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.

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  1. Hirsch has been rejected by the education establishment

    Well, if his quote is accurate:

    “theological institutes where heresy is viewed as an evil that its members have a civic duty to suppress…

    then it’s small wonder. He’s doing the classic “lets characterize the entire group with the opinions of the farthest fringe”. Honestly, this sounds like the typical attempt to garner as many book-purchases as possible, rather than an attempt to actually help a good policy succeed.

    Which is sad, because I think he’s onto an important idea.

    Next up, a book reveals the Democrats are proto-communists, and another book unveils the Republicans as fascists. (And please, if you believe the Democrats really are proto-communists or the Republicans really are fascists, don’t chime in :-))

  2. Will Gardner says:

    I would agree with Hirsch that conversations (both national and local) about what it is we want our children to know and understand happen too infrequently. It’s a tough thing to sort out in such a diverse country. Perhaps these attempts at common standards fail due to a lack of due diligence on the ground–prescribing without first listening.

    I don’t think pedagogical methods based in constructivist theory are necessarily at odds with having a “coherent, knowledge-rich” curriculum. In the hands of a skillful teacher, these methods allow for rigorous, deep and well-structured exploration of key concepts and content. In the hands of a poorly-equipped teacher, even the most well-designed curriculum falls flat.

  3. Tom West,

    My experience confirms Hirsch’s “theological institutes” characterization. At the big California middle school conference two years ago, I noticed that the conference bookshop only included works of an anti-curriculum stripe. I sought out the person responsible for selecting the books. She greeted me sunnily, but when I asked if she’d considered stocking E.D. Hirsch her expression turned ugly, as if I’d suggested stocking Luther in a Catholic bookstore.

    My education school was indeed a brainwashing factory. Perhaps there are less theological ed schools out there, but I suspect they’re the exception rather than the norm. Based on my conversations with fellow educators, the education establishment has done a very good job of preventing teachers from learning much about or even being open to alternative views about education. It seems to me that groupthink characterizes the scene.

  4. Nice try Tom but in an area of academe in which evidence is viewed with suspicion where it isn’t noisily rejected what other way is there to characterize ed schools but as being in the grip of religious fervor? What else could they be but institutions of a secular religion built on the certainty of the truth of their beliefs necessitating attacks on heretics and unbelievers?

    Rather then leading on the task of trying to bring understanding to the learning process, and to develop useful metrics to determine the efficacy of various ideas, ed schools are complicit in deterring others from that pursuit.

  5. Allen, even if your characterization is correct, given that there’s no way to overthrow the ‘education theists’, you need to negotiate towards desired results. And the way you negotiate is not by throwing insults.

    There may be no guarantee of success of such negotiations, but failure to try is to guarantee failure.

  6. andrei radulescu-banu says:

    Tom West, the problem seems to me that the ‘education theists’ you describe too often take facts as insults. Can you address Ben F’s question, why did the education conference bookshop only included works of an anti-curriculum stripe? Is that intellectually honest of them?

    Will Gardner is right on – pedagogical methods based in constructivist theory are not at odds with having the “coherent, knowledge-rich” curriculum that E.D Hirsch espouses. The debate is about the content of the curriculum, not the pedagogy involved.


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