This year, 2017, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the book that started the Core Knowledge movement.
In 1987 E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was working as a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He had published two books about Romantic poets, including Wordsworth and Blake, as well two theoretical studies of literary interpretation. He had also, perhaps to the surprise of his fellow literary critics, published a book in which he analyzed the skills of composition. But the biggest surprise, not only to his colleagues in the English Department but very likely to Professor Hirsch himself, was the response to the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.
In Cultural Literacy, Professor Hirsch put forth a scholarly argument, based largely on evidence drawn from cognitive psychology, that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He argued that our public schools must go beyond their “educational formalism”—their belief that the task of education is to develop large generalized skills—and in addition focus on cultivating “cultural literacy.”
“To be culturally literate,” he explained, “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” And what constitutes this basic information? Or, to invoke the book’s subtitle, what does every American need to know?
To answer that question, Professor Hirsch, along with two colleagues from the University of Virginia—a historian and a natural scientist—had undertaken a long process of research and consultation to develop a provisional list of the background knowledge needed to read and comprehend a publication like the New York Times. They offered the list as an Appendix to Cultural Literacy.
The response the book received suggests that many people scanned the list without reading the book’s theoretical argument. Many reviewers mistook the book as a tract for cultural elitism. They neglected to acknowledge not only the theoretical grounding of the argument but also the concrete social mission accompanying the theory—“What I wanted to do,” as Professor Hirsch explained in a later interview, “was to universalize elite culture.”
The publication of Cultural Literacy thirty years ago sparked both heated arguments and thoughtful discussions, many ongoing today. It also planted the seed that has flowered in the Core Knowledge Sequence and many other publications of the Core Knowledge Foundation (guided by Professor Hirsch’s editorial leadership), as well as the national network of Core Knowledge schools.
So, in this back-to-school season, we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Cultural Literacy by sharing this excerpt from the Preface to the book that still shapes the public discussion of what our schools can be when dedicated to building community based on shared knowledge.
From the Preface to Cultural Literacy (1987)
To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world. The breadth of that information is great, extending over the major domains of human activity from sports to science. It is by no means confined to “culture” narrowly understood as an acquaintance with the arts. Nor is it confined to one social class. Quite the contrary. Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories. Some say that our schools by themselves are powerless to change the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I do not agree. They can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years.
Although the chief beneficiaries of the educational reforms advocated in this book will be disadvantaged children, these same reforms will also enhance the literacy of children from middle-class homes. The educational goal advocated is that of mature literacy for all our citizens.
… The idea of cultural literacy has been attacked by some liberals on the assumption that I must be advocating a list of great books that every child in the land should be forced to read. But those who examine the Appendix to this book will be able to judge for themselves how thoroughly mistaken such an assumption is. … Cultural literacy is represented not by a prescriptive list of books but rather by a descriptive list of the information actually possessed by literate Americans. My aim in this book is to contribute to making that information the possession of all Americans.
The importance of such widely shared information can best be understood if I explain briefly how the idea of cultural literacy relates to currently prevailing theories of education. The theories that have dominated American education for the past fifty years stem ultimately from Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that we should encourage the natural development of young children and not impose adult ideas upon them before they can truly understand them. … He thought that a child’s intellectual development and social skills would develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education.
… In the first decades of [the twentieth] century, Rousseau’s ideas powerfully influenced the educational conceptions of John Dewey, the writer who has most deeply affected modern American educational theory and practice. … Dewey strongly seconds Rousseau’s opposition to the mere accumulation of information:
Development emphasizes the need of intimate and extensive personal acquaintance with a small number of typical situations with a view to mastering the way of dealing with the problems of experience, not the piling up of information.
Believing that a few direct experiences would suffice to develop the skills that children require, Dewey assumed that early education need not be tied to specific content. He mistook a half-truth for the whole. He placed too much faith in children’s ability to learn general skills from a few typical experiences and too hastily rejected “the piling up of information.” Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community.
This old truth, recently rediscovered, requires a countervailing theory of education that once again stresses the importance of specific information in early and late schooling. The corrective theory might be described as an anthropological theory of education, because it is based on the anthropological observation that all human communities are founded upon specific shared information. … In an anthropological perspective, the basic goal of education in a human community is acculturation, the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults of the group or polis.
… The anthropological view stresses the universal fact that a human group must have effective communications to function effectively, that effective communications require shared culture, and that shared culture requires transmission of specific information to children. Literacy, an essential aim of education in the modern world, is no autonomous, empty skill but depends upon literate culture. Like any other aspect of acculturation, literacy requires the early and continued transmission of specific information. Dewey was deeply mistaken to disdain “accumulating information in the form of symbols.” Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information that the symbols represent, can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community.