At last week’s forum of the Education Commission of the States in Atlanta, Core Knowledge Founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was honored with the organization’s James Bryant Conant Award. Given annually since 1977, the prestigious honor is bestowed upon “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to American education.”
For Hirsch, it has been quite a ride to arrive at this moment. His ideas about education reform and reading burst into the collective consciousness with the 1987 publication of Cultural Literacy, a surprise publishing phenomenon which spent over six months on the New York Times best-seller list. However, the book had the misfortune of coming out at the height of the ‘80s culture war battles and became, as Dan Willingham observed, “possibly the most misunderstood education book of the last fifty years.” Hirsch’s critics—and they were many and loud—largely ignored what he was saying about the fundamental role of shared knowledge in reading comprehension and literacy instruction. Instead they were aghast at what they mistakenly perceived as, in Hirsch’s words, “a reactionary tract about culture which supported a lily-white canon rather than being what it actually was–an explanation of the dependency of language mastery on broad general knowledge.”
In a 2007 interview, Hirsch expressed relief about the emerging awareness that “all the time, the Core Knowledge project has been what it said it was – a progressive effort to improve schools and empower low-income and minority students.” He elaborated in his acceptance remarks last week.
“Only gradually, after my book came out, has the research evidence greatly accumulated and made overwhelmingly clear that the essence of language proficiency is not mastery of skills and strategies but rather of broad academic knowledge. Now, 25 years after the book came out, no knowledgeable cognitive scientist disputes that insight. But it was understandable when the book first appeared that many would have viewed it as an ideological tract rather than a scientific fact.”
“Until very recently it would have been unthinkable to select me or anyone with views like mine to receive the Conant Award,” Hirsch concluded. The turnaround, he noted, “can be interpreted as marking a change in our collective thinking about elementary education, away from how-to strategies and towards the much more interesting task of imparting knowledge.”