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.


Antonio Who?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 13th, 2013

Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable speech the other night, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British educational world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was our own Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from a 1996 book by me. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the 20th century. What gives?

I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the 20th century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he languished because his writing and journalistic work in the 1920s were so cogent and influential that Mussolini’s fascistic regime seized him in 1927 with the avowed purpose of silencing him. There he remained for eight years, until his ill health brought him to a sanitarium in 1934, and to a clinic in 1937, where he died. He was allowed to write, but not, of course, to let anyone see his writing. It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.

He rightly predicted that in the future, most work would entail intellectual work, and that political and economic power would reside with the educated. Especially notable was his critique of progressive education, which became the official educational doctrine of the fascist regime. Despite progressivism’s high claims to “child-centered natural development,” “deep understanding,” and “independent thought,” its anti-bookish tendencies, Gramsci said, were socially retrograde. “Il bambino non è un gomitolo di lana da sgomitolare, ma la parte del complesso mondo storico su cui l’ambiente e la società esercitano la loro coercizione”. “The child is not a ball of yarn to be unwound, but part of a complex historical world in which the environment is a society that exercises its own coercions.” Under progressivism, the children of the rich would continue to possess the knowledge they needed to wield the levers of power (because they would always have multiple opportunities for bookish learning), while the children of the poor would remain in their subordinate poverty.

Hence, what was needed, Gramsci said was a single “formative school” for all students rich or poor that would stress foundational knowledge in literature, science, history and the arts, in a demanding common curriculum. Only in later grades should there be practical trainings in technical and job related subjects. What Gramsci was in fact proposing was the American Common-School idea of the 19th century. And in fact his scuola formativaunica is sometimes translated as “common school.”

In sum, Gramsci favored the kind of knowledge-based schooling that Michael Gove is proposing. He would also favor the Common Core State Standards in the United States, so long as these were implemented as a specific knowledge-based curriculum, and were freed from the anti-intellectual and socially retrograde effects of what Gramsci disdainfully called “teoria dello sgomitolamento”—“the unravelling theory,” best translated as “constructivism”—the anti-broad knowledge, anti-guided learning theory that still dominates many teacher training schools in the United States.