The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
By E.D. Hirsch Jr.
Yale, 288 pages, $25
Facts. They are not always welcome in American public-school classrooms. In his new book, The Making of Americans, E.D. Hirsch Jr. quotes from a letter, written by a teacher, to the New York Times: “High schools need to focus on critical thinking, not facts.”
Here is a problem. For as Hirsch notes, this anti-fact attitude is not limited to one teacherly correspondent but is also doctrine in education schools, where it is preached with fervency despite being supported by “no knowledgeable cognitive scientist.” It is an idea that works hand in glove with the equally popular and batty notion of “child-centered” learning, which straight-facedly maintains that a 5-year-old can and should determine what subject matter he studies and when and how he studies it. Somewhere along the way, opposing such piffle became a “conservative” position rather than just a commonsensical one, and so Hirsch, a distinguished scholar and educator, writes that though he is a “political liberal,” he “was forced to become an educational conservative.”
Those conservatives for whom Right-leaning predilections apply beyond the classroom have long allied with educational conservatives like Hirsch to promote policies and ideas such as charter schools, teacher accountability, and a curriculum that doesn’t elide dead white males in favor of haiku and Ghanaian folk dance. Indeed, it was Hirsch’s seminal 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, that galvanized support for a “core curriculum,” one that imparts the information Hirsch believes Americans must know in order to be fully comfortable and functional societal participants. Cultural Literacy was uncompromising in asserting that, yes, facts are important and that some facts are more important than others.
The Making of Americans is similarly uncompromising. It insists that states and localities (and eventually, the nation) must develop and apply specific common core curricula for the early grades. Only by so doing, Hirsch argues, can America produce enlightened citizens who are conscious and respectful of its foundational ideas.
He bolsters his thesis with historical buttresses. The framers, having created a republic, were jittery about it, knowing full well the history of republics: instability and collapse. Through common education, though, they discerned a way to create a population of thoughtful and civic-minded citizens who “would subordinate their interests to the common good.” Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, among their peers, wrote about the importance of providing equal educational opportunities for all children, rich and poor. New York eventually passed the Common School Act in 1812, which laid the foundations for a statewide school system there, and in 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to make school attendance compulsory.
At the center of the American common school was its curriculum: “common knowledge, virtue, skill, and an allegiance to the larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin.” Such an education was deemed important for all, but especially for young immigrants, who began arriving in droves in the 19th century and were expected to yield their particular ethnic or cultural values to those of their new country. The eminent educator Horace Mann wrote in 1842 that “the spread of education . . . will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”
Out of this history emerged Hirsch’s philosophy of “core knowledge.” He deduced that there was an “inertness and stability” in the basic information that American pupils needed to learn in order to participate in the public realm: information, according to Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, that includes “the principles of constitutional government, important events of world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.”
The fundamental foes of core knowledge were and are those peskily persistent child-centered and anti-fact ideologies that, according to Hirsch, “constitute the modern tradition of American education.” They first seeped into America’s schools, he notes, in the 1920s and 1930s and eventually wrought disastrous consequences. In the 1960s, the reading and writing skills of American students began to decline, as did their SAT scores. Referring to Houghton-Mifflin’s current first-grade reading program, which includes titles such as A Dragon Gets By and Roly Poly (as opposed to, say, Socrates and Friends), Hirsch writes, “Little wonder there was a big drop in SAT scores.”
Hirsch is on sturdy ground in implicating anti-fact, child-centered teaching methods generally in America’s academic descent. Yet his particular allegations—for example, that Roly Poly begets analogical incompetence—are quite pointed, and he needs hard evidence to support them. Unfortunately, The Making of Americans doesn’t provide any. Much about the 1960s could have helped deflate student test scores—the rise of teachers’ unions? the legal use of LSD? reading the Maharishi?—and one cannot simply stick two pedagogical theories, however widespread and goofy, with all the blame. As education statisticians never tire of pointing out, correlation does not imply causation. Hirsch would be more convincing on this point if he tempered his accusations.
He might also temper the fervency of his core-curriculum pitch, because there is no evidence that success comes only to those pupils who imbibe specifically core-knowledge lessons. The Making of Americans errs, for instance, when it criticizes “charter-school theorists” who do not use a common core curriculum. Charter schools are appealing precisely because their leaders are allowed to innovate—say, to extend the school day or offer classes during the summer, to set up their own systems for hiring and firing teachers, or to experiment with different curricula. To compel them to teach a particular lesson plan, even a content-rich one, is to deprive them of their essential uniqueness, and it snatches power from principals and parents and gives it to . . . whom? what? Some type of curriculum-authorization authority?
The core curriculum has much to recommend it, certainly, and Hirsch has for years avidly provided such recommendations (alongside his sharp and welcome condemnations of fact-free, child-directed teaching). But there is a marked difference between extolling the benefits of a core curriculum while attacking idiotic educational theories and, as The Making of Americans does, pushing to impose a core curriculum upon all schools, even those that may be doing a fine job without it. Unfortunately, Hirsch seems not to recognize the distinction. Or perhaps he recognizes it but simply doesn’t find the prospect of broad curricular imposition all that worrisome (he is, remember, a “political liberal”). In fact, Hirsch admits that what he truly desires, ultimately, is a “nationwidecore curriculum.”
He should know better. Recently, Hirsch himself reviewed a set of proposed nationwide English standards developed by two nongovernmental organizations and panned them, finding them “very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place.” Why on earth would he expect a national core curriculum to be any less deficient, especially when he enumerates in The Making of Americans just how anti-intellectual and silly the broad education establishment has become? He may hope that such a curriculum would be rigorous and fact-based and meet with the framers’ heaven-sent approval, but if the recent history he recounts is any guide, the product is far likelier to be a murky, multicultural, concept-based document developed by the exact education establishment he excoriates.
Battling that establishment is essential, of course, but it requires tactical modesty and specificity. Copious and grim are the drawbacks to attempting to impress one curriculum on all today’s schools. The Making of Americans, despite its many merits, would have benefited from adopting a more conservative strategy for attaining its educationally conservative goals.