E.D. Hirsch Jr., who for many years has confounded and scattered his critics by not fitting cozily into any arbitrary educational camp of thought, has published a new book called The Making of Americans. It’s a fine “read” and an even better tonic, although, being a bitter pill for kneejerk “reformers” with overactive gag reflexes to swallow, it cannot cure hidden agendas
The self-styled, full-of-themselves fixers in the anti-establishment establishment love to hate iconic truth-hunters like Hirsch and Diane Ravitch (whose new book is due in the spring) but probably secretly revere them when the cameras and microphones are shut off, the think-tank ranting season is over and their grant deals have been consummated.
Hirsch, the long-time Professor of Education and Humanities and Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Virginia, is a chief architect and pennant-bearer of “cultural literacy.” He is a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute and the prolific author of such books as The Philosophy of Composition, The Knowledge Deficit, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.
“Cultural literacy” is Hirsch’s signature contribution to the debates on reading comprehension and curriculum. It stresses the importance of specific curriculum that draws upon a common knowledge background. Hirsch blames romanticized theories of education for America’s relatively mediocre academic standard and performance disparities among classes and races. He believes that critical thinking skills cannot be taught in isolation from actual subject content.
The Making of Americans, which is dedicated to the memory of the late UFT and AFT President Albert Shanker, is an extension, not a paraphrase, of his earlier works. It delves into how language comprehension can be raised within a context of shared knowledge. His focus is primarily on the elementary school level.
In an interview with Michael Shaughnessy of Eastern New Mexico University, Hirsch notes that his new book speaks “of the need for a common public sphere existing with a multiplicity of local and private cultures… The general theory of education taught and perpetuated in our schools is fundamentally anti-bookish and anti-intellectual.”
Hirsch feels that education does children a disservice when it is child-centered to the exclusion of being subject-centered. This view is the thrust of what he calls “core knowledge.” It represents a rhetorical shift from “cultural literacy,”—a phrase that has drawn unwarranted criticism for allegedly promoting “Anglo-Saxon hegemony.” By the way, Hirsch’s bone-fides as a humanitarian are impeccable.
The Making of Americans is published by Yale University Press and can be bought at bookstores or online, preferably through the Core Knowledge Foundation.