What every American should know

As part of Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program, you can list the top 10 things that every American should know.

Eric Liu kicked this off last year with an Atlantic piece on cultural literacy for a diverse America. “It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish,” he wrote. “In order to make our diversity a true asset, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary.”

Norman Rockwell's America

Norman Rockwell’s America

His list: Whiteness, the Federalist Papers, the Almighty Dollar, Organized labor, Reconstruction, Nativism, the American Dream, the Reagan Revolution, DARPA, A sucker born every minute.

Robert Pondiscio starts his top 10 list with “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

He adds: “To form a more perfect Union,” E Pluribus Unum, “a government of laws and not of men,” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” “Self-Reliance,” “The chief business of the American people is business,” American exceptionalism,  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it.”

No longer a ‘pariah’

Politico’s list of the 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter” includes, at number 8, E.D. Hirsch of the Core Knowledge Foundation and David Coleman, principal author of Common Core Standards.

“I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,” Hirsch tells Peg Tyre.

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated. For nearly 30 years, he has been labeled a blue-blood elitist and arch-defender of the Dead White European Male. Now, the retired English professor is finding that his ideas, once dismissed wholesale by the educational establishment, are being credited as the intellectual foundation of the national reform movement that has swept the country in recent years, pushing expanded access to preschool and the Common Core state learning standards to improve the chances of America’s poorer children.

In 1987, Hirsch argued in Cultural Literacy argued that children need background information to understand what they read.

In the index, he listed “5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.”

“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” says David Coleman, who calls Hirsch’s work “absolutely foundational.” 

The Common Core is a “delivery mechanism” for Hirsch’s ideas, writes Robert Pondiscio, who worked for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, funded with the profits from his books.

The standards say:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

That’s Hirsch.

“One of the frustrations of supporting Common Core is seeing Hirsch’s simple, elegant, and irrefutable insight disappear into a miasma of sloppiness, opportunism, and obfuscation,” writes Pondiscio.

‘We are building the Japanese garden’

Sol Stern recalls his sons’ progressive education at a highly regarded Manhattan elementary school in The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch in City Journal.

Many PS 87 teachers were trained at “citadels of progressive education” such as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, Stern writes. They learned that all children are “natural learners.”

PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about.

In fourth grade, a new teacher assigned more “real-life” math problems. For example: How many Arawaks did Christopher Columbus kill in his conquest of Hispaniola?

Children were taught little about the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, Stern writes.

“It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” the principal said, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

In Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), E.D. Hirsch “convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good,” writes Stern

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading.

Hirsch is the “most important education reformer” of the last 50 years, concludes Stern.

Reading ‘Hunger Games’ in high school

Few high school graduates are culturally literate, says Sandra Stotsky in an Education News interview. Her new book, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, comes out next week. In 2010, she surveyed a national sample of high school teachers to see what books they assign.

. . .  most students in this country experience an idiosyncratic curriculum, a fragmented curriculum whose individual titles don’t relate to each other in any way so that there is no accumulation of literary and historical knowledge of major literary traditions, movements, and periods in American, British and World Literature.

. . . what students read from grade 9 to grade 11 didn’t increase in reading difficulty. They were in essence, being pandered to, not intellectually challenged and educated.

Hunger Games is now required reading in some classes, interviewer Michael Shaughnessy observes. Teens can read the book on their own — it’s written at a fifth-grade level — without a teacher’s guidance, Stotsky replies.

Students who take honors, AP or IB courses may be prepared for “authentic college-level work,” she says. But there’s a vast middle group of students who graduate, go to college and find they can’t read well enough.

They have been shortchanged by an incoherent and intellectually flat literature curriculum reflecting idiosyncratic choices in the name of “engagement,” motivation, or relevance, or trendy ideas from the academy.

Bringing back leveled courses would provide more challenge for the top 20 percent of students and let average students read books written at the high school level in high school, she argues.

The word of the day is ‘spurious’

“Spurious was Jessica Lahey’s vocabulary/etymology word of the day, she writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

“Spurious” describes something that is false, or inauthentic, but it comes from the Latin spurius, meaning “bastard” or “illegitimate.” Spurius was related to all sorts of lovely words such as spurcitia, meaning “filthiness” or “dirt,” and spurcare, “to make dirty” or “to defile.” The Romans thought highly of their illegitimate children, clearly. They even turned spurius into a proper name for all those illegitimate offspring roaming around ancient Rome. If your name was Spurius, you were likely illegitimate.

That led to her cultural literacy item of the day: Edmund’s first speech in Act II of King Lear.

Edmund (a.k.a Spurius) was the illegitimate son of Gloucester, close advisor to Lear. Gloucester lavishes all of his love on the legitimate son, Edgar, which drives Edmund nuts. . . . Anger drives him to deceit in the form of a tragic plot against his brother that leads to Oedipus-style eye removal, nakedness, and rampant baseness among all concerned. The fact that Edmund is, in fact, the spurious (illegitimate) son causes him to become spurious (false) and deceive his father. See that? That’s just lovely, if you ask me.

In this PBS performance of King Lear, “Edmund is a hottie and does this extremely appealing L- and T- thing with his tongue on the word ‘legitimate’ that causes giggles among the middle school girls,” Lahey writes. Here’s Edmund (Spurius):

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I                      335
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,                       340
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality                                  345
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund                      350
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word- ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!                                       355


We’re celebrating Thanksgiving in Maryland with my husband’s three children, son-in-law and future son-in-law plus the grandkids, toddler Julia and baby Lily.  Last year, their mother, four months pregnant, was in the hospital suffering — and I do mean suffering — with ulcerative colitis. We’re very thankful to have a healthy, happy Lily with us and nobody in the hospital.

I’ve been watching Little Einsteins with Julia. Every episode features a bit of classical music, a “mission” in a rocket ship and information about things like the difference between adagio, moderato, allegro and presto. I’m not sure this is information toddlers need, but Julia, who’s 2 1/2, enjoys it. Her obsession with Elmo seems to be over.

Julia talks quite a bit and has a large fund of knowledge for someone who hasn’t mastered the potty. I started telling her Goldilocks and the Three Bears as part of a discussion on whether her ‘toni (rigatoni) was too hot. She began telling it to me. No cultural literacy problems here.

I am “Nana Joanne.”

How to spot a ‘good school’

Peg Tyre’s new book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve tells parents how to “look under the hood” of schools. Parents have choices these days, Tyre, an education journalist and mother, tells NPR. Parents should look for “a very well-thought out curriculum around reading, around math. . . . You want teachers who are experienced, and if not experienced then well-mentored during the school day so that they’re not learning to be teachers to the detriment of your child.” Children should “get downtime and free play as well as direct instruction.”

In an interview with The Browser, Tyre named five education books parents should read, in addition to her own.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, a child development professor, explains the  major role parents play in their children’s language and reading development.

Neurocognitive scientists have built a consensus. They know that the way we naturally learn to read is the way reading was taught in the 1950s – sounding words out, understanding the sounds that letters make and how to blend those sounds through phonics. Phonics allies closely with how our brains learn to read. If your child is not getting phonics, it’s a problem.

About a third of kids learn to read spontaneously, a third need some phonics instruction, and another third need systematic instruction. What third your kid falls in is not necessarily an indication of whether they’re smart or not. It’s just that some kids need a certain kind of instruction and unfortunately a lot of kids do not get it.

The Number Sense, by mathematician-turned-neuropsychologist Stanislas Dehaene, argues that math teaching “must be better aligned with the way we naturally absorb arithmetic.”

E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy explains why phonics isn’t enough: Students need general knowledge to understand what they read.

A student who sees the word Everglades may be able to divide up that compound word into ever and glades but if they don’t know about the swamps in Florida no amount of sounding out will enable them to understand its meaning. They could read the word, but they couldn’t comprehend it.Cultural literacy is critical to the health of our democracy. ED Hirsch reminds us that we shouldn’t let schools teach our children to be mere accountants of information. He reminds us it is as important to know Greek mythology as PowerPoint. Content continues to matter, a lot.

Mindset by Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor,  “can help you learn how to raise motivated and compassionate children and help them become adults with grit, resilience and compassion.”

The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine warns about overparenting, “creating a generation of overpressured and overprivileged kids who don’t know how to thrive on their own.”