It’s a proud day for Core Knowledge.
From the Education Commission of the States today comes word that Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., will be the recipient of its James Bryant Conant Award in honor of his “decades of work in developing and spreading the idea that students become proficient readers and learners only when they also have wide-ranging background knowledge.”
Hirsch joins a distinguished list of education luminaries to have received the Conant Award, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Claiborne Pell, Fred Rogers, and Ted Sizer.
“For decades, Dr. Hirsch has been a thoughtful contributor to understanding how kids learn and helping our educational system better meet their needs. He is truly deserving of the Conant Award,” said ECS President Roger Sampson in a statement announcing the accolade.
Hirsch burst into the public eye with his surprising 1987 best-seller Cultural Literacy. With his subsequent books The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, The Knowledge Deficit, and The Making of Americans, he solidified his reputation as one of the most influential education reformers of our time.
What fewer people know about Hirsch is that long before Core Knowledge, he was an influential literary critic and English professor who made a sudden and unexpected turn into K-12 education reform. A 2008 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein described Hirsch’s growing awareness that “literary theory and literary study were drifting ever farther from the pressing intellectual needs” of college students, and Hirsch’s unanticipated response.
“There was no apparent reason for Hirsch to do anything else except stay on track, continue the theory debate, publish in Critical Inquiry, field job offers and lecture invitations, and train the next generation of literary critics and theorists. But he changed focus and slid down the education ladder….He turned to primary education, dedicating his life, and lots of income, to improving the system.”
Hirsch has often told the story of being “shocked into education reform” while doing research on written composition. Conducting research at a pair of colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining a student’s ability to comprehend a passage, an even more important factor was the student’s background knowledge.
“African-American students at a Richmond community college could read just as well as University of Virginia students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant,” Hirsch recalled. “They had not been taught the various things that they needed to know to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience. The results were shocking. What had the schools been doing? I decided to devote myself to helping right the wrong that is being done to such students,” he said.
Thus was born Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986, and a year later brought out Cultural Literacy, which remained at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months.
An extraordinary and richly deserved honor.