You Can’t Really Call It “Education” If You Aren’t Teaching Enough Facts

E. D. Hirsch, who wrote the bestselling book “Cultural Literacy” in the 1980s, seems to have been validated by education reform in Massachusetts over the last 15 years.

His belief—which I completely agree with—is that background facts are an important piece of the educational puzzle, especially as opposed to the popular practice of teaching reading and writing as skills, completely disconnected from the world around us, and from our history.

His Core Knowledge curriculum, for example, specifies:

… in English language arts, all second-graders read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as stories by Rudyard Kipling, E. B. White, and Hans Christian Andersen. In history and geography, the children study the world’s great rivers, ancient Rome, and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, among other subjects.

Today’s high school and college students have great difficulty writing effectively, and comprehending what they read (ask any college or high school teacher). I’ll join Mr. Hirsch in blaming that on the fateful decision to abandon in the early school years both the emphasis on facts, and on reading great literature about real people and places from history.

Context matters. History matters. Knowing what came before us matters. And it all matters in very real ways, not just in being good at Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit.

Hirsch on educating the poor:

“Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

He’s right, and we know he’s right because we used to educate our children with more practical knowledge, as he advocates, and we didn’t have poor performance in our students that we see today.

But even though his system works, and he can prove it, Education schools have worked hard to discredit him. Hmmm. Whose interests are being served there?

Education schools have been experimenting on our children for decades, and it is not working.

More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be “critical thinkers” and teach them to “learn how to learn,” defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. Hirsch had spent the better part of the decade since Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics on which teaching methods best promote student learning. The scientific consensus showed that schools could not raise student achievement by letting students construct their own knowledge. The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students—the very opposite of what the progressives promoted.

Please read the whole thing. I’ve just barely scratched the surface here.

Frankly, it comes down to a debate between what the Founding Fathers wanted, and what today’s Ed schools want. Do we really have to ponder that question for long? I know I don’t.

The future of our children depends, at least in part, on our understanding of (1) why we are failing to educate our children adequately, and (2) how to address it. E.D. Hirsch seems to have a pretty good handle on it. Will he continue to be largely ignored?

Bill Ayers has more legitimacy in Ed schools than a genuine educator like E.D. Hirsch. This tells us a lot. And frankly, it makes me ill.