Eric Donald Hirsche represents a strong tradition in education and one often ignored or worse, caricatured. Yet his influence has been enormous. He is part of a tradition that includes Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mindattacks the erosion of a clear, cultural canon. Although he distances himself from Bloom, who just happened to publish at around the same time.
Hirsche’s Cultural Literacy, with its list of 5000 things every American should know, became a bestseller and flagship for educationalists who saw core knowledge receding in the wake of what they saw as a relativist onslaught. It satisfied a widespread belief that education had suffered a rot, as progressive forces reduced knowledge to a position of being desirable, not essential. It caught a national mood in the US.
Hirsche had already been working on a body of fixed knowledge for schools. The assumption was that a shared canon of knowledge was necessary as a foundation for fruitful participation on society. Critical skills need a body of knowledge to act upon, if critical inquiry is to be fruitful. What is often ignored, is something clearly stated in his book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, that his stated goal is social equality. He argues that the pendulum swing away from knowledge to critical thinking led to increasing levels of inequality, as the poor receive an inferior education while the wealthy retain this more valuable form of traditional education. He argues that this has been the cause of America’s declining status in global education.
His Core Knowledge Foundation presented a curriculum in English/language arts, world history and geography, American history and geography, visual arts, music, mathematics and science. This was built in graded stages and was designed, with formal books and a website as support, to herald a new era in education, with centralised control and recommendations. It is, in essence a national curriculum, now called the Common Core.
Some of the subtlety of Hirsche’s actual position can be lost, as he combines both a traditional curriculum view with the ultimate goal of liberal education. He thinks that the former is a necessary condition for the latter and that children need to learn how to wield the tools of power if they are to participate and benefit from education.
This is not helped by his rather rigid view of what constitutes core knowledge and, of course, that core knowledge has had to be changed over the years. Hirsche’s position is often mocked, and he doesn’t help himself by the fixed nature of his recommendations. The original list is a curious mixture of American and Eurocentric knowledge, and contained so many oddities that it was its own worst enemy. It is particularly problematic in areas such as history. It also implies rigid, political control over the curriculum, something unpalatable to both the political right and left, who value autonomy in schools, albeit for different reasons.
In practice, many argue that the process of learning,and teaching, requires much more complex interactions between knowledge and skills. It is rarely a matter of learn this and only then can it be seen as a subject for critical thought. Motivation, curiosity, the affective side of learning, learning by doing and many other aspects of learning must also be addressed.
Hirsche is a man of his time and man of contradictions. A Democrat, hailed as a revolutionary by the right. A believer in liberal values, he proposes that all young people get a fixed set of knowledge before they can exercise their liberty. An American who has been heralded as a saviour abroad. It is important to recognise that the generally liberal mindset in educational research and practice can often turn into an orthodoxy that ignores what many politicians, parents and citizens actually want, which is a grounding for their children in basic skills and knowledge. However, to ignore the role of theorists such as Hirsche and his heirs, such as Daniel Willingham, also a University of Virginia academic, who resurrected Hirschean ideas in Why Kids Don’t Like School, is to ignore a strong and popularly held belief about the purpose and methods of education. Hirsche may be seen by the liberal left as a culturally, narrow elitist but his views have had a profound effect worldwide.
Hirsche E. D. (1987) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
Hirsche E. D. (1988) The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
Hirsche E. D. (1996) The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them
Hirsche E. D. (2006) The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children
Hirsche E. D. (2010) The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
Willingham D. (2010) Why Kids Don’t Like School