Friday, October 23, 2009
Stern, Sol. "E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy." CITY JOURNAL (Autumn 2009).
The “Massachusetts miracle,” in which Bay State students’ soaring test scores broke records, was the direct consequence of the state legislature’s passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. And those standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch’s legacy. If the Obama administration truly wants to have a positive impact on American education, it should embrace Hirsch’s ideas and urge other states to do the same. Hirsch draws his insights from well outside traditional education scholarship. He started out studying chemistry at Cornell University but, mesmerized by Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature, switched his major to English. Hirsch did his graduate studies at Yale, one of the citadels in the 1950s of the New Criticism, which argued that the intent of an author, the reader’s subjective response, and the text’s historical background were largely irrelevant to a critical analysis of the text itself. But by the time Hirsch wrote his doctoral dissertation—on Wordsworth—he was already breaking with the New Critics. “I came to see that the text alone is not enough,” Hirsch said to me recently at his Charlottesville, Virginia, home. “The unspoken—that is, relevant background knowledge—is absolutely crucial in reading a text.” Hirsch’s big work of literary theory in his early academic career, Validity in Interpretation, reflected this shift in thinking. After publishing several more well-received scholarly books and articles, he received an endowed professorship and became chairman of the English department at the University of Virginia. Hirsch was at the pinnacle of the academic world, in his mid-fifties, when he was struck by an insight into how reading is taught that, he says, “changed my life.” He was “feeling guilty” about the department’s inadequate freshman writing course, he recalls. Though UVA’s admissions standards were as competitive as the Ivies’, the reading and writing skills of many incoming students were poor, sure to handicap them in their future academic work. In trying to figure out how to close this “literacy gap,” Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered “a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences.” This finding, first published in a psychology journal, was consistent with Hirsch’s past scholarship, in which he had argued that the author takes for granted that his readers have crucial background knowledge. Hirsch was also convinced that the problem of inadequate background knowledge began in the early grades. Elementary school teachers thus had to be more explicit about imparting such knowledge to students—indeed, this was even more important than teaching the “skills” of reading and writing, Hirsch believed. Hirsch’s insight contravened the conventional wisdom in the nation’s education schools: that teaching facts was unimportant, and that students instead should learn “how to” skills. Hirsch gave a lecture on the implications of his study at a Modern Language Association conference and then expanded the argument in a 1983 article, titled “Cultural Literacy,” in The American Scholar. The article caused a stir, not so much in the academy (and certainly not in the ed schools) as among public intellectuals. William Bennett, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, encouraged Hirsch to pursue his theme. Education historian Diane Ravitch urged him to get a book out fast and to call it Cultural Literacy as well. Hirsch heeded the advice, and in 1987, the book landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list, where it stayed for 26 weeks, resulting in a dramatic career change for the author. He kept researching and writing about how to improve the “cultural literacy” of young Americans and launched the Core Knowledge Foundation, which sought to create a knowledge-based curriculum for the nation’s elementary schools. A wide range of scholars assisted him in specifying the knowledge that children in grades K–8 needed to become proficient readers. For example, the Core Knowledge curriculum specifies that in English language arts, all second-graders read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as stories by Rudyard Kipling, E. B. White, and Hans Christian Andersen. In history and geography, the children study the world’s great rivers, ancient Rome, and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, among other subjects. By the late 1980s, Hirsch had all but abandoned academic literary studies and become a full-time education reformer. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_hirsch.html.