Common knowledge

In The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch argues that schools must teach our shared heritage and language to prepare children of many ethnicities to grow into “competent and civic-minded Americans who can function in the public sphere.”

Our nation’s founders strongly supported education to mold citizens, Hirsch writes. They were less concerned with “the development of personal talent and individuality” in the private sphere.

In the 20th century, progressive educators focused on on trying to meet the individual child’s interests, talents and needs. They rejected a standard curriculum in favor of “child-centered” teaching with the teacher as a “guide on the side” not a “sage on the stage.”

But the failure to teach a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum has hurt children — especially those who don’t have educated parents teaching them at home — Hirsch argues forcefully. Children don’t learn to read well if they don’t understand the context of the words on the page. They can’t enter the mainstream culture if they can’t speak, read and write the language of educated Americans.

A best-selling author since Cultural Literacy, Hirsch has been rejected by the education establishment, despite the success of Core Knowledge schools that use the curriculum his foundation has developed.

He attacks the education school as “theological institutes where heresy is viewed as an evil that its members have a civic duty to suppress. The anti-curriculum movement’s sense of righteousness, of being in possession of ethical rectitude and privileged truth, often have a religious flavor. Pro-curriculum heretics are to be seen as fallen souls who want to impose soul-deadening burdens on children and discourage lively, child-friendly teaching. Subject-matter-oriented people are by defintion authoritarian, undemocratic and right-wing. ”

Lively, engaging teaching can be used to help students learn subject matter in a coherent curriculum, Hirsch writes. There’s no need to be boring — or right-wing.

In Commentary, Liam Julian, managing editor of Policy Review, praises Hirsch’s ideas, but questions whether it’s possible to write a national core curriculum that’s any good.

Recently, Hirsch himself reviewed a set of proposed nationwide English standards developed by two nongovernmental organizations and panned them, finding them “very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place.” Why on earth would he expect a national core curriculum to be any less deficient, especially when he enumerates in The Making of Americans just how anti-intellectual and silly the broad education establishment has become? . . .  if the recent history he recounts is any guide, the product is far likelier to be a murky, multicultural, concept-based document developed by the exact education establishment he excoriates.

This is a real concern.

Gladden a heart at Christmas, Hanukkah or the holiday of your choice by giving Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

About Joanne