E.D. Hirsch’s new book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is “as clear and trenchant as Cultural Literacy was in 1987,” writes Fordham’s Checker Finn.
Hirsch takes on “the tyranny” of three mistaken ideas, writes Finn.
— Early education should be age-appropriate and seen as part of a “natural development process.” (“Early education” in Hirsch’s world isn’t preschool; it’s kindergarten and the first several grades of school.)
— Early education should be individualized as far as possible.
— The main aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other “general skills.”
In the early grades, children need a common, knowledge-centric curriculum, Hirsch argues. Poor kids need to know what the children of educated parents know.
In the book’s preface, Hirsch writes about the radical shift in France’s education system. In 1989, France told elementary schools to abandon the national curriculum. Each school was to develop its own curriculum and special emphasis.
. . . more attention was to be paid to the individuality of each student, to his or her native abilities, interests, and home culture. To compensate for all this novel heterogeneity, the unifying emphasis was to be on general skills such as “critical thinking” and “learning to learn.”
After 20 years, researchers found “an astonishingly steep decline in achievement” for students from all demographic groups, writes Hirsch. Children of North African immigrants suffered the most — “inequality increased dramatically” — but children of professionals also did much worse.
U.S. educators believe in “different strokes for different folks,” “multiple learning styles,” “multiple intelligences” and so forth, writes Hirsch.
In practice, individualizing leads to a fragmented curriculum and the idea “that the goal of education is the imparting of general skills like critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and cooperative thinking,” writes Hirsch. “But reality has not accepted this hopeful idea about skills, and recent cognitive science has been fatal to it.”
Hirsch “sees potential in the commonness’ of the Common Core,” but thinks it will help only if it leads to knowledge-rich curricula, writes Finn. He also warns that “close reading” of texts — a Common Core obsession — is a waste of time unless those texts are integrated with a knowledge-rich curriculum.