The official publication date is still two weeks away (Sept. 15), but copies of E.D. Hirsch’s new book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, have started to hit the bookstores. Jay Mathews gets a jump with his review in the Washington Post. “If the inventive 81-year-old had been a business leader or politician or even a school superintendent, his fight to give U.S. children rich lessons in their shared history and culture would have made him a hero among his peers,” Mathews shrewedly observes. ”Instead, he chose to be an English professor, at the unlucky moment when academic fashion declared the American common heritage to be bunk and made people like Hirsch into pariahs.”
Mathews notes (correctly, I think) that Hirsch’s new book makes the case for a common curriculum “in the clearest form since his ground-breaking 1987 book, Cultural Literacy.”
“The Making of Americans” puts the most troublesome elementary school subject, reading, at the center of its argument. Reading achievement and language proficiency generally have been disappointing for decades, particularly in schools full of the children of immigrant or impoverished parents. Progressives have called for engaging students with lessons that celebrate their real lives and their cultural heritages. Old books about dead white guys don’t hack it, they say. Hirsch’s research convinced him that this approach cut children off from the shared background they all must have to understand the words in front of them.
Richard Kahlenberg, reviews the book in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar, not yet available online:
In The Making of Americans, Hirsch…widens the lens to connect his ideas on education reform to the fundamental rationales for our system of public schools in the United States. Citing the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Horace Mann, Hirsch identifies two central reasons for the American “common school”: to create social mobility, allowing bright, hard-working students of all origins to enjoy the American dream; and to create social cohesion, binding children of diverse economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds into citizens of a single nation. Hirsch makes a highly cogent case to support the concept that a common curriculum is necessary in elementary schools to further both goals. The American focus on skills, rather than on content, has left low-income students bereft of “unspoken background knowledge” that is explicitly taught in countries like France and Finland, where levels of academic inequality are much lower. “It does not seem to occur to the intellectual descendants of Rousseau,” Hirsch writes, “that the four-year-old children of rich, highly educated parents might be gaining academic knowledge at home that is unfairly being withheld (albeit with noble intentions) from the children of the poor.”
“American education would be far better off if leaders heeded Hirsch’s sound advice to restore a common-core curriculum, Kahlenberg concludes. “Our system would do even better still if leaders went one step further and reinvented Horace Mann’s economically integrated common school for the 21st century.”