Hirsch and Education

In looking at intolerance in public debate  I found several people recommending that we went out and took time to engage in ideas that we know, or think we know, we will disagree with. In this spirit I wanted to look at conservatives on education and I turned first to Hirsch.

It was easy to identify Hirsch as one of the key voices in conservative thinking. His best seller ‘The Schools We Need’ [1] was a key text and was often seen as what inspired Michael Gove when he was in charge of the education in England. So what did Hirsch say?

Like most critics who want us to radically change something he felt he had to make the case that it was all going pear-shaped. Here he is writing about USA but it is the kind of thing that is repeated time and time again by anyone proposing change in any system:

Take a young boy or girl from a typical American family who goes to a typical American school, and imagine that child growing up in France or Germany, Japan or Taiwan. Few would choose to make the experiment. Most Americans believe, as do I, that this country, with its traditions of political freedom and its generous optimism, is the greatest country in the world. But the evidence is strong that that very same young child would grow up more competent in those other countries than in the United States–through having learned much, much more at school in the early grades. Although our political traditions and even our universities may be without peer, our K-12 education is among the least effective in the developed world. Its controlling theories, curricular incoherencies, and what I call its ‘naturalistic fallacies’ are positive barriers to a good education. Scholars from abroad who study American schools are astonished that our children, who score very low in international comparisons, are actually as competent as they manage to be.

What is going wrong for Hirsch is an achievement gap; USA children are falling behind children in other countries and as he later argues it is more socially disadvantaged children who are falling even more behind. Why is this? For Hirsch education in the USA is overly influenced by ‘discredited’ theories of education based on a romantic view of childhood and an anti-knowledge culture in schools.

This is playing to his conservative audience. However what makes Hirsch a powerful protagonist is that he tries to make a pragmatic case for reform. For example he calls out the knee-jerk responses that both political conservatives and liberals make about education and argues that it is possible to take arguments about education on their merits; he describes himself as socially liberal but educationally conservative. He also claims his agenda is concerned not with selection but with underachievement among the socially disadvantaged, including disproportionate numbers of black children, and wants all children to succeed. He proposes a common curriculum, rather than free market solutions such as Charter schools. Hirsch argues too that all children need to gain the ability to read write and communicate clearly, and unless they have the same kind of core knowledge of nature and culture, then they will not be able to participate fully in society and will not enjoy better economic prospects.

Core knowledge is the key thing for Hirsch and teaching this core knowledge is more important than so called generic skills, or higher order skills. Hirsch argues that all advanced skills rest upon prior knowledge and without grounding in core knowledge children do not have a hook on which to hang new ideas. Not surprisingly he is critical too of the argument that technology has made memorisation and knowledge of facts redundant; there are things we do need to commit them to memory. Finally, he argues that on practical grounds that schemes of work should be specific as to content so that children have a common experiences on which to build on when they move classes or, as often happens, when they move school.

Hirsch is at his most persuasive when he is pragmatic. He agues, at least at times, not for one approach instead of another but a rebalancing so that there is more direct teaching and less project work. He is open to change in the curriculum to reflect multi cultural society but such change should not detract from rigour or undermine a common curriculum. He values memorisation but he is not basing his educational ideas on the kind of crass behaviourism beloved by some conservative thinkers and recognises that the mind is a complex thing; teaching approaches such as phonics are not an end in themselves but needed for other academic skills to develop.   He accepts that learners ‘construct’ their ideas, they subjectively interpret what they are given and actively try to make sense of it for themselves. However such constructivism does not mean there is a particular pedagogical approach that should be followed, you can be a good constructivist learner in an instructional class as easily as in a project class.  He does not like individualisation or new fangled ideas such as personalisation of the curriculum and does not like the idea of learning styles.

So what was it worthwhile to explore something I knew I would not agree with? Well, yes as I learnt not to lump conservatism in education with the specific political programmes put forward by Conservative parties, particularly in UK and USA. I discovered that conservatism is really about handing down the past to a new generation. As such it can cut across the political divide – for example Hannah Arendt [2] who was a liberal philosopher was unexpectedly conservative on education matters and had no truck with ‘progressive’ education. Her point was that she wanted teachers to be in authority and feel their authority in the classroom. What I liked in Hirsch was a passion for education and a reaffirmation of the importance of academic knowledge as something that really helped you to think and achieve in life. What I didn’t like was the idea that it was all going wrong – really everywhere and every day?.

I didn’t mind the hard-headed approach when it came to knowledge but you can see how Hirsch could be taken as advocating a diet of rote learning, which is very wrong. He needed to say how the kind of instructional teaching he likes can engage children and what kind of balance should there be between instruction and more flexible guided practice. We also need to know how all this instructional teaching can lead later to free expression of ideas. He is pretty much hands-off as regards curriculum reform, but why not move the curriculum into areas which have more relevance or hold more interest to young learners.

Hirsch is least persuasive when cherry picking evidence and making sweeping generalisation. That was just annoying. For him education professors are fighting battles of long ago: they are all of one mind, they have little intellectual rigour and standing, and  they do not tolerate dissent. I have not lived in USA but the US education academics I have met were, like most academics everywhere, geeky and obsessive about teaching and learning rather than consistently ‘progressive’.

So the exercise in this case was worthwhile. I could see much better what lay behind Hirsch’s ideas but I was not a convert.

[1] Hirsch, E. D. (2010). The Schools We Need: and Why We Don’t Have Them. NY, USA, Anchor.

[2]Arendt, H. (1961 / 1977). Between Past and Present. London: Penguin.