On rubrics and reading

On Grading like readers. I’m going over the following piece with my college comp students this week. I’m overly sanguine here about the possibility of objective readings even under the guise of a rubric, but teachers must play along.

Some of you have given me your papers for me to critique ahead of the due date. You’ll probably discover that my comments, now that I’ve graded your papers, are to some extent different from my comments then. I’d like to tell you why this is both unavoidable and good.

I hope I’m consistent with how I grade your paper. In other words, if I grade your paper one day, have a memory lapse, and grade it again another day, I hope I’d reach the same result. That’s not hard since we English teachers must use rubrics for our more important assignments.

But I think my grading of your paper with a rubric is not as helpful to you as my reading of your paper. Before I tell you why, I want to explain the difference between grading and reading. When I grade with a rubric, I am not doing the kind of reading your piece deserves. Instead, I am reading for: reading to see if your paper meets some preordained criteria. Your paper exists outside of those criteria, however, and it deserves a subjective reading.

Readers are subjective, thankfully, but rubrics, no matter how loosely they’re written, are inherently objective. The premise behind a rubric is that all teachers reading your paper would judge it the same way. Is that the way people really read, though? When you annotate a text with connections you find between it and your experiences, realizations, and previous reading, you are making explicit what your mind does when your read. Do you expect those annotations to mirror your classmate’s? Good reading is always subjective. I can be objective when I grade your paper, narrowing myself to a rubric’s strictures, but I can be only subjective when I read your paper.

Rubrics anticipate, but good writing often turns those anticipations on their heads. Shakespeare, you must know, would have gotten some bad grades using some of the finest rubrics English teachers have ever written. But, for some odd reason, I choose not to read Shakespeare with a rubric.

Because reading is subjective, my first reading of your paper is different from my second reading of it. Isn’t the difference between one’s readings of the same text the unstated assumption (the warrant) supporting every English teacher’s assignment to reread a text? The realizations, the connections, and sometimes the laughter and tears a student’s text gives me — would they be the same each time I read the text? And do you consider your writing so facile as to think that someone could exhaust all of its charms and faults in a single reading?

So I think I should model deep reading — subjective reading — when I can. I can’t make it the basis of a grade, but I can make it the basis of my celebration of your work and part of the basis of my suggestions for your subsequent drafts and for your writing in general. I just won’t often look terribly consistent if I do it to the same text twice.

Marginal: What “fourscore and seven years ago” means

On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s Poetry. An American child’s first penetration into the Gettysburg Address is that “fourscore and seven” means “eighty-seven.” What else does it mean?

A year ago, Adam Goodheart’s book 1861: The Civil War Awakening helped me unpack the opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In marking our nation’s birth at the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, Lincoln was claiming that we at that moment moved from a state of nature to a society. In other words, the people, not the states, created the Union.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Lincoln’s Lockean argument was a philosophical go for the Confederacy’s jugular. If the people, and not the several states, created the Union, then “state sovereignty” is a myth. (You can compare some of the Gettysburg Address with what Goodheart convinced me was an earlier elucidation of it – Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address to Congress – here.)

Over the break, I’ve been reading Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788 and ran into a pertinent remark by one of my newfound heroes, South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Speaking at South Carolina’s ratification convention in 1788, Pinckney revealed his understanding of how Locke’s state of nature applies to July 4, 1776:

. . . speakers argued that South Carolina’s weakness required union for its security. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went so far as to describe the assertion that the Declaration of Independence had made each state “separately and individually independent” as “a species of political heresy.” The Declaration, which never mentioned the states by name, was meant, he argued, to impress on America the maxim that “our freedom and independence arose from our union, and that without it we could neither be free nor independent.” (249)

Pinckney’s observation constitutes more evidence that Lincoln wasn’t the first to associate the events in 1776’s Continental Congress with the people’s sovereignty. States could not secede from the Union, Lincoln reasoned, because they had no legal or moral existence outside of the Union. (N.B.: Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address establishes that he, like most Federalists and Whigs who raised the issue before him, acknowledged a state’s internal police powers.)

Indeed, Maier points out that, hard on the heels of South Carolina’s ratifying convention, Patrick Henry made his belief in state sovereignty the sine qua non of his objections to the proposed Constitution at Virginia’s ratifying convention: “No amendment, however, was likely to address [Henry’s] fundamental criticism of the Constitution: that its authority came from the people instead of the states” (266).

Henry had unpacked “We the People,” the first phrase of the proposed Constitution, and had seen, in its Lockean underpinnings, the end of what Pinckney had termed the “political heresy” of state sovereignty.


On The Tempest. Baldwin says something very similar to what Langbaum says in one of my post’s epigraphs, but from a broader perspective.

Langbaum: “. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.”

Baldwin wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think, but he sees “metamorphoses and recognition” as inherent in theater, not just in romance. The “tension between the real and the imagined is the theater,” Baldwin says, “and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows [as at the cinema], but responding to one’s flesh and blood; in the theater, we are recreating each other . . . we are all each other’s flesh and blood.”

Baldwin got converted as a young teen, he suggests, to escape Macbeth and the flesh and blood of theater: “Macbeth was a nigger, just like me, and I saw the witches in church, every Sunday, and all up and down the block, all week long, and Banquo’s face was a familiar face. At the same time, the majesty and torment on that stage were real . . .”

Baldwin was a playwright as well as a novelist and essayist. My quotes are from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, the fourth book of his essays I’ve read this year.


G. K. ChesteronOn Liberty and inequality. G.K. Chesterton would have been my kind of Union man had he been an American. While he faulted the English Socialists for denying the poor their humanity in the name of an ideal, he faulted the Tories for dong the same in the name of tradition’s accident.

Chesterton’s Edmund Burke was Lincoln’s John C. Calhoun – an “atheist” – in political theory, at least – who denied that we were all created in the image of God (Chesterton), that we were all created equal (Lincoln). From Part Five (The Home of Man) of Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World:

A cultivated Conservative friend of mine once exhibited great distress because in a gay moment I once called Edmund Burke an atheist. I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre. Nevertheless, the remark had reference to a truth which it is here relevant to repeat. I mean that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic. The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man. Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have. “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as niggers live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs. Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel. The last weak cry of the pious, pretty, half-artificial optimism and deism of the eighteenth century came in the voice of Sterne, saying, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” And Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, “No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind.” It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught.

I was so glad this morning, reading this. The debate surrounding the equality clause isn’t only an American debate. Chesterton vs. Burke; Lincoln vs. Calhoun and Stevens; Jaffa vs. Rehnquist and Bork. A moderation founded on a theological understanding of the rights of man vs. a conservatism founded on tradition and historicism.


On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry. “A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.” I wrote that in the context of Lincoln’s recurrent themes. Walter Lippmann, I just discovered, wrote the same thing in the context of philosophic writing:

Philosophies . . . are the very soul of the philosopher projected, and to the discerning critic they may tell more about him than he knows about himself. In this sense the man’s philosophy is his autobiography; you may read in it the story of his conflict with life.

And that’s what my “Marginal” writing is. I want to treat my blog like an ever-fattening book. I find new stuff that I would write in an old post’s margins. I can’t leave well enough alone.


On “The basis of liberal-conservative rapprochement.” In his 1955 book The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann points out how progressives need conservatism:

. . . no one generation of men are capable of creating for themselves the arts and sciences of a high civilization. Men can know more than their ancestors did if they start with a knowledge of what their ancestors had already learned. they can do advanced experiments if they do not have to learn all over again how to do the elementary ones. That is why a society can be progressive only if it conserves its traditions. (136)

While Lippmann here uses an example more suited for science or mathematics, the larger context of his claim is political or civil.


On Tom Jones, Moderate. I loved it when I found Fielding and his editor, Martin Battestin, linking Calvin and Hobbes. Now I discover Walter Lippmann in his 1955 book The Public Philosophy linking Calvin and Rousseau. More strange bedfellows! (A philosophical ménage à trois?)

To Rousseau, as to John Calvin who lived in Geneva before him, men were fallen and depraved, deformed with their lusts and their aggressions. The force of the new doctrine [“Rousseau’s dogma of the natural goodness of man”] lay in its being a gospel of redemption and regeneration. Men who were evil were to be made good. Jacobinism is, in fact, a Christian heresy — perhaps the most influential since the Arian. (71 – 71)

Calvin’s person falls before he’s born, but Rousseau’s falls when he’s educated. (Wordworth stakes out a middle ground, I think: his person begins to fall when she’s born, “trailing clouds of glory.”) Calvin’s theology led his English followers to argue for a theocracy; Rousseau’s philosophy led his French followers to tear down classes and institutions. Idealism works well only when it works slowly. We Christians cannot point vaguely to secularism as the source of governmental ills. Lippmann is right: Jacobinism, still alive and well in concepts such as Robert Bork’s majority morality, is a Christian heresy.

Calvin and Hobbes


On Apocalyptic talk. Let’s put two pieces of evidence together. On May 16, 2010, the Washington Post reported that “people are voting with their feet” and moving to counties and states that share their cultural and political viewpoints. As a result, “Many more states and counties are dominated by one-party supermajorities than in the past.”

Four days ago, the New York Times reported that, as of early next year, about three-quarters of the states will have their executive and legislative branches controlled by a single party:

One party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years and a significant jump from even two years ago.

Are our social and political divisions becoming increasingly regional as well as increasingly bitter? Are parts of the country finding less and less in common with other parts? Will the zeal of one-party rule on the state level combined with the U.S. Supreme Court’s current deference to the states (the Obamacare case restricted the federal government’s use of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, for instance) eventually make living in a different state like living in a different country? Are we becoming as geographically polarized as we were just before our Civil War?

Marginal: Ron Paul’s call to secede

On The mysticism of Abraham Lincoln and Texas’s successive secessions. The idea of secession should be troubling to Americans, not only from a practical and patriotic viewpoint but also from a philosophical one. The argument in favor of a right to secede is the argument against a right to revolt, and the right of revolution – a right we must hold to now as much as we did in 1776 – is a basis of our political liberty. The American Revolution was the victory of the individual’s rights over the state’s when those rights were in conflict. Secession is the assertion of the state’s rights over the individual’s, beginning with the rejection, in 1860 as well as now, of a president’s election by majority vote.

So Ron Paul couldn’t have been further from the truth when he argued Monday that “Secession is a deeply American principle” and that “This country was born through secession.” I don’t describe too many philosophies as dangerous, but secession and its relativistic, historicist foundation are uniquely un-American and dangerous. Why? At its foundation, secession denies the political existence of the individual.

Paul continued:

If the possibility of secession is completely off the table there is nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on our liberties and no recourse for those who are sick and tired of it.

Paul here couldn’t have sounded more like John Calhoun, the chief philosopher behind nullification and secession.

First Rick Perry, now Ron Paul. Do conservatives believe in a people’s right to revolt or a state’s right to secede? Is there a spark of divinity in man, or is mankind so benighted that its rights exist only at a state’s behest? If the Republicans are going to reflect on what kind of party they now wish to be, as so many pundits have recently suggested they do, they could not start with a more important and fundamental issue.