How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement

At age 85, the author looks back at the personal epiphanies that helped him change the way English is taught nationwide.

valediction-big.jpgA page from the 1634 edition of John Donne's poetry (digitaldonne.tamu.edu)

Right now, roughly 1,000 schools -- public, private, rural, urban, and suburban -- are implementing a curriculum plan called the Core Knowledge Sequence. That number is slated to increase significantly in the fall: Under the new Common Core State Standards, the state of New York is recommending the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through second grade.

It won't be long before the Core Knowledge program will have helped educate more than a million children -- an estimate that doesn't count the several million children whose parents have taken them through Core Knowledge books such as What Your First-Grader Needs to Know. Judging from the evidence, this is a good thing. The Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that students need actual knowledge, not just thinking skills, in order to succeed. As the program's website explains:

It's natural to assume that teaching lots of "stuff" isn't important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much "walking-around knowledge" you carry inside your head -- and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it's easier to learn more. And it's much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don't.

As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I've written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program's character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia.

***

A crucial moment occurred about 60 years ago as I was in my first semester of teaching English to Yale freshmen. The poem under discussion that day was "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne, and my interpretation was being challenged by a very sharp undergraduate.

The poem starts this way:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

The undergraduate insisted that it was a poem about death, since the poem forbids "mourning" and offers the image of a man dying quietly.

Most professors of English would agree that this is not a poem about dying. In Donne's day, the word "mourning" did not have the limited, mortuary connotation it has now. True, the poet does say he is departing from his beloved, but he's going on a real geographical trip. In the rest of the poem he explains that he'll be coming back, and they will renew their love as before. The valediction is a "be seein' ya," not a "farewell."

But nonetheless the poem can be read as a permanent farewell. In Donne's famous image of a compass, the twin legs part from each other, then one leg takes a circular trip, but then the two legs come back together. All that could be read as a reuniting of two souls after death. There are other clues that make death a plausible interpretation -- not just the word "mourning" in the title, but also the image of the dying man, and the poet's insistence that he and his beloved are not like "dull sublunary lovers" who depend on each other's physical presence. That could suggest some sort of posthumous spiritual reunion.

But my bright undergraduate didn't even need to bring out those detailed arguments. He made a more decisive theoretical observation: He pointed out that then-current literary theory held that the intention of the poet is irrelevant. A poem goes out into the world as an artwork, a "verbal icon," to be interpreted as readers wish, so long as their interpretations follow the public norms and conventions of language. That doctrine meant, said the undergraduate, that his reading of the poem was just as valid as my reading, since both followed public norms and conventions. My immediate response was that his logic was absolutely right.

So, why was I teaching this class?

In 1954, Yale was the vibrant center of the "New Criticism" that had already begun to take over the teaching of literature in the high schools, mainly through the phenomenally successful textbook by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren called Understanding Poetry. The theory was that you didn't need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques. The other influential text was The Verbal Icon by William K. Wimsatt, who, like Brooks, had been a professor of mine at Yale. All of them became dear friends despite our disagreements.

In those heady days when the Yale English department was rated tops in the nation, it had the feeling almost of a theological seminary for the new doctrines that freed the study of literature from its pedantic, historical trappings and treated works of literature intrinsically as literature -- as "verbal icons." Under this theory, the argument that my student made was right. His "reading" was just as valid as mine. Once he had mastered Understanding Poetry, why should I, or anyone, need to teach him how to read Donne's poem?

Presented by

E.D. Hirsch Jr. is University Professor Emeritus of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia and Founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

Just In