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4th May
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, May 4, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

E.D. Hirsch, the scholar who has become a leading critic of the state of American education, will speak today at a luncheon at the Princeton Club sponsored by the Manhattan Institute.

It is not surprising to find Mr. Hirsch among the scholars at the Manhattan Institute, where his message of high academic standards has long resonated. Nor is it surprising that Mr. Hirsch, who is in town to promote his much-anticipated new book, “The Knowledge Deficit” (Houghton Mifflin, $22), has similar support among members of a group not often held in high regard at the Manhattan Institute — the teachers unions.

It is not that the end days are approaching and the lion has lain down with the lamb. Mr. Hirsch’s unique contribution to the American educational scene transcends ideology.
Mr. Hirsch says the more knowledge one gathers, the easier it is to acquire further knowledge. He frequently uses the following sentence to illustrate his point: “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.”

This is certainly a sentence that most literate Americans can understand. But to a similarly educated English person, it may well be unintelligible. One needs a bit of background knowledge of baseball to decipher the meaning of the string of words, even to those who know the meaning of each word individually. A similar description of a cricket match would yield the opposite result, with the American reader perplexed.

In order to fully comprehend reading passages that get progressively more complex as children move from grade to grade, they must acquire this “core knowledge” that enables them to understand what they are reading. This is why teaching history, geography, science, music, art, and other academic subjects — largely ignored today in the lower grades — is essential if our children are to become truly literate, Mr. Hirsch says.
He says schools’ failure to impart knowledge, derided by the educational establishment as “mere facts,” is the reason the reading scores of American children plummet between fourth and eighth grade, and why so many students are not even graduating from high school.

The Hirsch philosophy is one that is hardly welcomed by the powers that run our school systems. Few in the educational establishment, whether in the bureaucracies of the education departments or the schools of education that have a stranglehold on educational policy, are willing to deviate from what Mr. Hirsch calls the “romantic” notion that children learn naturally and will “construct” their own knowledge.

Mr. Hirsch’s knowledge-based ideas are winning converts. Parents rush to bookstores to buy the volumes in his series that outline what information their children should learn in each grade. Charter schools are sprouting up that make use of the Core Knowledge Curriculum his foundation has developed.

Conservative scholars, such as Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, who will introduce Mr. Hirsch today, believe that Core Knowledge may well do for the school system what the “Broken Windows” theory did for law enforcement.

Mr. Hirsch’s ideas are winning support among American teachers, even political liberals such as the late Albert Shanker, who was a strong supporter of Mr. Hirsch’s ideas.

Mr. Hirsch’s writings about the schools frequently appear in American Federation of Teachers publications.
However, the “progressive” forces that have long dictated what and how our children should learn still prevail. When Mayor Bloomberg appointed a noneducator, Joel Klein, as chancellor, I hopefully sent a copy of Mr.
Hirsch’s other great prescriptive volume, “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,” to Mr. Klein’s home. The chancellor graciously acknowledged receipt, informed me that he read it, and praised its important message. But within weeks, Mr. Klein chose Diana Lam, a stalwart of the failed progressive pedagogy of the past half-century, to design his instructional program.

Predictably, no “broken windows” success story has emerged from our schools.

It may be that it will take decades, long after all of us are gone, to restore the acquisition of knowledge as the goal in all of our classrooms. Meanwhile, it is reassuring that there is a cogent blueprint for change, crisply and concisely outlined in “The Knowledge Deficit,” the ideas that Mr. Hirsch will articulate at lunchtime today.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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