Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knowledge without knowing

E.D. Hirsch is not a political conservative, but he has become an educational conservative. Terrence O. Moore explains why:
For 60 years or more public school teachers have avoided instruction in what they refer to dismissively as "mere facts," training students instead in supposedly more useful "skills." As a professor of education once told me, "It's not so important that children know things as that they know how to know things." Predictably, students graduate from public schools without either skills or knowledge since, as Hirsch has explained in dozens of ways, skills are dependent on knowledge. A person who is unfamiliar with the basic outline of Western history or the principal works of literature will, when reading a fairly complex text involving rich metaphors and subtle references, simply be unable to grasp the author's meaning. Any college professor who has let freshmen read a Federalist paper on their own knows that these high-school graduates might as well be reading Sanskrit.

Never content with merely exposing the dangerously low levels of Americans' reservoir of knowledge, Hirsch has worked tirelessly to get actual facts—whether stories, historical events, common metaphors, or rudiments of grammar—into young people's heads, beginning with his list of "What Literate Americans Know" (with entries from "1066" to "Zurich") at the back of Cultural Literacy. Since then, he has published dictionaries of cultural literacy, the popular What Your X-Grader Needs to Know series, and, through his non-profit Core Knowledge Foundation, created an exemplary curriculum for grades K-8, supplemented with excellent materials such as adaptations of the more difficult works of literature taught in the early grades. ....

Among the several other reforms presented in The Making of Americans, the most noteworthy is Hirsch's re-labeling "Progressive education" the "anti-curriculum movement." So-called Progressive educators have been united not so much by a common agenda as by their hostility to any form of traditional subject matter and learning method. If only the new name would stick! Hirsch also attempts to fend off the criticisms of the multicultural Left, which claims that traditional content oppresses or marginalizes minorities. Every hyphenated-American group is entitled to enjoy its own rich culture in private, writes Hirsch, but the common school should concentrate on those things Americans hold in common. What's more, he insists that education must remain anchored in tradition, a point that has not always been clear in his thought, since "cultural literacy" could be imagined to shift considerably over time. As he explains,
I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an educational conservative.... Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.
.... For more than two decades this political liberal and educational conservative has been among the very few professors eloquently calling for a solid curriculum in order to rebuild public education. If one tenth of this nation's professors gave one tenth the attention to the issue that E.D. Hirsch has, the schools would be fixed by now. Until then, we continue to build higher education on a foundation of sand.
The Claremont Institute - The Making of an Educational Conservative