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Community Comment : CLAS Test: ‘It Is Not an Invasive Act’

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Reading, like life, is an interactive process involving the mind. We cannot learn something new without relating it to what we already know. It is, therefore, not an invasive act to ask students to recall personal experiences that relate to a text.

When I teach logic in my classroom, I use Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” a play that entertains the question, through the perspective of 12 jurors on a murder trial, “How do we know what is true?”

The trial serves as the text. What goes on in the jury room is the interpretation and, hopefully, the understanding of that text. The questions a good reader asks are the very ones Rose addresses: What do you notice, what details, what patterns? What are the implications of what you notice? What emotions come up for you? What thoughts come up? How do those thoughts and emotions relate to what is being observed? And, finally, what conclusions can be drawn from this about what is being observed and about those doing the observing?

In the beginning, only one juror questions the evidence presented. The others regard the case as “open and shut.” When this lone juror presents evidence that suggests the boy on trial might not be guilty, many jurors become extremely angry.

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As jurors begin to interact with the evidence, even re-creating in the jury room some of the situations described in court (a wonderful model for interpretation!), they become enlivened to the issues in the case. Thoughts abound as to what is justice and how do you know if witnesses are reporting the truth or just what they think they heard or saw? In the end, as much is revealed about the jurors as about the case they are evaluating.

In this play, Rose makes the interesting point that the one way the jurors know the truth is to project their own experience on what they have observed in the courtroom. Prior experience can close a person off from considering all the possibilities or it can open a person up to what life and literature have to offer.

Even being wrong is not a misstep if it is a step toward being right. Literature, like life, confirms, challenges or extends our experience.

I think this provides the key to what is so controversial about the CLAS exam. It goes beyond reading for information. It calls on students to read for interpretation. It demands that we extend our thinking beyond the level of our preconceived notions. It insists that students be able to understand the world of art and humanities. In essence, it is a clarion call for a true cultural revolution.

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I believe it is no coincidence that both the National Endowment for the Arts and the CLAS exam are under attack. Those who feel threatened by the arts are not unlike the jurors who angrily objected to new evidence that challenged their thinking.

Perhaps the fears people have about the CLAS exam can be quieted by understanding that the only way to go beyond what we know is through what we know. That’s not losing ourselves; that’s extending ourselves.

Being able to extend ourselves to the world around us is what reading and the CLAS test are all about.


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