PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION: Core Knowledge- intellectual capital & cultuuroverdracht
én kritiek op progessieve/naturalistische visies van reformpedagogiek e.d.
JEREMIAH REEDY- PROFESSOR OF CLASSICS MACALESTER COLLEGE
Since at least 1950 we have seen innovation after
innovation, each hailed as a breakthrough or even a panacea, yet all have
failed to bring about meaningful reform.
The list of these innovations is
very long and includes childcentered schooling, outcome-based education,
individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, cooperative learning,
discovery learning, the project method, the self esteem movement, authentic
assessment, and many others.
Nothing, however, seems to work.
Families that can afford the tuition send their children to private
schools, while the practice of home schooling, the charter school movement, and
the campaign for vouchers gain strength daily. The educational establishment
--- professors of education, school administrators, and officials in local,
state, and national departments of education --- attribute these shortcomings
to lack of money, broken homes, dysfunctional families, poverty, excessive television watching, and other
external social factors.
No one has offered a more penetrating analysis of our
educational failures than E.D. Hirsch,
and he locates the central problem within the schools themselves. He also proposes a solution that seems at the
present time the only one that offers hope for real reform. In
this paper I shall first explain who Hirsch is and then present his critique of
progressive education, now the
dominant educational ideology . I will
then discuss the most salient features of his philosophy of education.
The chief cause of
our educational failures is a mistaken
philosophy of education derived from Rousseau via John Dewey. This misguided philosophy , known as
progressive education, is based on the romantic notion that each child has an
innate, instinctive tendency to follow its own proper development.6 Hence the content of education is arbitrary;
students should be allowed to study what they are interested in. Any
content will do as long as students are developing the desired skills
such as problem-solving, decision making, critical thinking and other
"higher order thinking skills."
This is one of the fundamental dogmas of so-called progressive
education, but let us try to get a better understanding of it and where and why
According to Hirsch,
European Romanticism (emerging in the late 18th century) introduced two novel
ideas of great moment to education.
First, Romanticism held that human nature is innately good, and should
therefore be encouraged to take its natural course, unspoiled by the artificial
impositions of social prejudice and convention.
concluded that the child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the
adult nor a formless piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a
special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy-indeed holy---impulses
that should be allowed to develop and run their course (74).
For Romantics the natural goodness of humans
is corrupted and damaged by civilization.
In Europe Romanticism is associated with Rousseau, Wordsworth and
Coleridge, and progressive education is associated with Friedrich Froebel,
Johann Pestalozzi, Maria Montessori and other less well known educational
reformers. In the U.S. Romanticism
brings to mind Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman and progressive education John
Dewey, William H. Kilpatrick and E.L.
Romantic ideas contrasted sharply with earlier notions that
could be said to have followed from the doctrine of original sin although
similar ideas can be found in Plato and Aristotle. Because all have inherited a corrupted human
nature, humans are likely to take the route of least resistance and to yield
easily to temptation. Also human
instincts are not to be trusted. There
is thus need for discipline, rewards and punishment and constant
vigiliance. The character of small
children must be carefully shaped and molded.
Hirsch believes that the
rejection of these notions by Romantics and the emergence of what he calls
Romantic developmentalism have done more damage to public education than any
other single idea (79).
A second doctrine that flowed from Romanticism Hirsch calls natural pedagogy or the doctrine of
holistic learning. This means that
natural (lifelike, project-like
) methods of instruction are always the most
effective teaching methods (84). As
Hirsch puts it, the claim is that the
best form of learning is that which best allows the student to learn in the
natural, apprentice-like way in which humans have always learned. It implicitly opposes itself to education
that is primarily verbal, as well as to schooling that is artificially
organized around drill and practice. By
performing holistic activities, the student, it is claimed, will reliably
discover the needed learnings (257).
Here we envision small groups of children working together on a project
such as designing a board game based on the life of Abraham Lincoln or using a
camcorder to make a movie. The teachers
job is to inject some history, literature, science, math, etc. whenever
David Mulroy, the author of a book entitled The War Against
Grammar withdrew his children from public schools when his sons assignment for
home work in a French course was to make a dessert of mangoes and powdered
sugar, a favorite dessert in Francophone Africa.7 Contrast this with students sitting in desks
arranged in rows listening to the teacher or studying history or civics or math
or reading as separate subjects, and one can appreciate the difference between
progressive education and traditional education.
A third problematic
strategy advocated by progressive educators is educational formalism. This approach to education results from the
breakdown during the 1960s of the consensus regarding what students should
learn. The 1960s were a turbulent
and painful period in U.S. history and to a lesser extent, perhaps, in Europe. In the U.S. the content of education became a
controversial subject. Various ethnic
groups wanted their cultures taught rather than the WASP culture, the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture
which had been dominant previously.
Revisionist historians rewrote U.S. history emphasizing alleged
genocide, exploitation, colonialism, imperialism as well as racism, sexism and
other evil isms.
Educators, unable to meet the competing demands of various
factions, finally surrendered and
adopted the position that the content of education doesnt matter---it
is arbitrary; any content will do as long as the students find it interesting
and are developing the desired skills. In
other words, the goals of education were rewritten in terms of skills, divorced
from any specific content. Carried to an
extreme, advocates of this approach included accessing information from the
internet as one of the skills and held that students no longer needed to master
any body of knowledge or facts.
Information is to be obtained with a computer and then abstract skills are applied to it. Hirsch
has shown with devastating clarity that this approach does not work because the
skills in question are "content-bound as we shall see.
These skills are also seen as tools, the pliers and
wrenches students are to use as they become critical thinkers and life-long
learners. The tool metaphor is
pervasive in the writings and teachings of progressive educators, and it would
be an attractive educational idea if
it worked, as Hirsch says (21). He will propose intellectual capital as a more apt metaphor for education.
Related to this is the emphasis placed on process and the disparagement of
content as mere facts. Part of what
lies behind the antipathy for mastering facts, information and knowledge is the
belief that facts quickly become obsolete because of progress. In addition to the obsolescence of facts, the
knowledge explosion makes it futile to attempt to master even one field;
hence the wise course is to focus on the development of skills or tools.
Associated with this
anti-intellectualism is the antipathy progressive educators have for drill,
practice, and hard work. The mantra here is Drill and kill. The implication is that drill and practice
kill the interest and joy children have in learning (250). Hence the practice of memorizing the parts of
speech, the multiplication tables, the continents of the world, capitals of
countries and important historical dates has fallen by the wayside. Progressive educators seem to see the study
of history as simply the memorization of facts.
Hence history has been merged with civics and economics into social
studies, an allegedly more holistic way
to deal with all three fields. This,
however, has resulted in a serious decline in mastery of basic facts,
especially in history. Given what we have seen thus far, it is not surprising
that progressive educators have reservations about tests, especially objective, standardized
tests. As early as the 1920s
were repudiated for belonging to a factory model of education, for
introducing competition where it does not belong, for denying the individuality
of students talents and interests, for degrading education by encouraging
passivity, mindlessness, and triviality, and for sending the wrong messages
about what is valuable in education and in life. (177). To these objections several more have been
that objective tests have helped cause our educational
decline, that they are unfair to minorities, and that they injure social
also rejected the transmission theory of schooling which holds that passing down to the younger generation the
wisdom, values, and technology of the tradition is the primary purpose of education. According to Hirsch in the 1920s and 1930s
progressive thinkers associated the transmission theory of education with a
decadent and static Europe and their theory with a vibrant, forward-moving
establishment has also rejected the teaching of formal grammar on the grounds
that knowledge of formal grammar is not only useless but can be detrimental to
students ability to write. How did
such a bizarre notion arise? According
to David Mulroy, the story begins with Charles
Fries of the University of Michigan whose 1952 book, The Structure of English
"lent weight to the false belief
that modern linguistics had discredited traditional grammar." This mistaken notion was picked up by the
National Council of Teachers of English and subsequently promulgated in three
publications, one in 1963 dealt with composition and "stated in strong and
unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because
it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even harmful
effect on the improvement of writing."
A second official resolution issued in 1985 stated that "the use of
isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a
deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing and...that [the
] urges the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the
teaching of grammar rather than the improvement of writing." A 1991 article on "Grammar and Usage"
as interpreted by Mulroy, proclaims that "the teaching of traditional
grammar is not just useless but pernicious."8 Finally Hirsch criticizes
progressive educators for two related practices. First they place too much credence in the
results of their own research and their own allegedly empirical studies. Secondly, while they read each others
publications, they neglect mainstream research which has repeatedly
contradicted the findings of those in the field of education (129-143 ).
How does Hirsch respond to this list of
beliefs and practices I have given, and what does he propose in their stead? It
is quite obvious that Hirsch considers Romantic notions about human nature and
about childhood naïve and unrealistic.
He favors a more Augustinian view and in fact tells the well known story
from St. Augustines Confessions about the young Augustine and his friends
stealing pears. He concludes that
Augustine considered human nature perverse and corrupt from birth. The
aim of education is not to follow human nature but to correct it, to set it on
a path of virtue
to give ones fallen natural instincts free rein would beget
a life of greed, selfishness and crime (73).
Hirsch writes that the aim of civilization, and by consequence of
education, is less to follow nature than to guide it toward humane and worthy
ends. This is of course an antique
principle, [and] not just a Western one.
It reflects the accumulated wisdom of many cultures in many lands. In the annals of recorded thought, European Romanticism,
with its (alas) powerful influence on American culture and education, has been
a post-Enlightenment aberration, a mistake we need to correct. (77)
to natural pedagogy, Hirschs comments deserved to be quoted in
full: The Romantic idea that learning is natural, and that the motivation for
academic achievement comes from within, is an illusion that forms one of the
greatest barriers to social justice imaginable, since poor and disadvantaged
students must be motivated to work even harder than advantaged students in
order to achieve equality of educational opportunity. It was Antonio
Gramsci, that wise spokesman for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, who
wrote that the gravest disservice to social justice entailed by Romantic
theories of education is the delusion that educational achievement comes as
naturally as leaves to a tree, without extrinsic motivation, discipline, toil,
or sweat. (214) Concerning what I referred to earlier as educational formalism,
Hirsch states more bluntly than is his wont, The idea that school can
inculcate abstract, generalized skills for thinking, accessing, and problem
solving, and that these skills can be readily applied to the real world is,
bluntly, a mirage. So also is the hope
that a thinking skill in one domain can be readily and reliably transferred to
other domains (143).
And again he reports
that There is a great deal of evidence, indeed a consensus in cognitive
psychology, that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar
problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers, and life
long learners are, without exception, well-informed people (144 ). Some
cognitive psychologists have approached the study of critical thinking by
comparing the different ways experts and novices solve problems. Others have focused on the accuracy and
inaccuracy of problem solving. Both
approaches have led to the same conclusion:
the almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about
any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of
background knowledge relevant to the subject (152). Hirsch concludes,
the picture of higher thinking skills as consisting of all-purpose
processing and accessing techniques is not just a partly inadequate
metaphor---it is a totally misleading model of the way higher-order thinking
actually works. Higher thought does
not apply formal techniques to looked-up data; rather, it deploys diverse
relevant cues, estimates, and analyses from preexisting knowledge. (153) There
is thus no escaping mastery of subject mater. Hirsch believes that the notion that getting an education amounts to
acquiring skills or tools must be replaced with another metaphor, that of
intellectual capital which simply means knowledge plus skills. This notion comes from sociology and is
in harmony with the common sense notion that, just as the more money one has,
the easier it is to make more, so the more knowledge one has, the easier it is
to acquire more. Children from families in which parents read stories to them,
in which current events are discussed over the dinner table, and vacations,
visits to museums and art galleries are a regular feature of family life,
arrive at school with a good deal of intellectual capital. On the
other hand children from culturally deprived backgrounds start school with a
distinct disadvantage. According to
Hirsch, this deficit can be remedied and is remedied in other nations that have
a content-rich curriculum in the early grades ( 20 and 276, note 9).
In Cultural Literacy
Hirsch notes that all documented
societies have used early memorization to carry on their traditions and he
further observes that children have an almost instinctive urge to learn
specific tribal traditions. 9 Given
that a child must learn the traditions of the particular human society and
culture it is born into, 10 it would not be surprising if young children had a
special facility for memorizing information, especially the myths and stories
of their culture. This would be
something similar to the childs special ability to learn a language or
languages. Educators should capitalize
on the facility and pleasure young children take in memorizing. Adults who were required to memorize poems,
stories and facts as children are usually grateful. Many
things such as the multiplication tables and the basics of formal grammar are
never learned if they are not learned at an early age. Progressive educators are thus doing a
distinct disservice to students by opposing drill, practice, memorization and
hard work. Hirschs position on testing is perfectly clear. He admits that some criticisms of objective
tests are valid, but he thinks the defects can be easily avoided (177). He gives four reason why tests are necessary:
l.) Tests contribute to excellence and
fairness, 2) Tests serve as incentives to achievement for both students and
teachers. 3) They are useful to monitor
the progress of students, and 4) They
aid in evaluating classrooms, schools, and districts (177). Regarding the
charge that objective tests are culturally biased and unfair to members of
minority groups, Hirschs own work in identifying a body of background
information that all Americans need to know
should render that charge baseless in the future. This body of knowledge will be described
below. Suffice it to say here that
Hirsch, proceeding as empirically as possible, has made explicit the knowledge
that literate people in our culture have.
This is the knowledge that makes it possible for them to read with
understanding and pleasure. This is the
knowledge that can provide a rational basis for those who make out standardized
tests and reliable guidance for those who must take them. With reference to
progressive educations rejection of the transmission theory of
schooling, the passing down of
knowledge from generation to generation, Hirsch adopts an anthropological
theory of education which is based on the observation that all human
communities are founded upon specific shared information. 11 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. 12 Since humans survive, not by instinct, but by
being initiated into a cultural tradition, transmitting to the younger
generation the wisdom of the tradition is a matter of utmost importance; in
fact it is a matter of survival. It is a
matter of survival for both the individual and the tradition since the culture
will not endure unless it is handed down from generation to generation. As far as criticizing and improving the
culture is concerned, intelligent and constructive criticism must be based on
knowledge. To think that students can
acquire critical thinking skills and then apply them to a cultural tradition
they have not mastered is just the error referred to above as educational
formalism. Another point that
should not be forgotten is that analyzing critically all aspect of our culture
is a part of the Western tradition and has been since the time of Socrates and
the Sophists. Although Hirsch has not said much in print regarding the
importance of knowing grammar, it follows from what he has said.
For instance he stresses the need for standardlanguages
in modern industrial states.13 Large
economic units will not function smoothly unless individuals from various parts
of the nation can communicate with one another. Grammar helps form and stabilize national languages. A
knowledge of grammar is also indispensable for deciphering complex sentences,
texts, and great literature.14 Finally
it seems preposterous to think that students who cannot analyze sentences can
be taught to analyze arguments,
editorials and other extended texts. We must now examine Hirschs positive
contributions to the philosophy of education.
In his 1987 book Cultural Literacy he made the following points: l.
Communication among citizens is essential if democracy is to work and if
citizens are to participate intelligently in democratic processes. This appears to be selfevident.15 2. Intelligent communication is impossible
without literacy. Hirsch assumed that high school graduates should be able
to read newspapers, magazines and books
written for the general public, certainly a reasonable assumption, and in fact, it is the minimum one should
expect of a student after thirteen years of schooling. 3. Evidence from many quarters points to a
serious decline in "communication skills" among young people in
recent decades. I have consigned the
statistics to a footnote.16 4. We have
already seen that Hirsch argues that we cannot blame TV, the breakdown of the
family, poverty, racism, underfunding of
schools or any other external cause for the ineffectiveness of our
schools.. It is the philosophy of
progressive education itself which is to blame.
Reading, which is the basic skill, is not a general skill that can be
developed in the abstract or in a vacuum.
Being able to read differs from text to text and requires "specific
background knowledge" that writers assume readers have (39-48,
58-60). This is why writers in our
culture do not have to identify Jesus or Plato but must identify, for example,
Jacques Derrida as "contemporary French philosopher, founder of
Deconstruction" or Bruno Latour, as a postmodern philosopher of science.
What readers need to know to read works
written for the general public is thus an empirical question which can be
answered empirically. This is what
Hirsch has done, and it is one of his most important contributions. I
mentioned before that during the 1960s the consensus regarding what students
should know broke down. Students
were thus left to their own devices with little guidance from anyone. In essence, Hirsch said, Since educators
cannot agree on what students should study and learn, lets let those who write
for the public decide, that is newspaper reporters, those who write for news
magazines such as Time and Newsweek and authors of books addressed to the
Going through these
publications, Hirsch and his associates asked in each case, "What did the
writers assume that the readers knew?" or put in another way, "What
historical figures, authors, events, scientific concepts, etc. did the writers
not explain?" The result was a list of 5,000 items that was printed in a
sixty-three page appendix to Cultural Literacy.
Hirsch thus found a solution to the problem of content, a solution that
had eluded educators for decades. Hirsch
claims that his approach is descriptive not prescriptive. For instance he never says This is what I
think Americans should know but This is de facto what people in our culture
who are able to read do know and what those who wish to be literate must
learn. Subsequently, with the aid of
numerous teachers Hirsch divided up the 5,000 items into what should be taught
in the first grade, what should be taught in the second grade, and so
forth. The result is what I called before a content-rich curriculum organized into a carefully planned sequence
in which each grade builds on what was taught in the previous ones. Schools
thus should teach the shared background knowledge that literate people in a
culture have. Transmitting this inherited
"wisdom of the tradition" to the younger generation has been the
purpose of education in all cultures, ancient and modern, with the possible
exception of our own since the 1960's.
I conclude with three observations. In spite of the gloomy picture I have painted
of public education in the U.S., there are many talented and effective teachers
and, many excellent schools.
My assumption is that
these teachers, relying on common sense, intuition, and experience, have come
to ignore the theories they were required to study in schools of education
dominated by progressive educators.
After all, teaching is an art not a science. Secondly, it must be admitted that some of
the ideas advanced by progressive educators, such as discovery learning, have some value. It is their wholesale rejection of
traditional approaches that is lamentable and deplorable. A judicious blend of the traditional and the
new is without doubt the best solution.
Hirschs preference is for what he calls dramatized instruction. It is described thus: The classroom can be
formed into a little drama with a beginning, middle and end, well directed but
not rigidly scripted by the teacher. The
beginning sets up the question to be answered, the knowledge to be mastered, or
the skill to be gained; the middle consists of a lot of back-and-forth between
student and student, student and teacher; and the end consists of a feeling of
closure and accomplishment (174). I
suggest that it is in the middle part that some of the ideas of progressive
education might be put into practice.
While it is too early to tell what will be the fate of Hirschs philosophy of
education and of the movement he has initiated, my prediction is that he will
go down in history as the man who did more than anyone else to expose the
errors of progressive education and to recall our schools to the role they
should play in society.
1. Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in E.D. Hirsch,
Jr., The Schools We Need and Why We
Dont Have Them (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
Henceforth superscript numbers will refer to other works. 2. Journal of
Basic Writing, Winter, 1980. 3. The
American Scholar, Vol. 52, 1983, 159-169. 4. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
5. For studies on student achievement in Core Knowledge schools, as these
schools are known, see Evaluation Data
at www.coreknowledge.org. 6. See Preface to Cultural Literacy, xiv-xvii. 7. The
War Against Grammar (Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2003), 12. 8. Mulroy, 5-6. 9.
Cultural Literacy, 30 10. ibid. 31. 11. Ibid.
12. Ibid. 16. 13. Ibid. 73. 14. Mulroy, 79. 15.
Cultural Literacy, 10 17. See 73 ff. On the need for literacy and a
standard language in modern industrial societies. 16. For the latest statistics
see David W. Kirkpatrick, Literacy
Then and Now, www.freedomfoundation.us.