An Interesting Place to Spend Your Life

by Lisa Hansel
March 9th, 2013

“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 (lhansel@coreknowledge.org)—I’m going to need all the help I can get.

15 Comments »

  1. I once read the comment, by a character in a 1950s novel, that the mental asylums were likely populated with many people who were unable to lose themselves in a book. A serious reader, from a family of readers, he couldn’t imagine carrying a book wherever he went. As someone who has always had books in my car (old friends I can re-read),I’ve always remembered that comment. Now, if I could only escape the TVs that now litter every conceivable place one might have to wait a few minutes (one gas station has one on every pump-I told the manager he’d lost my business), I’d be left in peace with my book.

    Comment by momof4 — March 9, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  2. Sorry, I hit the button too soon. Readers have the option of actually remembering and enjoying previously-read material, even without the book. I’ve known POWs from WWII and Viet Nam who managed to keep sane by doing that and doing mental things like planning their dream home.

    Comment by momof4 — March 9, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  3. Congratulations on your new position. The American Educator magazine is always a good read. There have been notable articles by E.D. Hirsch, Hung-Hsi Wu, Heidi Glidden, Amy M. Hightower, and the Albert Shanker Institute that all connect with and advocate the Core Knowledge Foundation practices. But, I don’t really see a strong connection between the practices AE advocates and the public face of the AFT. Is there an internal AFT operation that actively promotes the AE practice concepts at the teacher level that is just not externally observable?

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — March 10, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  4. My mother used the term “inner resources” for the things that make our heads interesting places to inhabit. She is also the one who told me many years ago that I should be familiar with the Bible, Shakespeare, and classical mythology to understand the vast majority of literary allusions I came across. Wise woman, my mother.

    Momof4, your comments make me think of the book Fahrenheit 451, both because of the ubiquitous TVs and because of the POWs remembering books. I am trying to imagine staying sane by remembering episodes of Seinfeld. Not sure it would work.

    Comment by Cynthia Gadol — March 10, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  5. Lisa,

    Welcome to the CK blog. You indeed have big shoes to fill, but your first essay here shows that you’ll fit right in to the CK community.

    Since you have close ties to the AFT, I’ll again vent my frustration with that group that, at least among the national leadership, has long been a friend of Core Knowledge.

    The AFT often publishes articles by E.D. Hirsch and others promoting the CK approach to curriculum. Top AFT leaders praise the CK philosophy and extol the virtues of such a great liberal arts program. The AFT’s intellectual leadership is much appreciated, and stands in stark contrast to almost everything the NEA stands for.

    But none of the AFT praise has any practical impact out here in the real world. Curriculum philosophies antithetical to CK dominate schools of education, and it’s nearly impossible to persuade traditional public school districts to adopt CK or anything like it for grades K-8.

    Going on two years ago, I exchanged several cordial emails with a local AFT leader in the Twin Cities. She told me that she liked the philosophy of CK, and that she participated in a small group meeting with Dr. Hirsch many years ago. But she basically admitted that the local union had higher priorities than curriculum that were consuming all of their time.

    In addition to not pushing for curriculum reform, the AFT is openly hostile to non-union charter schools, including the CK charters. The AFT and the NEA would eliminate every non-union CK charter and force those kids – including mine – back into traditional public schools. In the Twin Cities metro area, only a handful of traditional public schools use CK; without charters and a few private schools, CK would be almost non-existent here.

    So my bottom line question, after which I will forevermore keep my peace on this topic, is this: if the AFT really believes that CK is a great curriculum for kids – which would show up in the academic achievement of students and thus reflect well on unionized teachers – why doesn’t the AFT push hard for its implementation in the schools which employ AFT teachers?

    Comment by John Webster — March 10, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

  6. Dear Tom and John: Many thanks to both of you for your kind words. Throughout my eleven years with the AFT (all of which were with American Educator), I was very impressed with the members, leaders, and staff—and especially with the level of debate inside the organization. The AFT really is a federation, so you must expect the state and local unions that belong to the AFT to have some differing challenges and priorities. Any yet, my experience showed me that there is widespread support for Core Knowledge, and generally for rigorous, content-rich education, throughout the AFT.

    The AFT does have a professional development program that regularly uses articles from American Educator. Some of the most popular are Daniel T. Willingham’s “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” articles, many of which explain why reading comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving depend on prior knowledge (http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/subject.cfm#Ask).

    The AFT also was involved in the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It regularly convened large teams of teachers to review the drafts and suggest revisions. That, of course, is not the same as curriculum, but those who did the work are well aware that the CCSS create an opportunity to rethink districts’ curricular decisions and to adopt more rigorous materials.

    My hope is that the CCSS will encourage more educators and leaders (from all sorts of organizations) to think about the many benefits that would cascade from a common core curriculum, an idea I pursued in a special issue of American Educator a couple of years ago (http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/winter1011/index.cfm). You may be heartened to know that Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, requested that special issue and was enthusiastic about distributing it even beyond the regular mailing list of almost one million educators.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 10, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

  7. Somehow, someway the Unions and management have to own education together. Having been hrough the Rhee years, I realize that just telling people to get better is not enough, AFT and all teachers unions have to own professional development. It is great you are advocating CK and that their magazine does, but until teachers make their unions accountable for what is actually being taught rather than the unions being a glorified HR intereferance zone I don’t have much hope. DC is stil riddled with horrible teachers that demean children and do not help them learn. They focus on an ethnocentric model that ensures kids only know they are oppressed and that they will never leave the oppression. This is not hype, this is what I am hearing from people actually doing training in these schools. I know you did not start this column to defend teachers unions, but to be honest, I was totally pro-union until my kids entered school and I saw how it protected old battleaxes that somehow thought they had a right to a job and were not accountable for how they spoke to children, what they taught them or their attitudes towards their parents. If they want to prove to parents that they really do care about education, real content and professional development needs to be even more important than benefits and pay.

    Comment by DC Parent — March 10, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

  8. Lisa,

    Congratulations and welcome to the Core Knowledge blog. As John suggested above, following Robert, you indeed, have big shoes to fill. He truly is/was one of a kind (that would be a positive, big fella).

    Having been forced to be a dues paying member of the NEA for three and a half decades, even though I disagreed with them 95% of the time on candidates and/or positions, I can understand the anti-union hostility from some here. I can only state from experience, however, I have a great deal more respect and admiration for the AFT and their role in education reform than the obstructionist over at the NEA.

    Randi Weingarten has had a challenging mountain to climb but her courage and conviction to do what she believes is best for children overshadows the narcissism that emanates and spews from the Representative Assembly at the NEA.

    Again welcome, and good luck with your new duties. Anything we can do to help, please feel free to ask.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 11, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  9. I still maintain that CK should be promoting themselves at library media specialist events. Get on the program and make your case; have a vendor booth–something. I will be at the one in Missouri next month.

    Comment by Kathy — March 11, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  10. @Kathy you are ever so correct. Several years ago when National Geographic decided to get into the k-12 school market, their Library Director, proposed that their corporate library work with trade shows for educators. It made a significant difference. School librarians are an a critical evaluation point for many schools.

    Recently a local blog, with many followers here in DC recommended that parents look the role of the library as one of the measures for evaluating a school.

    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/17456/how-do-you-choose-a-school/

    Comment by DC Parent — March 12, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  11. Lisa,

    A belated thanks for the shout-out, and congratulations on your new position. Thank you for these wonderful first posts. I look forward to many more.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 18, 2013 @ 5:42 am

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