The Two Americas Continued: Schmidt and McKnight

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 15th, 2013

In my last post (“Antonio Who?”) about the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (pronounced gram-shee who was cited as a big influence by Michael Gove the British Secretary of Education), I hinted—but didn’t venture to say—that maybe our educational systems would be in better shape if our top authorities followed Gove’s lead and read more challenging books, while holding fewer committee meetings. Albert Shanker, the brilliant union-organizer-turned-educational-statesman, once told me, mournfully: “They don’t read.” I once looked through Al Shanker’s own library now housed at AFT headquarters, and was amazed to see his annotations in a multi-volume set by the philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. But the vision of a top American official reading the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci could happen only in a Woody Allen movie.

On the other side, an argument against reading a lot of books on American education is that it could cause clinical depression. As I peruse the important book by William Schmidt and Curtis McKnight, Inequality for All, I think to myself: this is a companion volume to a whole spate of recent books on American inequality by eminent scholars, including a book by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and a mournfully vivid book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart. The image one gets from Murray is not of red America vs. blue America, but of one zip code full of striving SAT-takers and community-minded citizens vs.  a neighboring zip code of drifting alcoholic semi-literates who lack any sense of community or hope. It is not too much of a stretch to see Inequality for All as identifying a significant cause of these economic and sociological ills. The book is an indictment of the content-incoherence of our schools.

The sad reality is that the American educational system does not provide equal opportunity for all but rather perpetuates vast inequalities in content coverage…. This inequality of opportunity … disadvantages many, perhaps even most, children in the United States….

Variation in content coverage corrupts the entire U.S. educational system, in effect creating an enormous educational lottery in which every student takes part—whatever their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. The system of schooling represents a game of chance that few are even aware is being played.

Given this almost universal curricular incoherence in our schools, students with home advantages are able to overcome ineffectual schooling through home tutoring either direct or indirect. In short, (as Gramsci predicted) the “progressive” American theory of education, with its how rather than what approach to schooling, while it is “advocated as being democratic, is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese complexities” (Notebook 29).  In other words Gramsci predicted the very America described by Stiglitz and Murray as being the effect of the schooling described by Schmidt and McKnight.

Inequality for All focuses on math and science education, showing with authoritative thoroughness the failure of our schools to bring rationality and cumulativeness in the topics taught from year to year.   They make the point that reformers on both the left and right have been consumed with equalizing resources or in fostering competition and accountability, but pay too little heed to the essence of schooling which they see as the delivery of academic content by teachers to students. Hear, hear!

I have tried to make exactly the same point with respect to the general knowledge that students need to gain outside the subjects of science and math. The Gramsci principle that the delivery of academic content is the key to social justice holds even more strongly for general knowledge, which is the key to high literacy and the ability to learn and adapt in the future. Indeed, based on data from the Armed Forces Qualification Test, I’ve argued that general knowledge is approximately twice as important as math in determining a person’s future capacity to function economically and as a citizen, and therefore deserves at least the same care and coherence that Schmit and McKnight want for science and math.  Given their sound view that “the delivery of academic content” is the key to future improvement and to equity, Schmidt and McKnight come out strongly in favor of the Common Core State Standards.

Every day my email inbox fills with relentless attacks on these standards, and renewed attempts to undo the commitments of forty-odd states to follow them. I wish these energies and criticisms could be turned to making the standards function well, rather than to making them go away. They are a work in progress, and instituting them will entail many false steps. But Schmidt and McKnight rightly see them as the best way forward for excellence and equity. They see the issue in educational, not political terms: not as some intolerable imposition of the federal government or the Gates Foundation, but as our best chance to overcome failure, incoherence, and injustice.

Unless the carpers against the common core can come up with an alternative plan that brings coherence to “the delivery of academic content,” they leave us in the unacceptable condition of the status quo.   Let these carpers produce a book half as thorough and authoritative as that of Schmidt and McKnight, with a vision of what needs to be done half as compelling. Then I might be more receptive to their constant stream of mosquito bites against the ambitious vision defended in this important book.