacks were not going to be full and equal citizens of the United States. Less than a month after the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln offered full pardons to Confederates in a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Self-rule in the South would be restored when 10% of the "qualified" voters according to "the election law of the state existing immediately before the so-called act of secession" pledged loyalty to the union. Since Blacks could not vote in these states in 1860, this was not to be government of the people, by the people, for the people, as promised in the Gettysburg Address, but a return to White rule.

In his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most quoted lines in American oratory when he promised "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

But to whom was Abraham Lincoln offering "malice towards none and charity for all"? It was to White Southerners, the Confederacy.

As I read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, I see a war-weary and politically cautious president who never believed in racial equality; who less than a month before finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, offered the South gradual compensated emancipation that would have extended slavery in the United States into the twentieth century, and who in the actual document sharply limited the scope of emancipation so that very few enslaved Africans out of the millions in bondage were directly and immediately affected.

I suspect if Abraham Lincoln had lived, presidential Reconstruction would not have differed much from the program promoted by his successor Andrew Johnson, and it probably would have received more support because of Lincoln's political capital earned as a victorious war president. In this circumstance, the United States may never have seen the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments defining African Americans as citizens entitled to vote.

A close reading of text without historical context promotes reading without understanding. Students read the address, recite the address, and rewrite the address, but learn nothing about what it meant for the formerly enslaved freedmen and the ongoing debate over racial equality in the United States that has been continuing the past one hundred and fifty years.

When Common Core ignores the context behind the Gettysburg Address, it does students, Americans, and Abraham Lincoln a great disservice.