Often When Kirk Shroder, head of the Virginia Board of Education, is wrestling with major school issues, he leaves his Richmond office, climbs into his car and heads west for the hour-long drive to the ramshackle Charlottesville house of E.D. Hirsch Jr.
At 73, after more than three decades teaching at the University of Virginia, Hirsch is a professor emeritus, with the weathered, tweedy look that that implies: His hairline made its northern retreat years ago, leaving behind a smooth ocean of forehead. Born to a Shakespeare-quoting Southern businessman, educated at Ivy League universities, Hirsch listens to classical music, drinks vermouth, summers in New England -- and makes a habit of shaking up the educational establishment.
Schroder is an entertainment lawyer and a veteran politico. Nearly three years ago Virginia Gov. James Gilmore appointed Schroder to the state Board of Education and then successfully lobbied to have him named president. The job was akin to riding a bull. Parents and teachers were up in arms over the newly enacted Standards of Learning program, which sets the knowledge that Virginia children must demonstrate proficiency in -- via tests given in third, fifth and eighth grade, and in high school. The stakes were high -- by 2004 high school students who score poorly on those tests would not be allowed to graduate.
So it was not surprising that one of Schroder's first calls in his new post was to Hirsch, sometimes known as the father of the SOLs. "I wanted a gut check from someone who had played a major role in developing the theories behind these policies," Schroder recalls. A lunch followed, and then another. There have been many more since, often featuring lasagna and red wine, with the conversation sometimes flowing until near dusk.
That Hirsch wields such influence with the Virginia board is a sign of the wackiness of education politics these days. Not long ago, he was a marginal figure peddling theories denounced as elitist and ethnocentric. In a 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, he accused schools of a sort of malpractice for failing to teach "brute facts" -- names, dates, events and concepts. For a core curriculum, he proposed a list of some 5,000 facts "every American needs to know" -- from acrophobia through Mozart to Zurich.
Though Cultural Literacy vaulted onto bestseller lists, reviewers savaged Hirsch as a cultural aristocrat eager to foist on schools the Western canon and a narrow, elitist curriculum. Suspicion ran particularly high in the education community; the Harvard Educational Review in 1988 identified Hirsch as part of a conspiracy by "right-wing intellectuals and ruling groups to undermine the basis of democratic public life." Never mind that Hirsch describes himself as a card-carrying liberal. Never mind that he is an abortion-rights, gun-control Democrat. And never mind that he intended Cultural Literacy to help educators understand why disadvantaged kids often do worse in school than their peers.
Today, nearly 15 years after this contentious debut as a school reformer, Hirsch has become an intellectual bigfoot with considerable influence over the education establishment that once demonized him. More than 600 schools nationwide use the "core knowledge" curriculum, which was derived from Cultural Literacy in the early 1990s with the help of hundreds of educators and specialists. The core knowledge program, which is designed for use in kindergarten through eighth grade, is a departure from curricula common in many elementary schools, which tend to stress knowing about one's family, neighborhood and region or city. For example, first-graders are introduced to such subjects as America's colonization, the Aztecs, Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," early jazz and the solar system. Eighth-graders study Greek and Roman mythology, the Cold War, algebra and 20th-century sculpture, among other topics.
A series of books spun off from the core knowledge curriculum is a hit with parents, having sold 2 million copies. And Hirsch's ideas are embraced by such polar opposites as conservative William Bennett, secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, and liberal Washington Post columnist William Raspberry. Most important, perhaps, Hirsch is the theorist of choice for Schroder and others in the standards movement, which has left few schools untouched and features President Bush as its chief advocate.
Eric Donald Hirsch Jr. arrived at U-Va. in 1966 as a 38-year-old rising star in psycholinguistics and literature scholarship, his resume featuring a Yale PhD (via Cornell), a Fulbright Fellowship and two books, including an award-winning analysis of William Blake's poetry. Within a few years, he had secured an idyllic perch in the ivory tower, with an endowed chair at the university and a post as a senior fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But Hirsch's life changed one day in 1978. At the time, he and a few U-Va. colleagues were conducting studies to pinpoint stylistic differences in writing that affect a reader's comprehension. For most of the research, they tested U-Va. students, assigning them to read various essays and then measuring their speed and comprehension. On this day, however, Hirsch moved the experiment to a community college in Richmond. Given a paper about friendship, students there read with roughly the same fluency and understanding as the U-Va. students. But on a passage comparing Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, they stumbled. Many of them, it became clear, had no clue who Grant and Lee were.
"The implications of this were explosive," Hirsch recalls. Reading, he concluded after further research, requires more than just the technical task of decoding words. It also demands background knowledge of facts, names, dates and concepts that act as "mental Velcro" to help the mind glean information. Kids who live comfortably with educated parents generally pick up this knowledge around the house, but children in poverty who lack parental resources often depend on schools. And schools, Hirsch concluded, weren't doing the job. Teachers, he believed, had been brainwashed by education school professors enamored of the theories of turn-of-the-20th-century scholar John Dewey and saw students as flowers to be nurtured. As a result, Hirsch argued, the curricula had been drained of substance -- literature classics, world history and the like -- and filled instead with "cafeteria-style" studies offering everything from hobbies to work to sports to esteem-building courses.
Hirsch wrote a few essays outlining his theories and figured that would be the end of his dalliance with school reform. But he says his "Southern guilt" kept him at it -- for his own personal historical reasons. Born in Memphis, the son of a prosperous cotton broker, Hirsch says he grew up in a family that, when confronted with racial prejudice, largely looked the other way.
Hirsch says he awoke to the legalized racism of the Jim Crow South upon reading, at age 16, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, the 1944 analysis of "the Negro problem" that rattled the country's conscience. "It had to be a book that got me out of the confines of Memphis values," Hirsch explains. "In the South back then, you grew up in a world where racism was automatic and rampant, and you didn't know any other world. You had to get some voice from some other world to call your attention to it."
Nearly 35 years later, on that memorable day at the Richmond community college, Hirsch saw a subtle kind of discrimination Myrdal would never have imagined: "The kids who knew the background knowledge, the U-Va. students, were all white, and the students who
didn't know these things, from the community college, were black. These kids had been cheated."
When Cultural Literacy was released in 1987, however, Hirsch's good intentions were lost in the furor over its compendium of facts every American should know. The publisher had embargoed the book until a Hirsch talk at a conference of education writers, which put the nervous first-time commercial author on stage before scores of reporters. He recalls: "The Associated Press guy got up and said, 'Well, I'm just wondering: Why don't you have Cinco de Mayo on the list?' "
Hirsch, ignorant of the huge May 5 Mexican holiday that's celebrated by millions in the United States, drew a blank. "I'm afraid I don't know what that is," he replied.
His answer, and the resulting wire story, provided ample fodder for critics who saw Hirsch's ideas as Eurocentric and primitive. To Hirsch's surprise, he was blasted in reviews. "I got angry when a magazine like the Nation would attack Cultural Literacy," Hirsch says. "I thought that the Nation was trying to help the proletariat. I thought I was trying to help the proletariat."
Within the budding standards movement, however, Cultural Literacy was a hit. These were people who, like Hirsch, worried about a flabby curriculum and argued that schools must define the knowledge kids need to learn. In Cultural Literacy, they found a manifesto. "It was an argument that cut to the bone," recalls Matt Gandal of the pro-standards group Achieve.
An early champion of Hirsch's ideas was Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 until his death in 1997. Shanker, an intellectual who read voraciously and stocked a small wine cellar in his office, discovered a kinship of the mind with Hirsch; upon their first meeting, over dinner in 1985, the two found they had a common interest in Albert Korzybski, an obscure German scholar. But the friendship they developed rested on more. Years earlier, in 1968, Shanker had led New York City teachers on a two-month strike over the dismissal of several white teachers during a racially charged feud. The union chief, despite a civil rights record that included sit-ins and marches, was vilified as a bigot -- just as Hirsch would be later. "Here were these two people with a passion for equality,
equity and civil rights, and both had been called racists," says Elizabeth McPike, former editor of the AFT's American Educator and a friend of both men. "That is something that bound them together, on an emotional and intellectual level."
Thanks in large part to Shanker, the standards movement took wing in the 1990s. Before his death from cancer, he was arguably the most influential person in education, and he threw the might of his 900,000-member teachers federation behind the effort to persuade states to establish exactly what kids should know and be able to do. Time and again, Shanker declared that Hirsch had got it right. "The thrust of Hirsch's proposal is egalitarian," Shanker once wrote. "He believes that by starting early and by giving all children the same core knowledge to learn, we can prevent the creation of an educational underclass."
Hirsch critics -- and there are many still -- contend there's nothing egalitarian about drumming a prescribed set of knowledge into kids. Hirsch, they say, exaggerates John Dewey's influence in schools and bases his theories on poor, marginal research. "He frequently tries to get away with a statistical sleight of hand," education author Alfie Kohn writes in The Schools Our Children Deserve.
Anti-Hirsch forces also denounce the core knowledge curriculum, claiming it's no more enriching than a game of Trivial Pursuit. Even those who favor a facts-based approach say core knowledge doesn't work for everyone. Maryland's Calvert County, whose school system in 1995 became the nation's first to adopt the curriculum for all its elementary schools, is phasing it out. Core knowledge was not preparing Calvert's kids for the skills and knowledge demanded by Maryland educational standards, says Carol Reid, the county's assistant superintendent of instruction. "Trying to fit all that into the 180 days of school seemed kind of ludicrous."
Still, legions of parents and teachers have embraced Hirsch's ideas in the past decade. Early last spring, about 2,500 people braved a blizzard to attend the 10th Core Knowledge National Conference in Boston. Many of them lugged along Hirsch books, which the professor obligingly autographed.
Among those at the conference were several staffers from Anacostia's M.C. Terrell Elementary. A five-story, tan-brick building, Terrell is home to 286 students, nearly all of them African Americans living in poverty. Three years ago, low test scores sent the school hunting for reform models. Though most core knowledge schools are suburban, Terrell leaders were impressed by the program's track record in Baltimore and San Antonio. Eventually, 85 percent of Terrell's teachers voted to adopt core knowledge. "I read about the controversy" over Hirsch and his ideas, says special education teacher Easter Nowlin, "but then I read further, dug deeper. I also thought back on my educational experiences. The children today really aren't getting a lot of the stuff that you used to get. They know nothing about anything except their small community right here in Southeast Washington, D.C."
So far, Terrell officials say, Hirsch's ideas seem to be a good fit. Before core knowledge, the curriculum was vague, leaving everyone guessing as to what was important. Now, teachers can focus on how to teach, which they say leads to more creativity, not less. Classrooms visibly spill over with core knowledge -- related artwork, including papier-mache Egyptian pyramids, cardboard African masks and dioramas of Pilgrim settlements.
Talking one recent morning about his newfound acceptance, Hirsch slouches in a chair in his house's small library, the cuffs of his pants riding high to reveal the skinny, pale legs you'd expect from a man his age. He is skeptical that schools will improve until university education schools change, and he says they're still hostile to his ideas. Until he retired earlier this year, Hirsch had been teaching at U-Va.'s Curry School of Education, but even there he felt something of a marked man. Last spring, for instance, when a PhD candidate, a protege of Hirsch, tried to assemble an advisory board of Curry professors to evaluate his dissertation on core knowledge effectiveness, he had some difficulty. One professor, citing Hirsch's involvement, flat-out refused. "I feel I have to be on my guard around here because of whom I'm aligned with," says the PhD candidate, Freddie D. Smith, a former Prince George's County teacher and administrator.
Still, Hirsch knows he's come a long way. He chuckles at the fact that his allies include Bush and the American Federation Teachers, two forces that agree on little. "To be liked by the Bushies and by the AFT -- there's something peculiar going on," he says.
Indeed, Hirsch's influence in schools points to the ongoing realignment in education politics.
Whereas the traditional Democratic coalition once was united against vouchers, many liberals now tout them as a cure for failing schools. Teachers unions that used to fight charter schools as a right-wing conspiracy today run charters of their own. Republicans, too, are taking unusual stands. Not long ago, the GOP wanted to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Now congressional Republicans are throwing money at it. "We're talking today in education about being both progressive and pragmatic," explains James Watts of the Southern Regional Education Board. "It is Bill Clinton, it is New Democrat, it is Third Way politics. It's George Bush."
And it's E.D. Hirsch Jr. A little more than a year ago, as Kirk Schroder plotted the first major revisions to Virginia's SOLs since their inception four years ago, he asked Hirsch to write a newspaper op-ed piece backing the changes.
At the time, Hirsch wasn't happy with the first version of the standards; its authors botched some things, he says, particularly the testing program. "It's a big mistake to do something that is so draconian with the standards that you flunk one-third of the kids" -- as has happened in some states. But Hirsch also worried that Schroder's changes -- which proposed, among other things, allowing high school students who failed an SOL test to graduate if they scored well on a related Advanced Placement test -- didn't go far enough.
He eventually decided that Schroder's package of changes represented the middle ground and endorsed them in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, calling the standards movement "our best hope for higher achievement and greater social justice." And in the end, when the board passed the revisions, it was partly due to a boost from a man once seen as public enemy No. 1 in education.
Drew Lindsay is a features editor at Washingtonian magazine.