E.D. Hirsch, Jr., now retired, was until recently Professor of English and of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia.
He is the author of several widely read books on the subjects of cultural literacy and education reform, including Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), and, most recently, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (Yale UP, 2009).
Professor Hirsch argues that the significant and indisputable decline in language proficiency among America’s schoolchildren over the past fifty years is primarily due to the mistaken educational philosophy known as “child-centered schools.”
During the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, most Americans agreed that the overriding aim of public education was to prepare children to assume their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. Whence the name “community-centered schools” for the traditional approach.
In a multiethnic society (which the United States has always been), the concept of community-centered schools was widely understood to mean that a minimal core of common knowledge needed to be taught to all children throughout the country.
But Hirsch notes that the community-centered school concept was not only important on account of the common civic culture that it fostered. The traditional emphasis on a common curriculum had one other great advantage, as well.
That advantage lies in the way we now know that children learn. Understanding new facts, it turns out, depends on already having enough background knowledge to be able to make sense of the new facts.
This means that learning increases exponentially as a function of knowledge acquired, so that the more one knows, the easier it becomes to learn stilll more. Conversely, the less a child knows when it starts school, the harder and harder it becomes for it to catch up.
This new understanding of how learning works that we have now gleaned from modern cognitive science was already incorporated, thanks to the widsom of common sense and generations of experience, in the traditional community-centered, common-curriculum approach to education. So, what went wrong?
According to Hirsch, the reform movement of the 1930s leveled such charges against the traditional common-curriculum approach as “one size fits all,” “rote learning,” “mere facts,” “reactionary,” and even “fascist.” In its place, advocates of the so-called “child-centered” (really, anti-curriculum) movement declared that developing “critical thinking skills” ought to be the principal aim of education, not the imparting of specific knowledge.
But, of course, there is no such thing as thinking critically about nothing. All thinking involves the comprehension and analysis of specific factual claims and interpretations. The idea that the form of learning can be taught by itself, without any content, is a myth—one that, unfortunately, has dominated the educational establishment in the Unites States for several generations, and continues to do so today.
In this lecture, delivered at the Manhattan Institute in New York in 2009, Hirsch explains exactly how the modern child-centered movement in education bought into a scientific myth, and why abandoning this mistaken educational philosophy is the most important thing we must do to improve primary and secondary education in America.
He has also discussed these ideas in a recent New York Times op-ed piece (here), as well as in a longer version of that essay (here) on the website of the Core Knowledge Foundation, of which Professor Hirsch is the founder and chairman.
We believe these issues are so important that we reproduce some highlights from the lecture below:
Reading comprehension is not a formal, transferable skill. If you are a good reader and you bring relevant prior knowledge, you will understand what you’re reading . . . That’s why the current multi-hour-per-day lessons in teaching reading strategies in lieu of teaching coherent content has continued to fail.
The key difference between advantaged and disadvantaged students on entering preschool is a difference of knowledge and vocabulary. And the key duty of the schools is to impart enabling knowledge and in so doing narrow that gap between demographic groups . . .
The currently dominant conception, that is, the child-centered school, has been a historic aberration. It’s failed badly in the three main goals of democratic education: to give everyone a chance; to raise achievement; and create the civic-minded citizens who would rise above faction and support the common good.
Our educational failures come chiefly from an intellectual monopoly of faulty ideas.
If Hirsch is right—and we believe he is—then the struggle for educational reform in this country must be waged, not just in the political arena, but also on the plane of ideas.