E.D. Hirsch’s views on the curriculum: Popular but perpetually problematic

In a speech last week, schools minister Nick Gibb stated his commitment to “…ensuring that every child receives a first-class education” by making sure that “…all our children are taught in schools with an extensive knowledge-rich curriculum by well-trained and supported teachers.” This is an idea that – superficially at least – I have no problem with. To back up his commitment to a knowledge rich curriculum, Gibb referenced the work of E.D. Hirsch, an American academic, which he has championed before (as have other ministers, such as Michael Gove). 

Hirsch’s work is popular with politicians as well as some well-known education writers. Moreover, his work is increasingly influencing school leaders and some teachers. Whilst it is fantastic that educationalists are engaging with this, I feel – like so many other things – the initial clammer to agree and accept Hirsch as the way forward unfortunately leaves some problematic issues uncontested and – perhaps – poorly understood.  

Cultural literacy and communal knowledge

Both of Hirsch’s most popular books, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, essentially argue that, if you understand the basic ‘communal knowledge’ shared by most of society, you will have better life chances. “To be culturally literate,” Hirsch says, “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world” (1987, p. xiii). Moreover, and specifically in terms of literacy, this includes “… the network of information that all competent readers possess” (ibid. p. 2). In a wider context, this reminds me of comments made by the late philosopher Roger Scruton who stated, “A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society,” in a 2013 Guardian article. For Scruton – like, I think, Hirsch – this culture “…contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.” Of course, Scruton is going way beyond the basics that Hirsch advocates, but the sentiment is the same: to be educated, knowledgeable and culturally literate, you should know what others think you should know. 

In order to create cultural literacy and communal knowledge, Hirsch has argued that schools should deliver a highly specific, knowledge-based curriculum, which underpins the shared knowledge and understandings that writers and, I guess, all educated people know – as he says in  The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children: “Therefore, in order to teach children how to understand what is written, we must teach them that taken-for-granted background knowledge” (2006, p. 122). In The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, Hirsch goes on to argue, “We have moved to the proposition that, in order to enable communication in the public sphere, commonality of language requires commonality of knowledge. Now we need to take the next logical step. Commonality of knowledge requires commonality in schooling” (2009: 114). Developing this view, in Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch stresses the primacy of teaching knowledge over generic skills: “[A] systematic approach to knowledge building is more productive than an arbitrary skills approach with unspecified topics” (2016, p. 31).

Subsequently, Hirsch has promoted his reform movement, Core Knowledge, which – despite stating he is a liberal (and lifelong Democrat) – has been accused of being conservative by nature (Edwards, 2009; Moore, 2010; Yandell, 2017) . This raises the concern that someone, somewhere, needs to decide what this ‘core knowledge’ is. Furthermore, it is particularly problematic when those advocating a Hirschian curriculum in the UK are not (to be fair to Hirsch) necessarily going to share Hirsch’s overriding concern of promoting cultural literacy and communal knowledge, but may be more predisposed to stamping their own cultural view of the world on pupils; this, of course, could be to the right of the political spectrum or to the left (I am not sure whether Nick Gibb can be accused of this – that’s not the aim of this blog). 

Issues with the idea of Core Knowledge

Aside from methodological criticism of Hirsch’s work, including claims that he often misquotes others to make his arguments (Sledd & Sledd, 1988) or simplifies the reasons for illiteracy (Grey, 1988), one of the most contentious points are his choices for the “… 5,000 items that every American needs to know” (see the Appendix to Cultural Literacy, p. 146). This has not only been challenged, but is open for debate and, therefore, begs the question about what is right to teach and what is not right to teach. Of course, the idea of cultural literacy has informed the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is not only an idea, but a product of the Core Knowledge Foundation. In the UK, the centre right think tank Civitas has produced a version of Core Knowledge – decided on by a “broad panel of teachers and subject specialists” and edited by Hirsch – for pupils in the UK. 

Bearing the above in mind, the idea of ‘core knowledge’ – regardless of the CKF/Civitas versions (I actually quite like the Civitas version) – raises some further questions, such as:

  • Does a (hypothetical) codified core knowledge constitute all we should learn?
  • Are other facts and ideas important? If knowledge is not included as ‘core’, is it deemed less important or even unimportant?
  • Should we centre core knowledge on Judeo-Christian culture? If so, how much curriculum time do we give to cultures outside “our” own?  Which “other” cultures should we include and why should we include them? These questions would incorporate literature, history, mythology, religion and the arts. 
  • Similarly, is cultural diversity important? What does this suggest about specific demographic contexts?
  • Should core knowledge of history centre on elite persons, key dates and positive views of our past? Or should equal attention be paid to those often marginalised, the mistakes of the past and historical injustices? How do we balance this without upsetting those with strong opinions on the topics covered?
  • How does age come into play? When do we prescribe core knowledge and when do we allow for specialisation or more academic autonomy in terms of curriculum design? (The CKF/Civitas versions are limited to younger pupils, but some proponents of Hirsch in the UK seem to be suggesting that the idea could be applied to older pupils).
  • A lot of Hirsch’s work focuses on early years and, more particularly, instruction in the English language. What does this suggest about the importance of a bi-linqual education, particularly the idea that learning two languages before 7 years improves pupils’ overall linguistic skills?  Essentially, do we consider cultural literacy and communal knowledge in relation to other languages being learnt? If so, how much? Or does learning about other languages and underlying cultures undermine profinancy in the dominant or host language? 
  • There are also a lot of arguments over the place of skills in a Hirchian curriculum, but this blog would be too long if that specific issue was entertained: Ian Warwick has written a good blog covering this issue and Grant Wiggins has also looked at similar issues in this blog – although I am unsure about “backward design”.
  • Does the continued argument for a core knowledge curriculum mean the National Curriculum is completely unfit for purpose? Why hasn’t this issue been fixed considering proponents of Hirsch have been in power for 11 years? 

Older pupils

As already stated, a lot of Hirsch’s work focuses on younger years. Here, Michael Fordham points out that, if we are to consider older pupils as ministers like Nick Gibb seem to imply, “Hirsch’s curriculum theory could easily challenge the EBacc: the measure narrows the curriculum too far (e.g. by assuming that doing either history or geography is acceptable, rather than both); it does not incorporate the arts, knowledge of which Hirsch sees as crucial to his model of cultural literacy”. Interestingly, the Ebacc excludes Religious Education, which I complained about in a 2011 article for The Guardian. Surely basic religious literacy supports a wider understanding and context for countless cultural references to scripture, religious symbolism and belief in our shared (Judeo-Christian) culture? Furthermore, Fordham also points out that our education system, “…uses high-stakes testing (i.e. GCSEs) to drive curriculum, an approach Hirsch explicitly criticized for its detrimental effect on reading comprehension in the USA”; a fact, perhaps, conveniently ignored by government ministers in their championing of Hirsch’s ideas (not that I feel we need to overhaul our exam system).

Applying Hirsch’s ideas when you are not E.D. Hirsch

This problem of culturally translating or contextually transposing Hirsch’s ideas is probably the biggest challenge here. Using the comparison to Scruton that I used earlier, whereas Hirsch believes, “…in the United States only two thirds of our citizens are literate . . . The remaining third need to be brought as close to true literacy as possible” (1986, p. 2), Scruton asserts, “[an absence of] high culture is superseded by a culture of fake”. This ‘culture of fake’ consists of many things, including false ideologies, opinions and expertise. I am sure that Hirsch does not see cultural literacy this way (and it is important to note the Scruton was not referring to Hirsch), but it could pose problems in how cultural literacy and a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ is perceived and applied by some policy makers, social commentators and – possibly – school leaders. Hirsch makes it clear that he does not intend to create his own view of culture and history, but rather he centres his view on an assumed consensus of a “shared literate knowledge, 80 percent of which is over 100 years old.” (1988, p. 25). However, one person’s benign view of  cultural literacy/communal knowledge could be another person’s cultural elitism or even narrow-minded nationalism. 

Last thoughts….

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Hirsch sees himself as committed to social justice and equality. Cultural illiteracy, he has argued, is most likely to manifest itself amongst the poor and power-illiterate, which means their poverty and powerlessness is worsened. Despite some of the issues outlined above, it is fair to say he is genuine in seeing cultural literacy and communal knowledge as “…the key to all other fundamental improvements in American education.” (1987. p.2). I like  Hirsch’s ideas (although I am not sure about the appendix on Hegel in Why Knowledge Matters), but I think consensus is easier assumed than done.

Worth reading: Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany E. D. Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange (these are mostly supportive, but they include insightful criticisms too)

References (if not hyperlinked above)

Gray, D. 1988). What Does Every American Need to Know? The Phi Delta Kappan, 69(5), 386-388. Retrieved July 24, 2021. Available from: from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20403650

Edwards, J. R. (2009, April 13). E.D. Hirsch Jr.: The Twentieth Century’s Liberal Conservative Educator. The Center for Vision and Values and the Institute for Faith and Freedom (Grove City College). Available at: https://www.faithandfreedom.com/e-d-hirsch-jr-the-twentieth-centurys-liberal-conservative-educator

Hirsch, E.D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin. 

Hirsch, E.D. (1988, July/August). A Postscript by E.D. Hirsch. Change, 20 (4), 22-26. Partially available at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Learning_from_Change/8OZRuZplGokC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=A+Postscript+by+E.D.+Hirsch&pg=PA103&printsec=frontcover

Hirsch, E. D. (2006). The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Houghton Mifflin.

Hirsch, E. D. (2010). Making of americans: Democracy and our schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.

Moore, T. O. (2010, March 21). The Making of an Educational Conservative. Claremont Review of Books, X (2). Available at: https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/the-making-of-an-educational-conservative/

Sledd, A., & Sledd, J. (1988). Hirsch’s Use of His Sources in “Cultural Literacy”: A Critique. Profession, 33-39. Retrieved July 24, 2021. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595417

Yandell, J. (2017). Culture, Knowledge and Power: What the Conservatives have Learnt from E.D. Hirsch. Changing English, 24:3, 246-252. 

Picture credit: Wikicommons (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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