The Knowledge Deficit

The Knowledge Deficit, the latest philippic from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., author of the best-selling Cultural Literacy as well as a dozen little baubles on the theme of “what every child needs to know,” ought to carry a warning label, or, better, a straight-forward subtitle: An Infomercial. It’s a tirade, of course, but here Hirsch, as manic and breathy as any television pitchman, is busy pushing product on every page. There’s scant substance, even as it announces itself a work of “Science,” and so we are left with a sparkly, self-promoting advertisement masquerading as deep thought.
His thesis is easy enough to summarize: there’s a powerful, monolithic ideology emanating from our colleges of education that has controlled American educational thought and practice for a century—he singles out as exemplars the Bank Street College of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University which he calls the “parent organism” spawning romantic principles and doctrinaire professors who scatter throughout the land stifling dissent and drilling prospective teachers in their mistaken “theology” (p. 20) (full disclosure: I attended both); the principles of this dominant dogma must be understood and defeated because they are the chief cause of America’s dismal record of reading achievement; Hirsch’s mission is to break the strangle-hold that generations of romantics and progressives have applied to our schools, and, thereby, to liberate the masses of students for a great leap forward in reading.
The enemy ideology consists of a “terrible trinity” (p. 112) plus one: naturalism, or “the notion that learning can and should be natural” (p. 134); formalism, or “the ideology that what counts in education is not the learning of things but rather learning how to learn” (p. 135); determinism, or “the blame-society theory” (p. 15) that posits inequities—racial and class hierarchies, for example—as significant variables in school success; and, as a bit of an after-thought, localism, the idea that “our states or our towns will decide what shall be taught in our schools” (p. 112). Taken together these pillars of romantic thought are the “deadly enemies” (p. 21) of reading achievement. They must be overturned.
Hirsch makes a case for the power of ideas to move and shape societies. He announces his intention here to analyze the common sense assumptions and relevant ideas driving educational policy, including their historical roots, and then to challenge them with “alternative ideas” (p. 17). His aim is “to help create a public demand for the kind of knowledge-oriented reading program that is needed” (p. 17), for he believes that once such a demand arises, “the rest can safely be left to the cunning of the market” (p. 17). In other words, the territory of ideology will be his battlefield of choice, and here on these pages he intends to mass his army.
At this point one expects the fun to begin, the fireworks to be ignited or the opening volley to be fired. We are, we hope, at least in for some spirited intellectual exchange. But here Hirsch disappoints. Again and again he huffs and he puffs; again and again he pulls back and fails to blow the house down. I found myself rooting for him to let loose just once to see where it might take him (and us), but he never does.
And so we are asked to take this jeremiad on faith. His attack on the “theory of demographic determinism” (p. 15), the idea that poverty plays a substantial role in school failure, is a case in point. He names Richard Rothstein, former education reporter for the New York Times, as the theory’s “most eloquent defender” (p. 15), and yet one can’t find in Rothstein any mention of this “theory,” nor adherence to what Hirsch claims as the theory’s pillars: poverty causes low reading scores, and the schools are powerless to have an impact on that failure. In fact, Rothstein’s view is much more nuanced than that, and in part much closer to Hirsch’s later assertion that schools “can do a far better job” (p. 15).
Hirsch never engages the scholarship, research, or even the polemics on poverty and schooling. There’s no mention, for example, of the work of Jonathon Kozol, Jeannie Oaks, Pedro Noguera, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, Deborah Meier, Michael Apple, Angela Valenzuela, Jean Anyon, Asa Hilliard, Michele Fine, or William Watkins, to name a few. His woofing against a straw-man is, for him, apparently enough.
When Hirsch needs a citation to back an assertion of fact he often leaves a blank: “research has shown a body of specific background knowledge to be necessary for reading proficiency…” (p. 41); “According to received views in the American educational community, no specific background knowledge is needed for reading” (p. 39); “It [the Core Knowledge Sequence] is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics” (p. 77).
If a student had written either of the first two sentences, any teacher would respond, “Where’s the citation?” As for the third, Hirsch cites himself, which is a bit troubling. While self-referencing is always a sign of bad writing, it is particularly egregious in a book claiming the mantle of science. But citing himself or his Core Knowledge Foundation to back up his most basic arguments is a major strategy, and it begins on page 3: “Reading proficiency is at the very heart of the democratic educational enterprise, and is rightly called the ‘new civil rights frontier.’” Who could have made that insightful comment, I wonder? Look up footnote number 5… Why it’s E.D. Hirsch himself, from an earlier book.
Go further: On page 12 we learn that “The only thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all-purpose knowledge”; on page 84 that “The chief cause of our school’s inefficiency is precisely this curricular incoherence”; on page 111 that the “lack of commonality across classrooms in the same school and across schools in the same district means that no definable curriculum exists.” Each of these tautologies and assertions may be of interest, may have some merit, and may be worthy of thoughtful inquiry, debate, and analysis. None of that apparently matters much to Hirsch—he cites only himself and then moves on. This is fact-free, faith-based social science at its most fabulous.
Teachers in the thrall of “ed school professors” are a real problem for Hirsch, and absent any clearly defined curricular content that must be delivered no matter what, teachers are “the main sources of indoctrination.” (p. 114) Hirsch gets really worked up here:
Under the covering idea that what counts is how-to knowledge, and in the absence of specific content guidelines, the teacher is left free to teach critical thinking and deep understanding with whatever content seems appropriate. I well remember picking up a German grammar book in Communist East Berlin long before the Berlin wall was erected. Precisely because the book was oriented to the formal elements of German grammar, the content was left to the indoctrinators. If the grammar was to teach declarative sentences, examples were sentences like “The American capitalist imperialist is unfair to the worker.” The formal character of an imperative sentence was shown in “Yankee, go home!” A process orientation offers no inherent protection against indoctrination. Irresponsibility is much less likely to occur when the schools are clear about the basic specific academic content that children should be taught at a particular grade level. (p. 114)

It’s quite a jump for most of us from teachers “left free to teach critical thinking” to the sloganeering of the apparatchiks, but Hirsch makes the leap look easy. He portrays himself as under relentless siege from an insidious antagonist, and here he employs pure demagoguery. Demagogues need enemies, even invented ones: “the press”, “the Jews”, “the reds”—each played the part historically. But “ed school professors”? Teachers manipulated by a “covering idea” turning into propagandists of the authoritarian state? It seems utterly preposterous.
But wait, there’s more:
The public schools in a democracy should not take sides in still-disputed areas. Gay marriage comes to mind. Children are required to attend school. They must not be compelled to attend a school that inculcates ideas that their parents and caregivers find repugnant. The Untied States, because of its history of religious refuge, has a first-rate tradition of cultural sensitivity—for example, in the way it has treated Amish beliefs and sensibilities… Deeply inbred in our history and law is the principle that this tolerant civil polity will trump each intolerant sect that tries to control other sects or antisects. (pp. 113-114).

After all the bloviating, it’s unclear whether we should or we shouldn’t mention gay marriage—it came, after all, to his mind, why wouldn’t it come to the minds of others? What intolerant sect is he indicting? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Hirsch is really a born polemicist (and not a very good one at that) but apparently feels it necessary to dress up in scientific drag and parade his polemics as scholarship—he wants these salvos taken seriously. He hopes, and based on past success has reason to believe, that as long as he labors in the credulous fields of school reform he can get by as a lab rat. But while a good polemicist often writes biting sentences, they must be minimally recognizable to the opposition. When Hirsch defends using good literature for children in classrooms, for example, and writes, “But stories are not necessarily the same thing as ephemeral fictions” (p. 78), the weaknesses in his thinking and his writing are on full display—there is, after all, no one who will stand and defend ephemeral fictions as the same thing as excellent stories. Similarly, when he sums up the writings of John Dewey, “the father of present-day American education” (p. 5) (Read: the bad stuff), as “the conviction that children would learn what they needed by engaging in practical activities such as cooking” (pp. 9-10), he is dissembling and throwing buckets of sand—or diced onions—in our eyes.
Further a good polemicist goes to the heart of the matter, relying on the power of characterization and critique to unmask the stupidity or hypocrisy of the opposition: Hirsch, on the other hand, dallies in the shallows, reminding us again and again that his arguments are solid and research-based, that “my aims… are entirely constructive” (p. 17), or that “this book makes strong arguments…” (p. 16). If a graduate student paper contained assertions like these, I’d write all over the margins in red: “Let us be the judge of that.”
And, no, in fact in this book he does not make strong arguments. It’s scholastic at best, not scholarly. Hirsch is for content-driven, knowledge-based curriculum—he repeats the phrase like a mantra until our eyes are feeling heavy—but even when he himself asks, so “what exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of?” (p. 74) he shrinks back and refuses to answer. Where’s the honesty of Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind? He promotes an “adequate scientific theory of reading” (p. 127), but never produces one. Where’s the forcefulness of a Mr. McChokumchild?
What Hirsch is busy avoiding is the obvious—any sensible and serious effort at school improvement must address several challenges simultaneously: the scandal of unequal funding and the inequitable distribution of education resources, the inadequate system of support and reward for teachers, the over-reliance on bureaucratic control and simplistic scales of student success, the loss of focus on the large goal of supporting youngsters to develop into functioning citizens and producers of both wealth and culture. These are complex challenges, to be sure, and must be worked out on the ground. But addressing these challenges is essential if we are to build outstanding schools fit for a democratic society.
As one of the major intellectual defenders of the triumphant conservative agenda in education E.D. Hirsch is a terrible disappointment. He’s simply not up to the task. He’s selling his Core Knowledge Foundation products, true—you can practically see the 800 number subliminally embedded on every page—but that’s about it. So here’s a time-saving suggestion: skip the ad—this book—and go straight to the handsome website of the Core Knowledge Foundation. You’ll get the whole bit delivered in power point in about five minutes.

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