“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” That marvelous quote is meant to explain the purpose of college. It’s from Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard, but it comes to me from Diana Senechal, my go-to person for the beauty of an intellectual life. Just three months ago, I had the privilege of publishing Senechal (and that quote) in American Educator, the quarterly journal of educational research and ideas from the American Federation of Teachers. As the editor, I had a terrific job: I listened to teachers and did my best to express their questions, concerns, and ideas to some of the nation’s top scholars. Most of those scholars then agreed to write for American Educator—and what a wonderful array of generous people they were.
But one stood out: E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
So it is with great pleasure—along with admiration and awe every time I see Hirsch in person—that I’m now the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Could there be a better way to make my mind a fascinating place to spend the rest of my life?
The expertise in the Core Knowledge community is extraordinary, and the challenge before us is great: We must ensure that all children’s minds are interesting places. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a huge step in the right direction, but they are just the first step.
Not long ago, at a forum on the CCSS, a well-known superintendent lauded for her reform initiatives inadvertently diagnosed one of our greatest hurdles. She told a story of a young boy who had not done well on a writing prompt. Her district is relatively wealthy, so it was no surprise when the boy’s mother came in to complain: Her son would have done well if he had been allowed to write about BMX bikes instead of being required to write about butterflies.
No doubt he would have.
The superintendent found this compelling. She is now pushing for more student choice in schoolwork.
This is a perfect example of where many educators are today. The necessity of relevant background knowledge has sunk in. Our little boy loves BMX bikes. He probably has expert-level knowledge of BMX racing, equipment, and star athletes. He probably can do an impressive set of tricks on his own BMX bike. I love a similar sport, mountain biking, and I’ve ridden a couple BMX tracks (though not well). I would have enjoyed reading this boy’s BMX essay. But I don’t want him to write it for school.
At school, for his sake, I want him to acquire the type of broad background knowledge that will open the rest of the world to him. Butterflies are a small slice of the scientific world, and many superb lessons with geography, ecology, history, current events, and art have been created by following the monarchs from Maine to Mexico. BMX provides a healthy hobby for many young people—and a rewarding career for a handful of adults. But BMX alone won’t prepare our young student to comprehend the New York Times. If he is the rare boy who ends up with a career in BMX, great. But how will he decide to vote, or be a responsible juror, or communicate with his neighbors? And what will he do if BMX loses its allure? A content-rich, broad education provides a path to multiple higher-learning and career opportunities, the ability to communicate with others, and more varied leisure-time options.
The only way to squeeze a content-rich, broad education into K–12 is through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum. Is there room for some choice? Sure. Maybe our young student would have found locusts more compelling than butterflies. If the unit he just completed covered both, then maybe he should get to choose which one to write about.
The well-meaning superintendent grasps half of the equation. Relevant background knowledge is essential to writing (and reading, listening, and speaking) well. Broad background knowledge—broad enough to provide something relevant to virtually any situation—is essential to learning and communicating with ease throughout one’s life.
I hope superintendent reads Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. It’ll help her ensure that all of her students’ minds become interesting places to spend the rest of their lives.
P.S. I’ve been told more than a few times that Robert Pondiscio’s shoes are too big to fill. It’s true! If his quips ever inspired you to write a few clever lines, please send them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org)—I’m going to need all the help I can get.