This month we celebrate the 151st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. All the accolades were written last year and I don’t mean to expound upon them; but only to offer a warning: the Common Core initiatives adopted by our schools, even Catholic schools, is a threat to our understanding of Lincoln’s achievement because it forces (yes, I said forces) students to ignore the context of the times in which the speech was written, thereby totally making Lincoln’s speech ineffective and irrelevant.
I know, I’ve got some explaining to do. First, let’s start with the genesis of the speech itself and please bear with me.
The president had a hard time writing the speech (he wrote his own speeches, unlike our leaders today). He wanted to capture his thoughts and put them down on paper exactly according to the dictates of his heart, choosing each word carefully, every clause and sentence deliberately written to produce a rhythm and cadence of unsurpassed eloquence, despite the fact it would be spoken in the president’s tenor-like voice and annunciated in his Kentucky drawl.
It played out that way, too. After a two-hour diatribe (as we see it today, it was popular at the time) by the featured and premier orator of that age, Edward Everett, former Secretary of State and President of Yale, Lincoln, invited to the dedication of the battlefield to offer a few comments, took the podium. He delivered the unexpected: a three-minute address, interrupted five times with applause – more like a poem than a speech. In the press articles written afterward he was panned and made fun of. Few, if any, really had the slightest inkling that what they heard, or didn’t (the crowd was over 20,000) on that November day, would be etched into not just marble, but our national consciousness as well, forever, as long as our standard still flies, engraved in our very hearts.
Like our Lord, Lincoln explained things, expressed his thoughts – his teaching – in a simple way that everyone, except the self-proclaimed educated elite, could understand. Christ taught in parables or stories; so did Abraham Lincoln. He always had a story ready to make clear to his audience something that seemed complex.
One cannot understand the Gettysburg Address without a context. The scene was the American Civil War. During that war men died. Northern and Southern armies suffered tremendous casualties. There were 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides at Gettysburg alone. It was a brutal and bloody war that left its mark on our nation forever in ways that only God knows has molded us as a people.
But, according to the Common Core guidelines, educators aren’t supposed to mention these things: “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” (emphasis is mine).
Really? Is background knowledge not part and parcel to understanding history? Is the student, who has an interest in the Civil War era, not allowed to incorporate their knowledge into the discussion? Perhaps true students of history could add to the discussion, enlighten and animate debate, press for clarification of points unrefined. If not, Socrates, himself, would be turning over in his grave.
The Socratic Method is, and has always been the educational model for teachers. It incorporates enthusiastic discussion among learners within the wisdom and design of the instructor. The teacher remains a teacher while allowing independent thought to prosper and propagate, but always within a structured framework. In other words, there is always a context. And, there is always a teacher – not a mere facilitator.
The Gettysburg Address was not delivered in a vacuum. Sure, it can be examined, independently, as a literary work for its contribution to American writing and expression and admired for its influence on the Transcendentalist movement, even more for its groundbreaking impact on political thought and speechmaking that exists to the present day as Gary Wills has documented and explained in his national bestseller Lincoln at Gettysburg.
But it’s not a work of fiction. It desperately needs to be studied in the context of the times it was written and, especially, with some understanding of the man who penned it. Yet, Common Core spends twenty-nine pages, in its ninth-grade instruction for educators, directing them to deliberately ignore the context in which the speech was written. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ran a total of two hundred and fifty-two words. That’s it. That’s all it had to be. Lincoln meant it to be that way because he believed in an economy of words. Common Core does not.
But, let’s get back to the importance of context, even if we economize it.
Lincoln, at the time just after the battle, was under tremendous pressure. Elections were at stake. The prosecution of the war was still very much up in the air. There were constant calls for a negotiated peace that would have forever divided the union Lincoln so desperately strived to save. His son was ill, and, after already losing one of his boys, Lincoln, a consummately good father, must have been burdened, not only with his own passionate concern for his family, but also nagged to death by his irrational if not mentally incompetent wife.
This is context. It cannot be dismissed. To do so is to teach history without the benefit of a timeline, especially a personal timeline of the heart. After all, isn’t the purpose of understanding the past to learn lessons from them so as not to repeat their mistakes?
Years ago, we just didn’t read the Gettysburg Address, we were required to commit it to memory and recite it. There were two reasons for this: first, committing anything to memory was and is and exercise of gray matter that expands your brain power; second, reciting something over and over again helps you to internalize its meaning. Like, oh let’s say the Ten Commandments or the Preamble to the Constitution, especially if you want to publically recite it with the proper tone, putting emphasis and stress where it’s needed, thereby adorning the sheer elegance and eloquence of the words proffered to your audience.
The Common Core program leads our children in the wrong direction. By trying to level the playing field, we have dumbed down education once again. Sometimes it’s okay to discriminate, even though this may have a negative connotation. You can separate students based upon scholastic competence. We do it all the time. From the very earliest grades to accepting students in college based upon their test scores. Are we truly ready to ditch this common sense practice?
Doesn’t a master craftsman discriminate among apprentices who either excel at their chosen field, in carpentry or electronics or masonry, or who fail the rules of accepted standards? Or do they level the playing field and accept inferior work for the sake of the common good? Would you want your house to be built by the best architect or would you feel safe at night sleeping under a roof built by consensus?
If the goal of Common Core is to change the rules so that there is no referee, let alone a teacher, and if we accept this as our nation’s model for the education of our most precious resource – our children. Then, we have failed and have jeopardized not just our children but our country, because our country is our children.