By Jay Mathews
Sunday, August 30, 2009
THE MAKING OF AMERICANS
Democracy and Our Schools
By E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
Yale Univ. 261 pp. $25
It's not easy being E. D. Hirsch, Jr. If the inventive 81-year-old had been a business leader or politician or even a school superintendent, his fight to give U.S. children rich lessons in their shared history and culture would have made him a hero among his peers. Instead, he chose to be an English professor, at the unlucky moment when academic fashion declared the American common heritage to be bunk and made people like Hirsch into pariahs.
In this intriguing, irresistible book, Hirsch tells of life as the odd man out at the University of Virginia. Twelve years ago, for instance, he decided to give a course at the university's education school. As a bestselling author and leader of a national movement to improve elementary school teaching, he thought students would flock to hear him. Instead, he rarely got more than 10 a year. Be grateful for that many, one student told him. They had all been warned by the education faculty not to have anything to do with someone demanding that all students take prescribed courses in world and American history.
Those who consider Hirsch an aged crank who wants to stuff public schools into a jingoistic straitjacket should read this book. So should those who think our children need more and better instruction in their historical and literary roots. He lays it all out for foe and friend to judge, in the clearest form since his ground-breaking 1987 book, "Cultural Literacy."
"The Making of Americans" puts the most troublesome elementary school subject, reading, at the center of its argument. Reading achievement and language proficiency generally have been disappointing for decades, particularly in schools full of the children of immigrant or impoverished parents. Progressives have called for engaging students with lessons that celebrate their real lives and their cultural heritages. Old books about dead white guys don't hack it, they say. Hirsch's research convinced him that this approach cut children off from the shared background they all must have to understand the words in front of them.
Unlike many academics, Hirsch proved to be a man of deeds as well as words. The Core Knowledge curriculum he created in 1986 is used in more than 1,000 schools and preschools in 47 states. First graders learn, among other things, about the history of world religions, Mayan civilization and Capt. John Smith. Second graders tackle Asian geography, Robert E. Lee and Eleanor Roosevelt. Their reading scores are often impressive, proof of Hirsch's central thesis that children cannot properly comprehend what words mean unless they know more about each word's context.
Unfortunately, Hirsch's work has been distorted and his views vilified by the education school professorate, who see him as an Orwellian Minister of Truth, drilling Americanisms into tender young brains. But Hirsch is guilty of distorting his opponents' influence, too. There is little credible evidence, for instance, that the progressive admirers of educational philosopher John Dewey, who think each child's personal perspective trumps the old classics, ever had much effect on what has been taught in real classrooms. Hirsch says the decline of SAT scores in the 1960s and '70s shows the harm done by Prof. Dewey's minions, but he fails to explain why we should make much of old results from an unrepresentative test. He blames the progressives' abandonment of a definite academic curriculum for leaving American teenage test scores behind most of the developed world. But he says little about our 9--year-olds doing quite well in international tests. Stanford education historian David F. Labaree's conclusion that public schools have largely shunned Dewey's ideas and methods as impractical and irrelevant comes much closer to what I have seen in 58 years as a public school student, parent and reporter.
I notice that the educators running many of our most successful public schools are using Hirsch's curriculum, or something like it. The new state tests push schools in the same direction. We already have an unofficial, Hirsch-like national curriculum, enforced by college entrance standards and enriched by the rise of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate in high schools.
But to Hirsch, that's not good enough. He pleads for a coherent, content-based, multi-year curriculum right now to save our democracy from factionalism, inequality and incompetence. If he reread some of the history he wants our fourth graders to learn, he would remember that change doesn't work that way in the good old U.S.A. We have improved math and science instruction, but only in fits and starts. If his Core Knowledge curriculum is as powerful as it seems, schools will continue to adopt it in great numbers, maybe even make it the national standard. But that will only happen in our typically slow and practical American way, one reason why that progressive revolution never got very far.
Jay Mathews is The Post's education columnist. His new book is "Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America."