After 30 years of being misunderstood, E. D. Hirsch’s dedication to equalizing opportunity is being widely recognized. Today, he has the honor of being included in the Politico 50.
As noted in Politico’s encapsulation of his work, “Hirsch’s argument was revolutionary: All children, regardless of background, should be taught the shared intellectual foundation—from Euclid to Shakespeare to Seneca Falls—needed ‘to thrive in the modern world.’”
Thriving, regardless of the accident of birth, has always been his driving force. In her brilliant article, “‘I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long,’” Peg Tyre explores how Hirsch has been revered and reviled:
In 1978, between stints as head of UVA’s English Department, Hirsch was conducting research at a nearby community college. There, he observed that the largely African-American low-income students could read short works of narrative fiction but could barely wring meaning from a piece about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox because they lacked basic knowledge about the Civil War. “What I saw is that background knowledge really mattered,” Hirsch says….
To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”
Which is where his List came in. To make it, Hirsch, along with two professors, scanned newspapers and popular journals for high-frequency concepts and then polled 500 professionals—lawyers and writers—to determine which of those concepts were the most crucial for cultural literacy….
OK, I say, that might have made sense in the 1970s, but what about now when the complexion of American public schools is changing? … How can any dictionary of cultural literacy keep pace with such a rapidly changing world? Hirsch grows crisp. “Why do you think one’s color or ethnicity would affect one’s vocabulary? Without a doubt, Latino culture is having a big influence on America, and the language of culture will change around the margins. But educated conversation is still going on. And you want to make sure those kids—particularly those kids—have the tools they need to be included.”
Tyre concludes, “In the autumn of life, with three grown children (two of whom are teachers), he’ll take vindication where he can. ‘The point wasn’t to perpetuate the culture of power,’ he tells me. ‘It was to open the door to kids who don’t have the keys to power.’”