The Making of Americans

by Robert Pondiscio
September 1st, 2009

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.”


  1. Regrettably, social cohesion has not been a valued goal of public education since the 60s generation replaced it with the multi-culti goals of tribalism and the rush to blame Western Civilization (America in particular) for everything bad that has happened on the planet in the past 100+ years.

    Comment by momof4 — September 1, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  2. Sorry, but the “blame America first” complaint is more fiction than fact. I was in public K-12 schools from the early ’70s through the mid ’80s and saw little evidence that Western Civilization was being maligned. I still see little evidence of that in most of the schools I encounter.

    In fact, Robert’s posting reveals at least as much unease with Rousseau (Emile) and the Romantics as with anyone else. I’m looking forward to reading Hirsch’s book for the full scoop.

    Comment by Claus — September 1, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  3. Can’t wait to read the book. I’m sure it will be VERY interesting.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 1, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  4. Mom of 4,

    My ed school professors (circa 1994) certainly tried to promulgate an anti-Western Civ attitude in their prospective teachers. I doubt my ed school was unique. Of course, not every grad parrots the party line, but I can’t help but think a certain bias did seep into our public schools. As a graduate of St. John’s College –”the Great Books College” –I have sometimes sensed this bias when I mention my alma mater. In fact I’m pretty sure that this is what explains a certain assistant superintendent’s overt hostility to me at a job interview a few years back.

    I actually don’t particularly care if Western civ gets inculcated in our kids –I’d just like SOME rich tradition to be implanted. I’d happily teach the Chinese classics if I could.

    Comment by Ben F — September 2, 2009 @ 12:40 am

  5. In today’s volatile political climate who will decide what is our “shared background”?

    Comment by Jillian — March 9, 2012 @ 1:01 am

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