Last year, a moderate kerfuffle shook the Ionian columns of the American Educational establishment with the news that, not only can’t Johnny not read, cipher or “do” science, he also can’t function as an American Citizen. Specifically, less than a quarter of American students, the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates, have mastered civics. If you care at all about your republican heritage and this democratic experiment in self-governance, such news must be worrisome.
But, like so many other modern crises in education, that report and the controversy that ensued provided lots of heat and almost no light. We pretty much all understand that civics mastery is insufficient in this country but nobody knows just what to do about it.
Well, almost no one.
Enter E.D. Hirsch, Jr., This professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia has been weighing in with his concerns about education, on a national stage, for his entire career. I don’t own all of his books, just most of them. The “What every kindergartner, first grader … needs to know” books grace my bookshelves today as they have for decades. I read large swaths of them to my own children at the appropriate times in an attempt to fill in any voids in their education. Hirsch is also the educator who coined the illuminating term, cultural literacy, by which he meant, roughly, a students familiarity with and mastery of his own cultural and historical heritage.
Hirsch is not unanimously acclaimed among the educators or educational reformers. He is, instead, a wonderful example of that descriptor, “You either love him or you hate him.” Personally, I love him for any number of reasons, one of which is that I relish reading the passionately held views of all thinkers in the field of education.
I have to admit, though, that I didn’t expect him to put out any more books. He is 93 after all. Thus, he must have already been in his 90s when he penned, “How to Educate a Citizen,” what even he implies is his final work. (Still Mortimer Adler, the great American Aristotelian philosopher who wrote numerous books on educational reform, wrote swan song after swan song, since not even he expected he would make it to 98.)
“How to Educate a Citizen” is an incredibly timely work for at least a couple of reasons. Before I go into those, a bit on the content of the book. Hirsch makes the case, a strong one, that something powerful changed about especially elementary but also secondary education in the 20th century. Essentially, we moved away from a content-based curriculum, in which generations of school children from sea to shining sea were immersed in a shared history, a common literature and folklore, a shared experience from which all could draw when they debated with their fellow American Citizens and interacted with the world. We moved to a skills-based curriculum in which teachers, schools, and districts were given standards of things children must be able to do but no common content taught to all. His conclusion is, frankly, unarguable. This is precisely what happened. But in that it happened some, most educators in fact, see a reason to celebrate. To others it is an ongoing lament.
Back to those reasons. 1. Hirsch’s book provides an explanation and a solution to the issue of students not mastering civics. They don’t master it because it isn’t being taught as content from the earliest grades. Skill sets are being taught instead and teachers use thousands of different types of content to get at those skills sets. The result is an absence of civics instruction in many parts of the country and, apparently, for a majority of its students. The solution is to return to a content-based curriculum steeped in American history, government, literature and culture from grade kindergarten on up.
2. Hirsch also makes the case that the lack of a common content in school leaves Americans with no shared experience from which to draw. Without that, Americans cannot meaningfully speak with each other. The result is division, anger and conflict.
Hirsch may be right and he may be wrong. What he is not is irrelevant.