A book that influenced my thinking about education was Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E.D. Hirsch, published in 1987. I read it and found myself wanting. I have it still, and still, daily, work on attaining essential knowledge. It’s an argument for the canon, for a shared body of knowledge necessary for a truly educated populace. Underlying the body of knowledge laid out in the book is an idea very much under attack circa 2021: the ideas and knowledge from the past is the foundation of western civilization, the foundation of intellect, science and good art, and we throw it away in exchange for racist, revolutionary propaganda at our peril. Without a common, and expansive, body of knowledge, common cultural touchstones, we fall into the tribalism and identity politics threatening to destroy our republic.
The Founders believed an educated, cohesive electorate was indispensable for America’s survival. In this, and so much else, they were among the wisest men of any age.
At the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley writes about Hirsch at 92. I’ll provide some excerpts, and comment on them in light of the politically-driven hysteria over a virus with a 99.7+% survival rate, a virus we know cannot and must not shutter schools.
If you have school-age children, the pandemic-induced move to online classes may give you an unusual window into their education. E.D. Hirsch expects you’ll be surprised by ‘how little whole-class instruction is going on,’ how little knowledge is communicated, and how there is ‘no coherence’ from day to day, let alone from year to year.
It’s a topic I’ve frequently addressed. In my last year as a public school teacher, 2019-2020, my two-semester students lost between 25-33% of their school year, and my single-semester students lost about 50%. Oh, we did “distance” and “on-line” learning, but it was a sham, and we all knew it. Most of my students, good kids all, just didn’t do any assignments. The self-motivated kids did, but the district made it known the kids weren’t going to fail, even if they did absolutely nothing, so most kids did little or nothing. This, gentle readers, was and currently is the status quo across America.
Hirsch is right. In order to truly teach and learn, there must be daily contact, daily coherence, each concept building on those before it. Across America there are kids who have missed a year of schooling already. This can’t be made up. They’ve lost not only a year of making the neural connections necessary for their intellectual development, but also a year of socialization, which is, in many respects, nearly as important. We are social animals, and loneliness destroys.
The current fashion is for teachers to be a ‘guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,’ he says, quoting the latest pedagogical slogan, which means that teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students but to ‘facilitate’ learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity. Everything Mr. Hirsch knows about how children learn tells him that’s the wrong approach. ‘If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you have to have whole-class instruction,’ in which a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum. . . .
This is the “student-centered” approach I’ve often criticized. It’s the idea kids are universally brilliant, and all teachers must and should do is guide them in releasing that inner brilliance. They must abandon the false and outmoded concept of being a “teacher,” and instead become a “facilitator.” This idiotic approach has gone so far as to suggest kids should do nothing but work in groups rather than producing individual work, and even tell teachers what they want to learn next. Kids are supposed to critique their teachers on a daily basis, the assumption being all kids want nothing so much as the opportunity to learn, and are qualified to direct their teachers and their learning. It’s a disaster. I told my last principal I would never be a “facilitator,” because children don’t even know what they don’t know. To say she did not hold me in high regard would be the understatement of the century. In so many ways, I got out of education just in time.
He cites both history and neuroscience in explaining how education went wrong. It began in the 1940s, when ‘schools unbolted the desks and kids were no longer facing the teacher.’ Instead children were divided into small groups and instructed to complete worksheets independently with occasional input from teachers. ‘That was also when our verbal test scores went down and the relative ranking of our elementary schools declined on a national level.’ On the International Adult Literacy Survey, Americans went from being No. 1 for children who were educated in the 1950s to fifth for those in the ’70s and 14th in the ’90s. And things have only gotten worse. Between 2002 and 2015, American schoolchildren went from a ranking of 15th to 24th in reading on the Program for International Student Assessment.
As regular readers know, I’m inherently suspicious of the results of mandatory testing, however, my experience confirms Hirsch’s observations. Getting away from the basics, particularly reading and writing, has been terribly destructive. My students were intelligent, but far too many had tiny vocabularies, read many years below their grade level, and barely comprehended what they did read. By the time they were juniors, many had never read a single book cover to cover. Good teachers understand the process of brain development. Non-readers are non-thinkers. Their imaginations are stunted.
The problem runs deeper than the style of instruction, Mr. Hirsch says. It’s the concept at its root—‘child-centered classrooms,’ the notion that ‘education is partly a matter of drawing out a child’s inborn nature.’ Mr. Hirsch says emphatically that a child’s mind is ‘a blank slate.’ On this point he agrees with John Locke and disagrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought children need to develop according to their nature. Both philosophers make the ‘Cultural Literacy’ list, but ‘Locke has to make a comeback’ among educators, Mr. Hirsch says. ‘The culture is up for grabs, and elementary schools are the culture makers.’
“Tabula rasa,” blank slate. One of my joys as a teacher was seeing epiphanies, those light bulb moments when a kid “got” something. I always taught student teachers never to underestimate kid’s intelligence, but never overestimate their information. They really are, in important ways, blank slates. Through elementary school, teachers must concentrate nearly totally on the basics. A child arriving at middle school unable to read or do math, with no idea of history, is so handicapped they will never catch up. They must, in the early grades, develop the habits of scholarship, or they most likely never will.
Mr. Hirsch is a man of the left—he has said he is ‘practically a socialist.’ But he bristles at the idea that kids should read only books by people who look like them or live like them.
Actually, no true socialist would value actual educational literacy over political indoctrination. Running in the upper levels of education, it’s understandable why Hirsch would think himself a socialist; it’s virtually indispensable for career survival. Denying the undeniable value of Plato, Shakespeare, Locke, or any of foundational thinkers because they are white or male is, in fact, racism.
Mr. Hirsch, 92, is best known for his 1987 book, ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.’ It is an argument for teaching ‘specifics,’ followed by a lengthy list of them—thousands of historical figures, events, concepts and literary works with which, in Mr. Hirsch’s view, educated Americans should be familiar. Heavily weighted toward Western history and civilization, the list provoked charges of elitism. Yet Mr. Hirsch is singularly focused on helping disadvantaged kids. They ‘are not exposed to this information at home,’ he says, so they’ll starve intellectually unless the schools provide it.
Every child needs to know actual history, and the great writers that inspired our culture, not contemporary race hustlers and small-minded propagandists. But more importantly we must not only get our kids back in school, we must abandon fads like “student-centered instruction,” and return not only to the basics of reading, writing and math, but the classical curriculum. The simple truth is this: there are no shortcuts to teaching and learning, no brilliant new methods or innovations that produce miraculous results. Learning is hard work, but accomplishment is satisfying. Times change, but people don’t. We learn and grow, circa 2021, in exactly the same ways we did in the time of Aristotle.
Perhaps I preach to the choir, but it’s a necessary sermon. I recommend this article by John Hinderaker at Powerline. It’s on point.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. All the best teacher in the world can do is provide the best opportunity for learning their abilities and resources allow. We—in this case, each student and their parents—are responsible for our education. If we allow our schools to remain closed, if we allow political propaganda to replace a competent, classical curriculum, if we do not take full advantage of our educational opportunities, the blame is ours, and ours alone. The culturally illiterate have no culture, and ultimately, no nation.