The Schools We Need And Why We Don't Have Them

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
New York: Doubleday, 1996
317 pp., $24.95 hc

Paul Trout

Last spring, half the students in my lower-division writing course could not place the American Revolution in the right century, and only three knew the date of the Russian Revolution, with 15 leaving the line completely blank. I now encounter honors students who do not know basic rules of punctuation, and English majors so orthographically challenged that they think (and I do not make this up) that erratic is spelled "irradic," pessimistic "pecimistic," emphasizing "infasizing," hierarchy "higherarky," schizophrenia "skitsofrenia," usually "usealy," and who boast "I am a verbial and visual comunicator."

A recent survey of 3,000 Ivy League students found that many did not know enough to pass the exam for U. S. citizenship. Now over a third of today's college freshmen require remediation, even at prestigious Ivy-League universities, all of whom now maintain remedial centers for writing and mathematics, and in some cases for reading. Counting remedial courses does not reveal the full extent of the problem: many introductory college courses have become functionally remedial, reteaching large amounts of the high-school curriculum on the assumption that little or nothing can be assumed about students' knowledge or skills.

To find out why primary and secondary education is producing such students, there is no better place to start than E. D. Hirsch's sober and fact-filled The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. While it makes the same incisive case against progressive education made by the redoubtable Charles Sykes in Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add (1995), Hirsch's book focuses less on teachers and more on professors of education, and provides a more research-rooted critique of progressive theories and practices.

According to Hirsch, our schools produce intellectual anorexics because the educational establishment has a "deep aversion to and contempt for factual knowledge" and for the mastery of subject matter: "It is not too much to say that an antiknowledge attitude is the defining element in the worldview of many early-childhood educators and reformers" (54). This bizarre form of anti-intellectualism, Hirsch contends, has been the "status quo" for almost 60 years, either under the guise of "home economics" and "shop" or, more recently, under the guise of "critical thinking"and "problem-solving skills" (113). A recent report published by Public Agenda (Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education, 1997) provides a powerful statistical portrait of the "thoughtworld" assailed by Hirsch.

In this "thoughtworld," it is assumed that to challenge kids academically is "unnatural," that teachers do not need to know the subjects they teach, and that learning should emphasize "process" over the facts taught. In this "thoughtworld," any attempt to teach kids information or "mere facts" is condemned as soul-killing "rote learning," perhaps "the most disparaging phrase in the educationists' glossary" (59). Parents who complain that their children can't spell are told, "So what? We now have spell-checks."

Educationists, of course, do not consider themselves foes of factual knowledge, only foes of disconnected and useless factual knowledge. But, as Hirsch points out, this distinction does not really amount to much, since educationists view almost all teaching and learning of facts and information as inherently useless, tedious, and repressive. Beguiled by invidious polarities of their own manufacture, educationists simply cannot believe that the study of "factually rich subject matter could, while requiring hard work, also be interesting, even captivating--not to mention morally beneficial and skill-enhancing" (56).

If the all-purpose metacognitive skills championed by educationists actually could be learned independent of subject matter, Hirsch admits, then education would indeed be a snap because children could learn everything they needed to know no matter what they studied! (21). But the problem with this "tool" approach is that it doesn't work, at least not in the pure form advocated by so-called progressive educators. Long ago research showed that the study of Latin doesn't teach thinking, just Latin, and all mainstream research into cognitive development and the acquisition of critical-thinking skills insists that those skills are learned as the result of intense study of specific subject domains.

Hirsch also admits that hands-on holistic projects that intrinsically motivate children often are useful in helping students learn how to work together, but they are not effective in teaching kids such fundamental things as standard grammar, spelling, phonics, the multiplication table, as well as other crucial skills and subjects (86).

That the "process" and "skills" orientation of progressive education is not working should be obvious to educationists from the poor showing of American students on national and international tests over several decades. But the mounting evidence has had little impact on educationists themselves, who--thanks to a number of denial strategies examined by Hirsch (70-71)--avoid seeing any connection between their own "antiknowledge attitudes and the current academic incompetence of our students as measured by world standards." For them, poor students are produced by the "culture," and little can be done to remedy the problem until taxpayers invest yet more money in the school system. Few indeed are willing to admit that there could be "a possible causal relation between lack of factual knowledge and lack of ability to read, write, and solve math problems" (57):

No professor at any American education school is going to advocate pro-rote learning, profact, or proverbal pedagogy. Since there is only one true belief, expressed in one constantly repeated catechism, the heretical suggestion that the creed itself might be faulty cannot be uttered. To question progressive doctrine would be to put in doubt the identity of the educational profession itself. Its foundational premise is that progressive principles are right. Being that, they cannot possibly be the cause of educational ineffectiveness. (69)

One of the most powerful and damning claims Hirsch makes in The Schools We Need is that the antiknowledge and anti-subject-matter biases of the educational establishment have had a disproportionately disastrous impact on kids from poor backgrounds.

Here's why: since the ability to learn something new depends on the ability to accommodate the new knowledge to the already known, kids from homes where much is taught enter school with more "enabling relevant prior knowledge" (23) than do kids from culturally impoverished homes (often, of course, low-income homes). Blessed with this rich fund of "cultural capital," with the mental Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, kids from better-off homes more easily turn the new knowledge they encounter in school into still more mental Velcro to gain still more knowledge. In contrast, kids who arrive at school lacking the relevant experience and vocabulary fall further and further behind, suffering a relentless string of humiliations that eventually rob them of the energy and motivation to learn (20). After just a few years of schooling, the "small early deficits or advantages in intellectual capital build to insuperable gaps" (227; 45).

These gaps can be minimized, if not quite ever obliterated (214), Hirsch argues, when schools give culturally deprived kids the common intellectual capital needed to succeed in school and society. "To enhance the knowledge of those who come from underprivileged homes, it is necessary to teach all students in a focused and direct way the knowledge which the children of privilege gain indirectly by constant exposure and repetition at home." "[I]t is the duty of schools to provide each child with the knowledge and skills requisite for academic progress--regardless of home background" (24).

But, of course, this is precisely what modern education has been unable or unwilling to do, with terrible consequences for the poor. The pernicious notion of "developmentally appropriate" material, for example, which holds that information should be actively withheld from children until they are "ready" to learn it (one grade school principal quoted by Hirsch asserts that it is developmentally inappropriate to expose 1st graders to the Eiffel Tower [55]), winds up contributing to widening the gap between social classes (91), for knowledge cannot be withheld from the children of merchants and the children of peasants with the same results (113; 43). "An emphasis on general mind-training skills at the expense of book learning has resulted, as developmentalism has, in depriving disadvantaged children of needed knowledge" (114), "all but nullifying the bright promise of school integration and the civil rights movement" (21).

To cover up the mounting evidence of their educational malpractice, progressive educators have inflated grades, institutionalized the social pass, interpreted standardized test scores differentially according to race and social class, challenged the validity of the tests or abandoned them altogether (208), and championed all kinds of other feel-good strategies (from scapegoating rhetoric about "racism" to blind faith in "self-esteem"). The anodynes do nothing to actually raise the academic achievement of social, ethnic, and racial groups (101). The reason is obvious: the only thing that works in the real world for all groups is "achieved competency, however gained" (207). Because inferior education is today the primary cause of social and economic injustice, according to Hirsch, the struggle for successful schools and productive educational practices is the new frontier in the continuing battle for civil rights (43).

So, educators who really want to pursue this civil-rights agenda, Hirsch challenges, had better "oppose progressive educational ideas," which "have led to practical failure and greater social inequality," and embrace "conservative educational policies," which have proven to be the only practical way to achieve liberalism's aim of greater social justice (6). In making this recommendation, Hirsch is echoing Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist and education critic of the 1930s, who recognized that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism, that the best way to liberate the oppressed classes is to teach them "to master the tools of power and authority--the ability to read, write, and communicate--and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them" (7), as Gramsci himself had learned to do. "History has proved Gramsci to be a better theorist and prophet than Freire" (7). The Schools We Need is dedicated to Gramsci.

An "educational pragmatist," Hirsch bases his recommendations for improving education on what really works, as demonstrated by hundreds of years of trial and error, the experience of other nations (from China and Japan to France and England), and the findings of mainstream research. "Throughout the world, just one way has been devised to meet the double challenge of educational excellence and fairness: to teach definite skills and a solid core of content appropriate in an effective manner in each year of preschool and grade-school education" (47).

To help every student gain the essential intellectual capital that will narrow the gap between classes, Hirsch recommends that schools develop truly effective preschool programs so that all kids come to school with the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills others in the first-grade community already have; offer remedial education or "compensatory measures" as soon as possible; expose kids early to challenging and stimulating academic experiences; teach "core knowledge" (civics, science, the arts, and the humanities); emphasize language skills (reading, vocabulary building, writing); teach the procedural knowledge of mathematics; instill consensus values such as civic duty, honesty, diligence, perseverance, respect, kindness, and independent-mindedness; institute a national content-oriented curriculum with explicit grade-by-grade requirements that all must meet; use national and local objective tests to motivate students and to monitor compliance to and success of the program; and, raise standards to induce an accomplishment-through-work mentality.

Hirsch also urges Colleges of Education to abandon their commitment to stultifying theories and practices that clearly don't work ("No! they do work, the problem is they have never been properly tried!") and to give future teachers "nuts-and-bolts pedagogical training" in methods that help kids gain the information, facts, skills, and knowledge they will need in the various aspects of their lives.

This analysis of Hirsch's main argument does not convey the richness or subtlety of his book, which discusses an impressive range of topics: the ideological roots of progressive education's "naturalistic fallacies" in the Romantic movement; the reason educators in the 1920s embraced those "naturalistic fallacies;" the crucial role played by William Heard Kilpatrick at Teachers College, Columbia University (not John Dewey), in creating an absurdly nontraditional approach to pedagogy--"progressivism"--to answer the psychological needs of an emergent profession tormented by "chronic status deprivation" (115) and the ridicule of subject-matter disciplines; the reliance of educationists on congenial research produced within the insular world of Colleges of Education; and, the proper uses and merits of objective tests ("the principal unfairness connected with testing consists in a failure to prepare students adequately for the competencies for which they are to be tested" [210]), etc.

Although The Schools We Need is informative and provocative, it is not without, I think, some minor flaws. First of all, the book is a bit stodgily written, with many sentences overpacked with abstractions ("We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked minds conversant with individual subject matters like history and biology" [216]). For another, Hirsch does not provide cogent or convincing evidence (no statistics, no surveys, etc.) for his important claim that subject-matter-learning has declined during the last six or seven decades (50-51). Nor does Hirsch give enough serious attention to educational reforms such as school choice, vouchers, home-schooling, magnet schools, and contracting the operation of schools to private (not-for-profit or for-profit) organizations--that do not fit his own core-knowledge model of public education ("Charter and Choice: Yes, but What Choice").

More seriously, Hirsch may overestimate the possibility of reforming public education. Although he has little hope for reforming the "impregnable fortress" of the educational establishment from within, he believes that it does lie within the powers of the press to tear down the intellectual bulwark that has frustrated system-wide reform for so many decades; but the press--even if it agreed that the educational system is collapsing--would have to reach consensus on which reforms would repair it and then convince millions of citizens to demand the same reforms. What are the chances of that, especially when knee-jerk conservatives oppose any reform with the word "national" in it, and knee-jerk liberals oppose any reform with the word "test" in it (as Chester Finn remarked).

And ideology aside, Hirsch, I think, overestimates the popular desire for "better"--read more rigorous--schools. According to Peter Schrag, in "The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools" (The Atlantic Monthly, October 1997, 72-80), the real question is whether Americans actually want an educational system more demanding than the one they now have. How many parents really want schools to be more difficult for their own sons and daughters? How many will defend standardized tests when their kids flunk them? How many want schools to toss out athletics and focus on academics? We should not forget that 70 percent of parents think that their kids' schools are doing just fine.

Hirsch also is reticent to acknowledge the extent to which the pedagogical assumptions of educationists may be tied to their political beliefs. It is no accident that that establishment has long described its educational philosophy as "progressive," the same self-flattering label used by left-of-center social reformers to characterize their agenda. The leftist orientation of Schools of Education has been explored by Paul Hollander in his thoroughly researched book entitled Anti-American: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-1990 (Oxford University Press, 1992, esp. 191-96). Hollander finds in today's educational orthodoxy the "major values of the 60s: opposition to hierarchy, differentiation, and knowledge-based authority; a visceral egalitarianism and collectivism; and belief in the limitless potential of all" (191).

I raise this issue because the fervor with which educationists embrace their pedagogical theories may now have more to do with an almost religious commitment to social ideals favored by the left than with misapplied or misconstrued research. If their educational policies are expressions of their politics ("We need to have children who are producers of knowledge instead of reproducers of knowledge," says Bruce Goldberg, co-director of the American Federation of Teachers' Center for Restructuring, in Hollander, 191), this would mean that empirical considerations will have little impact on those for whom "progressive education" is part and parcel of a "progressive" worldview that has often proven itself essentially invulnerable to pragmatic, real-world considerations. In short, the chances of reforming these always-reforming educational reformers is far bleaker than Hirsch is willing to admit (see Stanley Pogrow, "Reforming the Wannabe Reformers: Why Education Reforms Almost Always End Up Making Things Worse," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1996, 656-53). Since the press embraces essentially the same social agenda as the educational establishment, it is naive to think of it as "the best agency for challenging the intellectual status quo" (68).

Hirsch's indictment of primary and secondary education raises crucial issues for college professors. How much longer will our colleges--particularly land-grant colleges--be credible institutions of higher learning when so many students who now enter them--and who will eventually staff them--are so ill-prepared? As Hirsch warns, "we cannot permanently maintain a K-12 intellectual deficit any more than we can permanently maintain a negative trade balance" (59-60).

What Hirsch's book makes clear is that college instructors are not so much dealing with students who have "different" needs or some sort of post-modern sensibility (as Peter Sacks argues in Generation X Goes to College [1996]), but with students who have been relentlessly dumbed down, bored, and intellectually impoverished, and therefore robbed of an inherently human desire to learn. Although many argue that it is time for higher education to learn how to accommodate such students, it strikes me as perverse and irresponsible to do so, since that would lead, as it is already doing, to replicating the same pernicious practices that created the problem in the first place: low standards, therapeutic egalitarianism, increasingly watered-down content, patronizing tolerance of poor performance, etc.

As mounds of research and the experience of reform programs show, the only way to meliorate the injuries that have been done to our students is to provide them with intellectually challenging standards and material, even as we search for more effective ways to "stimulate" their suppressed "interest" in their own learning. We must give these students extra time and attention, and develop successful ways of getting them to strive and to achieve, but we must not bend to their low expectations or stultified appetite for knowledge. If we do otherwise, we are only going to make the problem worse. Until the system of primary and secondary education produces more students ready in every way to pursue and benefit from the demands of college instruction, we must resist taking the easy road of perpetuating the problem and then passing it on to others.

And we must, of course, not only monitor more closely than we ever have what is being taught to future teachers in education courses, we must also attempt to discredit the misguided and benighted theories that have now come back to the university to roost.

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