Summer 2002

Not to worry?

Eric Donald Hirsch
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E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder and chairman of Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on education issues including the best-seller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996). He also wrote the best-selling Core Knowledge series, which begins with What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know and continues through each grade, concluding with What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. Hirsch has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1977.

All strength – all terror, single or in bands,
That ever was put forth in personal form –
Jehovah – with his thunder, and the choir
Of shouting Angels, and the empyreal thrones –
I pass them unalarmed.

– Wordsworth

Equipped with an unparalleled knowledge of American public education, Diane Ravitch offers telling illustrations of the ways in which American schools are perpetuating cultural fragmentation and a skills gap between rich and poor.

One can plausibly disagree with some of her conclusions. Theodore Sizer reasonably questions whether textbook publishers should be assigned so much blame for the appalling mediocrity of textbooks, given the exactingly complex rules for state textbook adoption. He and Howard Gardner are legitimately skeptical about what I take to be an implication of Ravitch’s essay – that schools across the nation should require students to read a common core of specific literary works. It would be nice if everybody knew Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, but in practice it’s much harder to gain principled agreement on an arbitrary list of literary works than on specific knowledge in history, science, math, and civics.

These are quibbles compared to the importance of the problems Ravitch has identified. A basic goal of public education in a democracy is to integrate future citizens into a national community of discourse based on common reference points and a common language, and, in a general sense, common loyalties and values. Another basic aim of democratic schooling is to form an autonomous citizenry capable of ruling itself. And most democracies, including our own, attempt to narrow the education gap between rich and poor, so that a person’s life chances will be determined more by character and talent than by who one’s parents happen to be. Diane Ravitch is alarmed that our public education is very far from meeting these basic democratic goals, partly because it cannot make up its mind about the specifics of a curriculum. I think she is right to be alarmed.

Theodore Sizer seems less alarmed. He appears to be just as concerned about Ravitch’s proposed solution – instituting some degree of commonality in the school curriculum – as he is with the current shortcomings of American schooling. Yet his proposed solution to those shortcomings – attracting better teachers and letting them and their schools determine curriculum – is not a very concrete proposal, and appears to have its own practical and logical difficulties. Of course Sizer is right that having better teachers will improve teaching and learning. That sounds suspiciously like a tautology. Unfortunately, an incoherent school system such as the one we have, and such as the one Sizer continues to advocate, grinds down good teachers by its very incoherence. If there is little commonality in what students learn at a grade level, then the teacher of each successive grade faces the ever-mounting and finally impossible task of accommodating students with different levels of preparation for the new lessons to be learned.

This characteristic American difficulty, caused by curricular incoherence, is exacerbated by the swarm of students who move from school to school even within the year. In our major cities, the within-year mobility rate of students (usually the neediest students) is around 30 percent. Over time, the percentage of students who have moved more than once in grade school increases to more than 50 percent. Unless we ignore the resulting educational incoherence for this group, caused by lack of commonality in the curriculum, we must not take the individual, local school as the unit for making educational policy, as Sizer wishes to do. Since most mobility occurs within a district, what Sizer says about the local school should be expanded at least to the local district, in which case, in order to achieve a minimum of commonality across the district, he would need to make some specific curricular decisions.

Everyone agrees that results count, yet Sizer does not want to apply a common measure for school results. He advocates “regular state inspection,” but is silent about how inspectors could reliably or fairly evaluate schools without standards of judgment based on common criteria that would not vary wildly from inspector to inspector. And I don’t grasp how there could be common standards for inspectors without basing them on common standards for student outcomes. Commonality is not uniformity. Ravitch would hardly disagree with Sizer that there are many acceptable ways for schools and students to meet academic standards, once we know with some definiteness what they are.

The need for a degree of curricular commonality is so elemental and logical as to be self-evident. It has been recognized by most of the liberal democracies, including now even Great Britain. Yet this elemental logic is resisted by American experts like Sizer and Gardner, despite the current shortcomings of our public education, and despite the evident fact that their proposals would perpetuate this lack of curricular commonality without compensating for its mind-wasting unfairness. Given the popularity of their views in the education world, more than mere logic is needed to persuade parents and schools to move toward greater commonality.

Recently I have felt that what is needed to moderate the anticommonality attitude is an understanding of the very American emotion behind it. It is a quasireligious emotion that values diversity above commonality (“one law for lion and ox is oppression” said Blake the romantic) and that has faith in the self-adjusting power of natural processes, including educational processes, when they are left alone. Thus, when Ravitch is alarmed by the poor quality of textbooks, Gardner says that “he can’t share Ravitch’s alarm.” Why not? Because, he says, “excesses breed reactions, and I am confident that bland textbooks will generate ones that stand out.”

Blake said it memorably: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But why was Blake (and now Gardner) so confident that excess would lead to a beneficent result rather than merely more excess? M. H. Abrams, the expert on romanticism, had a phrase for this quasireligious faith in the beneficence of processes when left alone: he called it “natural supernaturalism.” In essence, it is a secular version of the belief in a providential divinity. First it was “God will provide.” Then it was “Nature will provide,” and now it’s “A free society will provide.” That pattern of thought is everywhere in our culture, in free-market romanticism, in free-culture romanticism, and, emphatically, in educational romanticism. The hallmark of such thinking is an Olympian unwillingness to interfere with the untrammeled process, because to do so would artificially interfere with that which, if left alone, would lead to the palace of wisdom.

This romanticism underlying so much American educational thought would be merely a curiosity of American intellectual history were it not for the practical fact that these ideas are not just empirically wrong but also pernicious in their social and economic effects. The only way in which a complacent educational romanticism could be justified would be if it viewed antiromantic activists like Diane Ravitch as part of the benign, self-correcting process in which it places such unwarranted faith. After all, an intellectually consistent romantic would not write in opposition to Diane Ravitch but would allow the providential process to unfold by getting out of her way.