Educating for Democracy: E.D. Hirsch's Naive Solutions

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The day after I published my first article in the Huffington Post, "Educating for Democracy," I received in the mail a copy of the Winter 2009-2010 American Educator. One of the more prominent articles was by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., "Creating a Curriculum for the American People," and it focused on the same concerns I had written about in my article. But our suggested remedies were in a number of important aspects quite different. Hirsch is the author of Cultural Literacy (1987), a very provocative critique of the American school system. He argued, among other issues, that the dominant educational philosophy which emphasized multiculturalism was depriving students of the basic information they needed to be "culturally literate."

Hirsch continues this argument in the American Educator article, maintaining there is a "core knowledge" that all school children need to learn and share in common, starting with the early years of grade school. But they are not being properly educated to be proficient in it. With this aspect of Hirsch's analysis, I couldn't agree more. In my article I emphasized the need for all Americans to know about the fundamental ideas and political components of our democracy, what Hirsch refers to as "the public sphere."

In Hirsch's criticism, however, he denigrates "progressive education" as fostering the

belief that the child-centered schooling it envisions can only be accomplished by resisting a rigorous academic curriculum and encouraging children to develop their skills using whatever content they find engaging.

Hirsch grossly distorts progressive education by calling it "the anti-curriculum movement." He further claims that most future teachers are "ideologically indoctrinated" in teachers' colleges into a narrow, pedagogically unsound methodology. However, his assumption is belied by the fact that there are many successful teachers who have somehow managed to conduct "core knowledge" classes while still believing and practicing the many varieties of "progressive education" which is by no means monolithic.

Hirsch furthermore makes one fundamental assumption that I find exceptionally naïve. Because he is more concerned about content than about the realities of pedagogical practices in today's schools, he assumes if a student is given a wealth of knowledge, especially if it's carefully and systematically presented, that that student will eventually learn and retain that content. But, unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case.

I once asked a group of students in a class in which I was teaching Native Son how many of them had learned aspects of African American history and culture. Only two raised their hands. When I asked them how many had been taught that subject, almost all raised their hands. No matter what the content, finding ways to motivate students to learn is far more challenging than conveying the material itself.

I admire Hirsch's concern that there should be high standards in the curriculum as well as careful and abundant aids for new and struggling teachers. I only wish the typical school were able to provide the resources and needed guidance to follow such a program. But many schools can't and for a variety of reasons, much of which center around poverty: dilapidated school buildings, inadequate resources, lack of strong leadership by the principal, and poorly motivated children due to an environment unsupportive of learning. Moreover, most notably absent from Hirsch's presentation is any recognition of the distorting effects that emphasis on "assessment" is having in many of the public schools in this country. The time that is being used for "test prep" and the emphasis on test scores which, in New York City, could lead to the closing of a school if no "improvement" is shown, has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in schools with low-performing students.

What is ironic about Hirsch's criticism of public education can be revealed in his motivation for becoming a reformer in the first place:

What shocked me was the discovery that . . .University of Virginia students . . . could not understand passages about Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. They had graduated from the schools of Richmond, the erstwhile capital of the Confederacy, and were ignorant of the most elementary facts of the Civil War and other basic information normally taken for granted in the United States.

But one of the reasons that students today might well be even more ignorant of "the most elementary facts of the Civil War" is due to emphasis on testing.

Hirsch attributes much of the "dumbing down" of education to the "progressive education" movement. But I would argue that if he feels he has good reason to be critical of a pedagogical system that does not properly prepare students to become good citizens, he cannot ignore the negative impact of No Child Left Behind on the narrowing of the curriculum. Even Diane Ravitch, a notable conservative educator and member of George H. W. Bush's Department of Education, has been moved to declare:

The primary strategy [of No Child Left Behind]--to test all children in those subjects [math and reading] in grades three through eight every year--has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that has reduced the time. . . for teaching other important subjects"

-- quoted in my article "Educating for Democracy," Jewish Currents (Winter 2009-2010).

If Hirsch is concerned with the future of American education as much as he seems to be, he should realize that "assessment," as it is presently being conducted in the public schools around the country, does not contribute to solving the problem; it makes it worse.