by Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, and author of The Reading Mind and Why Don’t Students Like School?

This post, which originally appeared on Daniel Willingham’s Science and Education blog, is re-posted here with the permission of the author. 

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago.

What better time to remind ourselves of his contributions to American education? I hope Hirsch will forgive me if I do not dwell here on his practical and arguably greatest contribution—the establishment of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which has both produced outstanding curricular materials (many distributed without cost) and advocated for equitable, outstanding education for all. (I sat on the board of the foundation for some years.)

Instead, I’ll focus on three profound ideas that Hirsch developed and explicated, and that have had a substantial influence on my thinking.

  1. The role of knowledge in reading. Background knowledge is the main driver of language comprehension, whether written or spoken.   Disadvantaged students are disproportionately dependent on schools to provide the background information that will make them effective readers because wealthy students have greater opportunity to gain this knowledge at home. These were the key ideas in Cultural Literacy. That 1987 volume became a best seller mainly because of the list at the back of the book, “What Literate Americans Know.” The list also gave Hirsch the undeserved reputation of an ultra-conservative because he was apparently advocating that school children spend most of their time memorizing the names of dead white males. You couldn’t hold that opinion if you actually read the book, but most people didn’t.
  2. The importance of shared knowledge in citizenship. The American Founders recognized that this country, as a multi-ethnic society, faced a peculiar dilemma among nations; how to encourage a feeling of commonality and mutual responsibility among diverse citizenry? They saw a common body of knowledge as crucial to the cohesiveness of American citizenry where individuals held allegiance to other tribes—English, Scottish, German, etc. In The Making of Americans Hirsch argues for a “civic core,” and for the idea that each of us as individuals can and should have commonality in the public sphere, even as we have individuality and different group allegiances in the private sphere. The former does not diminish the latter.
  3. The seeds of Americans’ denigration of knowledge. Why would it be controversial to argue that children should share some common knowledge? The seeds of that idea lay in the Romantic response to the Enlightenment. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers esteemed knowledge of the world, the Romantics emphasized feeling, emotion, and especially esteemed the impulse of the individual. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers would emphasize social institutions as beneficial to human well-being and flourishing, Romantics depicted social institutions as problems, and portrayed humankind in its natural state as sanctified. In The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them and in Why Knowledge MattersHirsch has argued that early educational theorists were influenced by Romantics to a degree few appreciate, and that we today are inheritors of their mostly flawed assumptions about human nature. These assumptions lead to a reverence for individuality and for nature, and a corresponding denigration of knowledge deemed important enough for all to know.

Needless to say, a paragraph doesn’t begin to do justice to each of these ideas. If they are not familiar, I encourage you to explore them further–I’ve already made it easy by including the links to buy the books!

4 comments on “A Brief Appreciation of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.”

  1. 1
    Bob Reid on April 3, 2018

    Well said Dan! Don is an American treasure. He has provided essential, consistent, and coherent guidance in a time of remarkably distracting confusion of ideas in the vitally important topic of public education. Literacy is essential to the stability of our wonderfully diverse republic. It makes possible our ability to appreciate and embrace each other in a genuine sense of inclusiveness rather than destabilizing fear or intolerance. Don’s efforts to improve education for all children represent real contributions to the stability of our American society and prospects for equity for all.

  2. 2
    Amy Germer on April 4, 2018

    Very eloquently and thoroughly said. His books should be required reading in every elementary, middle, senior and college level schools for educators who care.

  3. 3
    Lindsey B. on September 18, 2019

    While I appreciate the summary of Hirsch’s three profound ideas, the first idea really resonated with me in my teaching and the demographics of our school. I’ve taught Kindergarten and now teach third grade. Each year, I see more and more, that students do not come to school with experiences. Even at Kindergarten, there are some students that admit to watching television all weekend, playing on their family tablet, or anything not having to do with interacting or seeing the world around them. While teaching Kindergarten, our grade level team across the district wanted to emphasize to parents at parent-teacher conferences to interact with their child and create experiences for them, so they have something to engage in conversation in, which will then lead them to their personal narrative in writing. These could be going to local museums, signing up for their first public library card, go to the park, learn how to tie their shoes and ride a bike! What broke my heart was when we shared from our weekend journals a student saying he watched his dad play video games all day on Saturday. In addition to helping to create experiences for writing, it is also important to engage with your child in their reading. Reading to them, with them, or listening to them read. This could even be done with a sibling or pet!
    I am extremely intrigued by Dr. Hirsch’s work, and hope to check out the books recommended/featured!

  4. 4
    Brooke Hutchins on January 20, 2020

    I am inspired by the work of Dr. Hirsch and most definitely will be purchasing the recommended books to further my research and understanding of the impact of cultural literacy in America. I am very intrigued by understanding the mind of a child, how they learn, and what factors impact my students both positively and negatively. I teach in a first grade classroom, predominantly white population, with average to above-average median income. I have expressed my interests and passions in grade-level meetings, and curriculum meetings that the predominant makeup of our school district comes from pretty supportive parents, however, how are we meeting the needs of the students that don’t have the backgrounds experiences, have not been given resources to develop language and comprehension skills? The troubling factor for me in my present district is that the needs of the high achieving students are encouraged and at times feels as though there is higher importance placed on these individuals. I will be discussing the ideas of Dr. Hirsch with my colleagues related to cultivating early literacy in all students, especially those that have fewer opportunities and diminished exposure because of the home environment.

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