Earlier this year, the Pioneer Institute hosted a discussion with E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and Andrew Rotherham at the Suffolk Law School in Boston. A transcript of the event has just been made available and it’s a good read.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are pretty good that you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work and ideas. But I was especially struck by Rotherham’s remarks introducing Don. He points out that Hirsch’s best-seller Cultural Literacy, which gave rise to the Core Knowledge movement, came out at the same time as Allan Bloom’s 1987 book Closing of the American Mind and was ”injected into the culture wars alongside it” through no fault of Hirsch. ”Don’s books say what they say if one takes the time to read them,” Rotherham noted. He proceeded to take issue with the all too common notion that, when it comes to curriculum, “it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading something.”
“Is there a more vain or ahistorical sentiment in education? Never mind that it ignores that throughout the ages there has been some content and ideas that societies felt was so important it should be written down and preserved. But that idea is also at odds with what we know about how people learn and acquire domain knowledge and skills in the first place. And how important content is to reading and understanding. That’s why the divides in this debate don’t always fall along education’s traditional lines. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, has long championed Don’s work because they understand how central clearly-defined content is to learning. So Don’s ideas are hardly conservative in the political sense. On the contrary, they’re profoundly egalitarian.”
To this day there is still hostility among too many who have not taken the time to let Hirsch’s work ”say what it says”; who assume the message is, as one blogger put it as recently as last week: “Clearly, Bloom and Hirsch’s view of relevant curriculum is white curriculum.”
Not right. His point was not that children from other walks of life be force-fed American literate culture, rather that familiarity with the common knowledge of our culture is the principal difference between those who are literate and those who are not. This distinction is what led Dan Willingham, to call Cultural Literacy the most misunderstood education book of the last 50 years.
“The challenge today is democratizing that kind of education both to increase individual opportunity and also our collective good,” in Rotherham’s words.
Profoundly egalitarian is exactly right.