The Behaviorist Origin of Close Reading

I ended Metric Morality by outlining the role I believe behaviorism plays in the current attach on public education and democratic living more generally. In particular, I contend, behaviorism is implicated in “an ever increasing drug-like fixation on qualification, a mechanistic and reductionist mentality that deform understandings of skill, thinking, teaching and learning.” One such distortion is “close reading.”

Close reading’s most enduring techniques and assumptions have their origins in psychological behaviorism, the deterministic doctrine made famous by John Watson and B. F. Skinner.Joshua Gang

With the exception of a few, the connection between behaviorism, close reading, and the Common Core remains hidden.[1] While those celebrating the obvious goodness of the Core standards sometimes mention close reading’s official founder I. A. Richards, nowhere is it discussed that close reading (or what Richards called practical criticism) emerged out of the behaviorism of John B. Watson.[2]

This absence is significant. Why?

This realization is significant because it offers further evidence that the Core regime consists of repackaging the worst ideas of the past two centuries, and therefore is about as far away from innovation as is its partner in crime, high-stakes testing.[3] The ideas guiding the Core are simply not new; they are old and discredited.

Behaviorism in particular has long been discredited, which is why it is rarely mentioned by name in public discussions about education; instead, we are presented with “personalized learning” and “educational games” that are nonetheless behaviorist in nature . That behaviorism is now being revived is significant because it and its offspring, close reading, reflect a dead vision for society. The Core’s rendering of close reading is one means to socialize the young to accept that vision. So, it needs to be exposed and interrogated.

Experience with the Common Core’s Close Reading

Educators and parents alike have been struck by the very odd teaching practices demanded by the Common Core ELA standards (Core’s close reading is also to be a basis for teaching history). These apparent anomalies include:

  • an insistence that students not know the context of a text;
  • an insistence that students not read texts in their entirety, or only read short “hard” texts;
  • an insistence that students focus only on the text itself;
  • only questions about the text itself can be entertained.

Importantly, these principles dictate that one is not permitted to consider author intent, a corollary to the demand that texts be studied without concern for their social and historical context. Also included is the imposition of an emphasis on a particular form of annotating texts . That one might read to learn something about the world is minimized while the emphasis on the mechanics of reading dominates. I can’t escape the feeling that the word close is best replaced with the word machine. While the most obnoxious of these mandates is related to denying the importance of a reading’s context for “deep learning”, the “rationality” of each of these tenets becomes clear when we place them in their behaviorist context.

Behaviorism: Yearning for Skill Without Consciousness

While many social factors contributed to rise of various “behaviorisms”, common themes do exist . A key tenet is this: Behaviorists have in common disregard for or denial of human consciousness. Because consciousness is not something one “does”, it is not “observable”; its existence or importance is denied in favor of fixing attention on behavior itself. E. L. Thorndike, an early behaviorist and leading developer of standardized testing techniques, argued that both animal and human capacities could, “be explained without making recourse to unobservable phenomena (like consciousness) or other ‘magical agencies’ ”  . By removing consciousness, the question of purpose is removed from the study of human ability. While radical behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner scoffed when words suggesting consciousness or understanding were used, thinking for them is a mere behavior no different in principal than voluntary arm movements.[4]

As such, understanding, awareness and even intention are banished. In banishing consciousness proper, behaviorists exclude the social and historical aspects of human existence, denying the centrality of purposeful action for human beings. In denying human agency, behaviorists struggled to explain social change. Thus, a technological determinism ensues, where somehow behaviorism is able to separate the origins of techniques from the society in which they were created, re-envisioning human beings as biological machines.

This vision in turn is reflected in the behaviorist conception of skill as the ability to perform a task to a pre-defined standard of competence, a definition common to almost all discourse regarding so-called 21st century skills as decontextualized and thus transferable. If it can’t be “measured” it does not exist; skills are solely defined by how they are tested. Testing fixation is a necessary outcome of the behaviorist program .

Behaviorists were also insistent that they could turn individual human beings into whatever they wanted, if given the chance. “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in,” Watson bragged, “and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestor” . This determinism is thus another important feature of behaviorism.

It is important, however, to distinguish it from the notion that social class relations structure the educational experiences of youth. The only way in which behaviorism acknowledges the social is in the individual’s interaction with his or her environment, which structures individual human behavior through what is known as operant conditioning.[5] This model postulates that individuals only as individuals interact with their environment to maximize rewards; there is no common good or shared experience, etc., since these are forms of consciousness. In this model, individuals have no agency; they only have successful or unsuccessful responses to stimuli, that is, either the desired behavior is reinforced or it is not reinforced. For behaviorists, what behavior is “desired” is self-evident and success is defined in especially conformist, narrowly quantitative terms (e.g., test scores).

Watson and the Birth of Close Reading

So, how does an outlook that denies the social essence of human existence inform a technique for reading instruction in schools?

I. A. Richards is regarded as the founder of close reading. Richards was both a contemporary and follower of Watson, publishing reviews of Watson’s work in leading literary journals. While critical of some aspects of Watson’s work, it is clear from Richards own writings that his theory of practical criticism is derived from and consistent with behaviorist principles . Following Watson, Richards and his followers took the following approach. First, they treated literary texts as behaviors, defined as “external phenomena without reference to internal mental states.” Second, they would record how the stimuli of poems affected readers physiologically and use these results to ground analyses of meaning and form. “When we defer to the authority of the text,” Gang argues, “or insist on the irrelevance of authorial intent, these actions can be traced back to Brooks, Wimsatt, and Richards.” Any attempt “to ascertain the mind of the author would compromise the critic’s objectivity,” according to Richards .

Richard’s Practical Criticism (1929), for example, “tries to develop a type of literary criticism based on this model: the imagined listener who gleans meaning from overt language use rather than covert (and imagined) mental states.”

Richards transformed his classroom at Cambridge into an ersatz laboratory; in the spring of 1926, just when his review of Watson was published in the New Criterion, Richards led a seminar at Cambridge called “Practical Criticism.” In this seminar, he provided his students with radically decontextualized poems — poems with no titles, identifying marks, or clues about origin. Such decontextualization, Richards hoped, would force his students to restrict their analyses to the poetic text exclusively — and to make psychological speculation impossible. Students provided Richards with written responses to each poem which then became the central evidence cited in the monograph Practical Criticism.… Richards forced his students to analyze the poems as “behaviors” — as overt phenomena to be considered independently of the poet’s consciousness. 

For Richards, “all mental events — including literature — occur in the course of processes of adaptation somewhere between stimulus and response” . Thus we have the basis for a method that renders the skill of reading necessarily devoid of consciousness.

Close Reading is Preparation for Living without Thinking

In 1922 in an essay entitled “Living without Thinking,” George Santayana reviewed John B. Watson’s Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, and penned an apt description of the behaviorist vision. “I foresee,” he wrote based on his read of Watson’s book, “a behaviorist millennium; countless millions of walking automatons, each armed with his radio … all jabbering as they have been trained to jabber, never interfering with one another, always smiling, with their glands all functioning perfectly” .

I foresee a behaviorist millennium; countless millions of walking automatons, each armed with his radio … all jabbering as they have been trained to jabber, never interfering with one another, always smiling, with their glands all functioning perfectly.George Santayana

Replace radio with smart phone, educational technology for “personalized learning”, and consider the health and insurance industreis desires to “nudge” everyone into “functioning glands” and you have an apt description of the neoliberal ethic of individual responsibility developed by way of behaviorist technique[6]



  1. See, for example, . While it is the case that a variety of practices have gone by the name close reading, and while some of those seem perfectly acceptable, the methods now being imposed with the Core standards are derived from the founders of close reading, who were inspired by key behaviorist tenets.
  2. As an example, see: Education Genius writes that, “most English teachers since New Critic I. A. Richards would probably agree that [close reading] is it [sic] essential to any humanities curriculum.” Of course our corporate robot genius gets it wrong: Richards preceded the New Criticism; see .
  3. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exclaims: “A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text — whether the student is a struggling reader or advanced — to significant gains in reading proficiency and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.” This establishes a direct link between close reading and a narrow emphasis on preparation for high-stakes testing.
  4. Skinner wrote: “Thinking is also identified with certain behavioral processes, such as learning, discriminating, generalizing, and abstracting. These are not behavior but changes in behavior. There is no action, mental or otherwise. When we teach a child to press a button by reinforcing his response with candy, it adds nothing to say that he then responds because he ‘knows’ that pressing the button will produce candy. When we teach him to press a red button but not a green, it adds nothing to say that he now ‘discriminates’ or ‘tells the difference between’ red and green. When we teach him to press a red button and then discover that he will press an orange button as well, though with a lower probability, it adds nothing to say that he has ‘generalized’ from one color to another. When we bring the response under the control of a single property of stimuli, it adds nothing to say that the child has formed an ‘abstraction’ ” .
  5. While Pavlov and others observed patterns of behavior regulated on the premise of classical conditioning, where a signal precedes the “reflex” giving rise to automatic behaviors, operant conditioning is the means by which organisms learn all of their voluntary behaviors through reinforcement or punishment following a behavior, the aim being to strengthen or weaken voluntary behavior. According to Skinner, observable behavior is a lawful function of environmental changes. Importantly, radical behaviorism treats everything an organism does as a behavior, including private events such as thinking and feeling, making them subject to the same principles of learning and modification that exist for overt behaviors. This includes thinking or in Skinnerian parlance, verbal behavior 
  6. For an example of this outlook, see . For an analysis of neoliberal ethics that suggests behaviorist logic, see .

2 Comments The Behaviorist Origin of Close Reading

  1. Betty Peters April 1, 2016 at 3:48 am

    This essay on close reading was very helpful ; now I understand many of the previously confusing elements of the Common Core ELA Standards. Why is it that I have not run into this explanation before? Do teachers not understand it or do they understand but fear retaliation if they expose it? I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  2. Clyde Gaw August 27, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Great essay here!
    There are significant numbers of teachers who do not understand instructional psychology or have studied educational psychology beyond the core basic required introductory courses. Then, the course material is presented via information processing experience, so many young teachers are not fully aware of the ramifications of various forms of instructional psychology, particularly radical behaviorism, while using it on their students. Behavior modification is a banal feature of American schools.
    Recall Arne Duncan’s complaint there are too many professional education courses for teachers to take…

    Instructional psychology? Who cares…its just psych-o-babble!

    What is the affect of 16000 hours of radical behaviorism on a child’s malleable mind during the peak years of intellectual-psychological-emotional development?

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