Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2013

Three decades ago, in the spring of 1983, E. D. Hirsch published an essay titled “Cultural Literacy” in the American Scholar. He also turned 55. At an age when most people are getting serious about their retirement planning, Hirsch was embarking on a new career. He didn’t know it at the time; he thought the research on the need for background knowledge for skilled communication was so clear that all schools would rapidly revise their curricula and his job would be done. The research was clear, but the resistance to new ideas and evidence was not. Today, the siren song that elevates skills above content remains strong. Here is an excerpt from “Cultural Literacy” in which Hirsch explains how he broke free.

The received and dominant view of educational specialists is that the specific materials of reading and writing instruction are interchangeable so long as they are “appropriate,” and of “high quality.”…

I call this the doctrine of educational formalism….

During most of the time that I was pursuing research in literacy I was, like others in the field, a confirmed formalist. In 1977 I came out with a book on the subject, The Philosophy of Composition, that was entirely formalistic in outlook. One of my arguments, for instance, was that the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose. I suggested that freshman could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve, if they were directly taught those underlying psycholinguistic principles….

So intent was I upon this idea that I undertook some arduous research…. For about two years I was deeply engaged in this work. It was this detailed engagement with the realities of reading and writing under controlled conditions that caused me finally to abandon my formalistic assumptions….

[My colleagues and I] devised a way of comparing the effects of well-written and badly written versions of the same paper…. To our delight, we discovered that good style did make an appreciable difference, and that the degree of difference was replicable and predictable. So far so good. But what became very disconcerting about these results was that they came out properly only when the subjects of the papers were highly familiar to our audiences…. What we discovered was that good writing makes very little difference when the subject is unfamiliar. We English teachers tend to believe that a good style is all the more helpful when the content is difficult, but it turns out that we are wrong….

While the variability of reading skills within the same person was making itself disconcertingly known to me, I learned that similar variability was showing up in formal writing skills—and for the same reasons. Researchers at the City University of New York were finding that when a topic is unfamiliar, writing skill declines in all of its dimensions—including grammar and spelling—not to mention sentence structure, parallelism, unity, focus, and other skills taught in writing courses. One part of the explanation for such results is that we all have limited attention space, and cannot pay much heed to form when we are devoting a lot of our attention to unfamiliar content. But another part of the explanation is more interesting. Part of our skill in reading and in writing is skill not just with linguistic structures but with words. Words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large domains of content….

It would be useful … to have guidance about the words that high school graduates ought to know—a lexicon of cultural literacy. I am thinking of a special sort of lexicon that would include not just some ordinary dictionary words, but would also include proper names, important phrases, and conventions. Nobody likes word lists as objects of instruction; for one thing, they don’t work. But I am not thinking of such a lexicon as an object of instruction. I am thinking of it rather as a guide to objects of instruction. Take the phrase “First Amendment,” for instance. That is a lexical item that can hardly be used without bringing in a lot of associated information. Just what are the words and phrases that our high school graduates should know?

So began E. D. Hirsch’s 30-year struggle to close the achievement gap by giving all children the skills and the broad knowledge that enable strong reading and writing. In the years following his American Scholar essay, Hirsch wrote a bestselling book version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and developed a lexicon of what high school graduates should know: the Core Knowledge Sequence. To find out how the Sequence came about, we turn to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Pages 74 – 77 answer the question “Which Knowledge Do We Need?”*

What exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of? That is the nuts-and-bolts question….

It is assumed by the American educational community that any “representative” knowledge will do. My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to develop more useful guidance for schools than this imprecise and inaccurate notion back in the 1980s. We asked ourselves, “In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?” We considered various scholarly approaches to this problem. One was to look at word frequencies. If a word appeared in print quite often, then it was probably a word whose meaning was not going to be explained by the speaker or writer. We looked at a frequency analysis of the Brown Corpus, a collection of passages from very diverse kinds of publications that was lodged at Brown University, but we found that this purely mechanical approach, while partially valid, did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results. For example, because the Brown Corpus was compiled in the 1950s, “Nikita Khrushchev” was a more frequent vocabulary item than “George Washington.”…

A much better way of finding out what knowledge speakers and writers take for granted is to ask these people themselves whether they assume specific items of knowledge in what they read and write. This direct approach proved to be a sounder way of determining the tacit knowledge, because what we must teach students is the knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge….

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill. One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the [New York] Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that “any given day’s issue of the Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of these unexplained terms, which “play a part in the daily commerce of the published language.”

An inventory of the tacit knowledge shared by good readers and writers cannot, of course, be fixed at a single point in time. The knowledge that writers and radio and TV personalities take for granted is constantly changing at the edges, especially on topical issues. But inside the edges, at the core, the body of assumed knowledge in American public discourse has remained stable for many decades…. If we want to bring all students to reading proficiency, this stable core is the enabling knowledge that we must teach.

That’s more easily said than done. One essential, preliminary question that we faced was, how can this necessary knowledge be sequenced in a practical way for use in schools? We asked teachers how to present the topics grade by grade and created working groups of experienced teachers in every region of the country to produce a sequence independently of the others. There proved to be less agreement on how to present the material grade by grade than there had been in identifying what the critical topics are…. The sequencing of many topics is inherently arbitrary. While it’s plausible in math that addition needs to come before multiplication and that in history Greece probably ought to come before Rome, maybe it’s not plausible that Greece should come before George Washington.

We collected the accumulated wisdom of these independent groups of teachers, made a provisional draft sequence, and in 1990 held a conference where 145 people from every region, scholarly discipline, and racial and ethnic group got together to work extremely hard for two and a half days to agree on an intelligent way to teach this knowledge sequentially. Over time, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been refined and adjusted, based on actual classroom experience. It is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.

You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 4: Passing the Test




  1. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you, Dr. Hirsch, who gave us the CK Sequence….
    Adopting the Sequence at my school back in 1994 was the best curriculum decision I ever made as an educator!!! The results are so visible in former students’ lives today!!

    Comment by Bob Hamm — March 21, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  2. Ad multos annos!

    Comment by Jeff Ziegler — March 21, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  3. I can remember when the key CK concept that reading comprehension is not a skill first made my mental lightbulb go on. Around 1983, I thought about options for further education, so I took several practice exams for the GMAT and LSAT tests. All the exams had several short essays that were included in order to test reading comprehension.

    What struck me, in a very hazy way, was how good my comprehension was when the topic was economics, American history, sports, and some other things – but how much weaker my comprehension was about hard sciences. When I read my first Hirsch book in 2003 – “The Schools We Need” – and came across the idea of reading comprehension depending heavily on background knowledge, the memories of the LSAT and GMAT tests immediately came to mind: the lightbulb moment when Hirsch articulated in clear, logical prose why my comprehension ability varied, depending on the topic.

    “The Schools We Need” is in my personal top ten list of most influential books I’ve read (along with Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, An American Dilemma, among others). Which leads to two questions for our intellectually ageless mentor:

    1) If you were updating “The Schools We Need” for republication in 2013, is there anything you would change or add?

    2) As a corollary to the CK philosophy that reading comprehension is not a skill, is there an analogous essay anywhere that the same idea pertains to composition? If not, a good title for an enterprising essayist might be “Composition Is Not A Skill.”

    Happy Birthday to Mr. Hirsch. He’s a good example to all of us – never fully retire, and keep the brain working as long as the body is willing.

    Comment by John Webster — March 21, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

  4. Happy birthday, Don Hirsch. Your accomplishments are only outnumbered by all your admirers. The world of education has truly been blessed by your contributions.

    I’ll never forget my first exposure to your philosophy and grade level books. “Where has this been and why is it not used by everyone?” was all I could think.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 21, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

  5. [...] what knowledge is commonly taken for granted is the approach E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of Core Knowledge, and his colleagues took when they initially developed a list of [...]

    Pingback by The Common Core Needs a Common Curriculum « The Core Knowledge Blog — May 23, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  6. [...] memory to function as a literate adult. Through a series of studies Hirsch and his colleagues identified the specific knowledge that is most essential—and then that became the [...]

    Pingback by Core Knowledge: A Lifeboat in the Sea of Information « The Core Knowledge Blog — July 29, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

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