Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (Yale University Press, 2009)

Dec 20, 2009 6:33 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (Yale University Press, 2009)

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia, has been fighting the good fight for over twenty years. All of his books, including Cultural Literacy (1987), The Schools We Need—And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), and The Knowledge Deficit (2006), have insisted that students must learn both content and skills, and that the content that matters most is found in the established disciplines. For his pains, he was sometimes denounced as reactionary, an ironic fate given his deep conviction that enabling all students to master the essentials of American culture is a matter of social justice.

It was hard to stay cool during the “culture wars” of the ‘90s. Hirsch, particularly in The Schools We Need, had sharp elbows himself. But today, he says, “reformers will not need to sharpen their scientific wits so much as their rhetorical ones.” In The Knowledge Deficit and now The Making of Americans, he writes, as Twain might say, with the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces.

The Knowledge Deficit, with arguments grounded in cognitive science research, focused on how students learn to use language. The Making of Americans is an eloquent, accessible complement to that book. “Cognitive science,” he says, citing the work of Daniel Willingham and others, “suggests that a content-indifferent approach to education cannot succeed, and experience confirms that it has not.”

“A lack of knowledge, both civic and general, is the significant deficit in most American students’ education,” Hirsch says, and the only valid way to convey that knowledge is by having schools teach history and literature. The happy result: better readers and better citizens.

A content-rich core curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade, Hirsch declares, prepares students from kindergarten through eighth grade for the rigors of high school and for life in the public sphere. This “single radical reform will go far to solving our three biggest educational problems—our decline in basic academic achievement, our failure to offer equality of educational opportunity, and our failure to perpetuate what Lincoln and others thought essential to the Union, a strong sense of loyalty to the national community and its civic institutions.”

Right now the nation’s governors are pushing for national standards. If the past is any guide, there will be lots of verbiage about “21st-century skills” and “critical thinking,” but the standards will be bland to the point of vacuity when it comes to content.

Hirsch, however, looks to states and localities. “The policy implications of this book,” he says, “can be boiled down to this: Institute in your district or state an explicit, grade-by-grade, core curriculum in grades K-8 occupying at least 50 percent of school time.”

As a teacher who has seen Hirsch’s characterization of our current academic ineffectiveness demonstrated far too often, I worry that he’s overly optimistic. The Making of Americans strikes just the right tone and makes all the right arguments. Is it possible that the moment is right, too?

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