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 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.