E. D. Hirsch Jr. has spent the past dozen years of his life "pursuing technical research in the teaching of reading and writing" as a way of halting the decline in literacy in America.

It was a wasted 12 years, the University of Virginia English professor now believes. The problem wasn't what he thought it was. The decline in literacy, he has concluded, is the result of the decline in the commonly shared knowledge that we acquire in school. The problem, in short, is not mechanical but cultural.

In earlier, more literate times, America had what amounted to a "national core curriculum" for teaching English. Students everywhere were expected to have read "David Copperfield," "The Merchant of Venice," "Paradise Lost," "Silas Marner" and other "classics" before entering college. While Hirsch won't go so far as to insist on a return to those specific texts, he does think the idea of a national core curriculum is a good one.

"A rich vocabulary is not a purely technical or rote-learnable skill," Hirsch insists in an article in the current issue of the American Scholar. "Knowledge of words is an adjunct to knowledge of cultural realities signified by words, and to whole domains of experience to which words refer. And when we begin to contemplate how to teach specific knowledge, we are led back inexorably to the contents of the school curriculum, whether or not those contents are linked, as they used to be, to specific texts."

Just as you can't get very far in learning to read and write French without learning something of French culture, he says, American children cannot get very far in English without learning something of the American national culture. In other words, it was a mistake to create those rats-and-roaches texts to help inner-city youngsters toward literacy, since literacy, in Hirsch's view, includes cultural literacy.

School materials, he believes, ought to contain "unfamiliar materials that promote the 'acculturation' that is a universal part of growing up in any tribe or nation.

"Acculturation into a national literate culture might be defined as learning what the 'common reader' of a newspaper in a literate culture could be expected to know. That would include knowledge of certain values (whether or not one accepted them), and knowledge of such things as (for example) the First Amendment, Grant and Lee, and DNA. . . ."

Hirsch anticipates the objections, particularly from minorities, to his notion of cultural literacy. "That concept, they say, is nothing but cultural imperialism (true), which submerges cultural identities (true) and gives minority children a sense of inferiority (often true)."

But, he argues: "Literacy is not just a formal skill; it is also a political decision. The decision to want a literate society is a value-laden one that carries costs as well as advantages. . . . We can only raise our reading and writing skills --the skills that manifest themselves on the standardized tests and in increased economic opportunity--by consciously redefining and extending our cultural literacy."

It's a little like the decision of a simple farm family to send the children away to college. The advantages are significant, but the costs include a break with the old ways and the old values of the family.

Hirsch clearly considers it a good bargain.