Commentary Magazine

The Schools We Need by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t have them
by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
Doubleday. 317 pp. $24.95

Why are American schools so bad? Why do our children routinely place near (or at) the bottom of the list when rated against students in other developed nations? Our education establishment, skilled in the art of self-exonerating spin, has a plethora of explanations for this dismal state of affairs. Chief among them is a cheap resort to American exceptionalism: no nation, we are told, is, or ever has been, so multicultural, so diverse, or so complex; therefore, all international comparisons are misleading, if not meaningless.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. will have none of this. In his latest book he places the blame squarely on the false and pernicious ideas of American educationists themselves. The Schools We Need is a tour de force of unsparing critique, directed almost entirely against the still-regnant Progressive ideals that have distorted American educational thought and practice for most of the 20th century.

Hirsch, who first attracted wide notice ten years ago with Cultural Literacy, a plea for a shared fund of general knowledge as the cement of democratic citizenship, is hardly the first to criticize Progressive principles. He duly acknowledges his debt to distinguished predecessors, ranging from Arthur Bestor to Charles Sykes. But there are three qualities that set The Schools We Need apart. First, it offers a compact and lucid history of American educational thought in the past century, showing precisely how the misconceptions of the present are rooted in certain characteristic features of the past. Second, it measures the reiterated claims of educationists against the latest empirical research—an exercise which nearly always serves to disconfirm those claims. Third and perhaps most important, it argues convincingly that the implementation of Progressive educational ideas has actually served to deepen the very class stratification the Progressives originally sought to combat. Only by discarding Progressivism, Hirsch concludes, can we hope to restore the vitality of the common-school idea put forward so long ago by Horace Mann and his successors.



The problem, in Hirsch’s rendering, began in the American fondness for romanticism, with its feckless assumptions about human nature, about the innocent perfection of childhood, and about the “unnaturalness” of formalized pedagogy. That romantic background melded nicely with the Progressives’ “child-centered” educational agenda to produce two “fundamental tenets.” The first of these Hirsch calls “formalism”: the belief that the acquisition of factual knowledge is less important than the acquisition of formal tools (like “critical thinking”) that will enable future learning. The second is “naturalism”: the belief that education is most effective when connected to natural goals and dispositions, rather than being tied to the forced and artificial setting of the classroom.

Both of these tenets, Hirsch shows, are half-truths at best. Formalism fails even on its own terms, because there is no such thing as the acquisition of a formal skill without the simultaneous acquisition of what psychologists call “domain-specific” content knowledge. In other words, one learns to learn by learning about something in particular. It follows that acquiring general skills, to the extent this is possible at all, depends upon an ample fund of knowledge. Not only is such knowledge important for citizenship, as Hirsch argued in Cultural Literacy, it is also essential for continued learning itself.

As for naturalism, the evidence of cognitive-psychological research indicates that there is, in fact, nothing especially natural about certain vital skills (reading, for example), and efforts to teach these skills in more natural ways (like whole-language instruction) are far less effective than traditional methods (like phonics) which rely upon elements of rote memorization or repetition. The notion that children should be asked to do only those things that are “developmentally appropriate”—an educationese mantra that Hirsch decries as pseudo-scientific—merely serves to hold back their development, and particularly so in the case of the socially disadvantaged.



Why, then, if these tenets are so egregiously false and pernicious, have they shown such astonishing staying power? Because educationists have encapsulated themselves, for the better part of a century, within a mindset that flatters their professional pretensions while rendering them impervious to external criticism. Hirsch traces the origins of this “thought-world” to Teachers College at Columbia University, and particularly to the influence of William Heard Kilpatrick, whose writings, and whose work in training thousands of future professors of education, left a decisive mark upon the field. Recognizing that the key to professional status was the cultivation of a distinctive academic specialty, Kilpatrick and his colleagues made the study of the learning process itself their bailiwick, thus reinforcing the subordination of subject knowledge to pedagogy.

This arrangement has been deeply injurious both to the cause of knowledge and to the cause of pedagogy. But that is hardly all. Progressive educational ideas, Hirsch argues, have actually led not only to “practical failure” but to “greater social inequity.” They have had this effect because they do nothing to counterbalance the enormous edge in school that is enjoyed by relatively advantaged students who come from a reasonably settled family and home life. Paradoxically, whereas Progressive education reinforces existing class hierarchies, “traditional,” “mechanical,” “rote,” and other now-forbidden, content-rich pedagogies actually do far more to level the playing field, and to give disadvantaged students a chance to acquire some of the core knowledge which, through no fault of their own, they lack. It follows, as Hirsch puts it, that “The only practical way to achieve liberalism’s aim of greater social justice”—the avowed aim, that is, of the Progressives themselves—“is to pursue conservative educational policies.”



Of course he is right. But given the current professional and political disposition of the profession, an about-face in the direction of “conservative educational policies” is as likely to happen as Edward M. Kennedy’s enlisting in the Christian Coalition. This is to take nothing away from the admirably constructive criticisms and suggestions Hirsch has proffered in The Schools We Need. But if the educationists’ monopoly is to be broken—as Hirsch acknowledges it must be before anything can change—it is not going to happen overnight.

Moreover, the process is bound to be far more disruptive than any of us would care to admit, and would almost certainly entail the acceptance of a much higher degree of educational pluralism than Hirsch, for one, as a proponent of national standards, would find desirable. In this connection, it is puzzling that he has so little to say about charter schools, school choice, and other contemporary phenomena that (along with the continuing health of private schools) hold the greatest potential for breaking the monopoly.

The rise of home-schooling, which Hirsch does not discuss at all, is of particular interest. This is one of the most underreported developments of our time, flying as it does below the radar of most of our cultural elites, who could no more imagine teaching their own children than churning their own butter. But a growing number of Americans are doing just that, and often with admirable results.

This picture is both gratifying and disturbing to contemplate. Gratifying, because it confirms that this is still a substantially free country, and that there are still men and women in it who are deeply and concretely dedicated to the welfare of their children. Disturbing, because it means that many of our most conscientious citizens have turned their backs on one of our fundamental institutions, an institution that, for all its flaws, has served as an engine of mobility and self-improvement for most of the nation’s history.

In the end, the intellectual problems Hirsch addresses may be easier to solve than the political ones, which seem almost intractable. Either the “schools we need” will find a way of attracting disaffected parents back into the system—or else these parents are going to have to be given additional means of circumventing the existing system entirely. At the moment, the second outcome seems a likelier prospect than the first.


About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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