The Magazine

Firmer Foundation

Curriculum as a source of national unity, equality, and strength.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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The Making of Americans

Democracy and Our Schools

by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Yale, 288 pp., $25

President Obama has promised billions in stimulus funds to states that strengthen standards and improve testing results. Pricey and pragmatic, the incentives may help overcome lingering institutional resistance to No Child Left Behind. But if our ambitions extend beyond the hope that Johnny will master Captain Underpants by the fifth grade, and Manuel will complete two years of high school before he drops out, we need something more than a testing regime to guide our progress.

Enter E.D. Hirsch Jr., the dogged and prescient reformer who has been working on the next big step in curriculum reform for more than two decades. This fascinating new book provides an evidence-based argument for the adoption of a strong, national K-8 core curriculum as the best foundation for college-level academic achievement, and the surest way to compensate for the cultural and linguistic deficits that contribute to school failure.

The Making of Americans covers a spectrum of topics: from American educational philosophy and linguistics to public policy and the culture wars. Hirsch is at his best when he guides readers through the mechanics of reading comprehension, pulling apart newspaper stories and textbook passages to show how "reading and writing require unspoken background knowledge silently assumed." If we want to produce strong readers and writers, he declares, "we cannot take a laissez-faire attitude to the content of early schooling. .  .  . We [must] specify much of that content." Though Americans may assume that such a curriculum is already in place, only a handful of states actually have moved toward standardizing the precise, grade-by-grade knowledge required to prepare students for the challenges of high school and beyond.

As Hirsch tells it, the founding fathers, and most prominent 19th-century educators, would disapprove of our weak, unfocused classroom routines. They expected the "common school" to emerge as a fulcrum of national unity and social equity. Rigorous instruction in grammar, history, and civic virtues would make the common school a proving ground for democratic coexistence, engendering a love of country and civic engagement within a "multiethnic" society.

The American political experiment, which left everyone undisturbed in their private sphere, depended on a common public sphere that only the schools could create .  .  . a shared domain where all these different groups could meet as equals on common ground.

That sober vision held steady until the 1930s, when educators began to introduce a series of untested -pedagogical theories and practices into American classrooms, gradually denuding the curriculum of its academic rigor and setting up students for failure in high school, when textbooks assume a level of knowledge students may not possess.

Hirsch has traversed some of this ground before. In 1988 his best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know warned of a disastrous generational decline in the basic knowledge of literature, history, science, and civic traditions that threatened our capacity to maintain a robust public debate on matters of national import. Over the past two decades, his Core Knowledge Foundation spearheaded the development of a precise K-8 sequence and inspired a national network of public and private schools that follow the guidelines.

Today, as Washington presses the states to close the achievement gap between mainstream and underprivileged students, this new book is designed to establish the connection between equality of opportunity and a national core curriculum that follows a predicable sequence taught throughout the land. At first glance, its thesis doesn't seem especially remarkable: While middle-class parents can and do find ways to compensate for their child's watered-down curriculum, poor and immigrant parents may lack the educational or linguistic background to do the same. Moreover, if general knowledge facilitates the mastery of more complex facts and skills, it follows that a robust core curriculum will have a beneficial impact on the achievement of disadvantaged students.

The rub--as Hirsch, a self-described political liberal, ruefully observes--is that the "tacit knowledge" that underpins adult literacy remains relatively "inert" and inherently "traditional." No surprise that the progressive scholars who set the agenda at our graduate schools of education oppose Hirsch's common core as a rear-guard effort to restore the Western canon and traditional pedagogical practices. In fact, of course, the K-8 Core Knowledge Sequence mandates the study of -African-American authors and non-Western cultures and history, and Hirsch is open to a variety of instructional methods. But detractors are right to be suspicious: His proposal upends 80 years of educational fads, from the "anti-curriculum" movement, which embraced indirect, "natural" methods of transmitting knowledge, to the retreat from "rote memorization" and grammar instruction, to the replacement of classic tales of history and fiction with multicultural pabulum.

Beyond the academy, Hirsch's critics have argued that the speed of change virtually guarantees the obsolescence of any established curriculum: Elementary school class time would be better spent practicing "21st-century skills" such as "critical thinking." Hirsch responds that the mastery of skills arises through systematic engagement with material that illuminates human -existence and reveals how the world works.

Casting a backward glance at the founders, Hirsch suggests that their vision of a "common school" was forged by a profound "anxiety" regarding the future of their beloved, but fragile, republic. During much of the 20th century, our ready embrace of new pedagogical fads reflected a deepening complacency regarding the nation's political and social stability. Hirsch's salutary message reminds us that the state of the union is irrevocably linked to the health of our schools. This remarkable book provides a wealth of ideas, research, and programs that can help us unleash the full revolutionary power of the common school.

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.