Blogs > Cliopatria > Alberto Fernandez: Review of E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Knowledge Deficit

Jan 23, 2007 8:48 pm

Alberto Fernandez: Review of E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Knowledge Deficit

An educational experiment in 1989 pitted a group of students with high reading scores, selected especially for their lack of interest in baseball, against a group of low-scoring students who happened to be avid baseball fans. The two groups were asked to demonstrate their reading comprehension of a passage on baseball. Can you guess which team won?

In The Knowledge Deficit, E. D. Hirsch Jr. recounts this experiment and draws on the work of reading researchers and theorists to argue that “background knowledge,” knowledge not explicitly presented in a text, is essential to reading comprehension. Hirsch advances his case at a time when there is growing concern about the poor reading proficiency of American students compared to their international peers. What is worse, Hirsch points out, is that the longer these students are in school, the lower they drop—to a depressing 15th out of 27 countries by the tenth grade. The scores get worse after the early grades when students are increasingly tested for comprehension and not just for “decoding,” the ability to translate written marks into words.

“We need to see the reading comprehension problem,” Hirsch writes, “for what it primarily is—a knowledge problem.” Schooling, according to Hirsch, must supply our students with the broad knowledge—much less of baseball than of history, literature, science, and other traditional subjects—that is requisite for reading. This broad knowledge of words and of the world is also what standardized reading tests in fact test for, Hirsch says. These typically consist of passages on a variety of topics, undisclosed until testing time, for which only a good general education can prepare the student. In or out of the exam room or the research lab, there is no such thing as reading comprehension without prior knowledge of a text’s vocabulary (90 percent of it is the estimated minimum) and its references, and no such thing as effective education without imparting to students a wide range of specific knowledge.

Readers of Hirsch’s earlier work will recognize that the body of “enabling knowledge” he refers to, demarcated not by ideal criteria but by the actual intellectual demands of a culture, is nothing other than the “cultural literacy” that provided the title for Hirsch’s already classic 1987 work, and which he has ever since dedicated himself to elaborating and advocating in books, articles, and curricular projects carried out through his Core Knowledge Foundation. (Disclosure: the author of this review is currently involved in a Core Knowledge Foundation–Shimer College collaboration to develop a graduate curriculum for K–8 teachers.)...

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