The Pioneer Institute [April 2006]
A Review of E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who published Cultural Literacy in 1987, arguing that there was knowledge which every student ought to have, has now published another book, The Knowledge Deficit, (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) suggesting that the bankruptcy of the “transfer of thinking skills” position has lead to preventing most U.S. schoolchildren, and especially the disadvantaged ones who really depend on the schools to teach them, from acquiring the ability to read well.
Not too long after the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. mental measurement community convinced itself, and many others, that the cognitive skills acquired in the study of Latin in school did not “transfer” to other important tasks, one of which at the time was teaching students “worthy home membership.”
As a result, not only was the study of the Latin language abandoned for many students, but at the same time the “baby”–of Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Tacitus, Virgil and others–was thrown out with the “bathwater.” In losing the language, we also lost Roman history, law, poetry, and prose.
In place of this classical knowledge which had been thought essential for two thousand years, the mental measurement community offered “thinking skills,” which they claimed could be applied to any content.
Professor Hirsch reaches back beyond the mental measurement folks to Thomas Jefferson, for someone who shares his view of the value of the knowledge in books:
“In our pre-romantic days, books were seen as key to education. In a 1786 letter to his nephew, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors: [history] Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Anabasis, Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin. On morality, Jefferson recommended books by Epictetus, Plato, Cicero, Antoninus, Seneca, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and in poetry Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Milton, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope and Swift. Jefferson’s plan of book learning was modest compared to the Puritan education of the seventeenth century as advocated by John Milton.” (p. 9)
Professor Hirsch believes the Romantic notion that with the right skills, somehow knowledge will arrive by itself, without the need to resort to books, has been responsible for the steady decline in U.S. students’ reading scores, compared to our international colleagues, the longer they stay in school.
In the 1980s, the Harvard faculty was once more debating what to put in a common core of knowledge to be taught to all the students. After much disagreement, professors who didn’t want to teach survey courses, and perhaps believed in the transfer of thinking skills from one discipline to another, decided not to require any general knowledge in particular and to teach “ways of thinking” as they focused on whatever topics they were studying at the time themselves.
In 1990, Caleb Nelson, a recent graduate in Mathematics from Harvard College, published an article in The Atlantic Monthly, called “Harvard’s Hollow Core.” He noted that the 1945 Harvard statement of goals said that “educational institutions should strive to create responsible democratic citizens, well-versed in the heritage of the West and endowed with the common knowledge and the common values on which a free society depends.” Mr. Nelson reported, however, that by the 1970s, Harvard would develop a “Core Curriculum” that was somewhat different. “Yet although Harvard officials wanted to reform the curriculum, they did not want to launch divisive arguments within the faculty about which subjects were most important…in the seventies, Harvard devised a novel scheme to avoid discord while still reforming its curriculum. If every ‘specific proposal’ for reform raised a fire storm, the college would simply avoid specifics. Rather than emphasize knowledge the new core curriculum would emphasize students’ critical faculties…As Anthony Oettinger, a professor of applied mathematics said about the resulting proposal, ‘This motion cannot fail to pass; it has become totally content-free.’…The philosophy behind the core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts, but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so.”
While the Harvard Core has been widely imitated, and has thus done more damage than anyone could have anticipated, this is not what Professor Hirsch has focused on in his new book. He is concerned about the fact that reading instruction which slights the essential requirement of knowledge is spreading the “Matthew effect” in reading. “Those who already have good language understanding will gain still more language proficiency, while those who lack initial understanding will fall further and further behind.” (p. 25) Even with the advances in reading recently made by a general return to direct instruction in phonics, without knowledge the student will not be able to read much.
“After mastering decoding, a student who reads widely can indeed, under the right circumstances, gain greater knowledge and thence better reading comprehension. But such gains will only occur if the student already knows enough to comprehend the meaning of what he or she is decoding! Many specialists estimate that a child or an adult needs to understand around 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to learn to understand the other 10 percent of the words. Moreover, it’s not just the words that the student has to grasp the meaning of; it’s also the kind of reality that the words are referring to. When a child doesn’t understand those word meanings and those referred-to realities, being good at sounding out words is a dead end.” (p. 25)
All of this would seem to be obvious: if you don’t know what someone is talking about, you can’t very well understand what they are saying. If you don’t know the basic subject matter of a passage in a book, you won’t know what the passage is about. But this sort of common sense has yet to penetrate the educrats’ wonderful world of reading “skills.” And there are consequences.
Many now seem puzzled that 32% of our high school students drop out before graduating with their class. ACT has just reported that of the high school graduates they tested, 49% cannot understand reading at the level of difficulty of freshman college texts.
Professor Hirsch points out that knowledge is necessary for making advances in reading (and learning) by relying on the work of those who have done the research in this area:
“Cognitive psychologists have determined that when a text is being understood, the reader (or listener) is filling in a lot of the unstated connections between the words to create an imagined situation model based on domain-specific knowledge…To understand language, whether written or spoken, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the explicit words of the text as well as meanings inferred or constructed from relevant background knowledge. The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can’t understand the text.” (p. 38)
Professor Hirsch is arguing that in deliberately putting the pursuit of knowledge aside, educators are ensuring that far too many of our students, and in particular those who cannot rely on their homes to provide them with a good background of knowledge, are being prevented from reading to learn. Phonics may teach them to decode words, but only knowledge can give them the base they need to understand what they find in books. As Caleb Nelson said in his article on Harvard’s Core:
“The problem goes beyond the particular courses that are now in the Core: no set of introductory courses could achieve the core’s ostensible goals. One cannot think like a physicist, for example, without actually knowing a great deal of physics…If the core’s goals were realistic, they would still have little to recommend them. Why, for instance, are lessons about the nature of history as a discipline the most important things for students to learn in their required history course? Students should certainly recognize that history is the testing ground of public policy, and that its study can reveal much about the psychology of people and nations; as Santayana’s famous aphorism goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But this lesson about history is useless unless one also learns the actual facts of history–an accomplishment that requires careful attention to historical facts themselves.”
The anti-intellectualism and anti-knowledge attitudes that Professor Hirsch has found among so many professors and teachers in education, are not limited to the elementary schools or to Harvard College. The fondness for “critical thinking” without much knowledge may have reached some sort of peak in the suggestion of the Creation Science people that secondary students be encouraged to “think critically” about the theory of evolution. Has any of them stopped to consider that if high school students spent all four years on the study of the evidence evolutionary biologists have published, not only could they study nothing else, but they would only have scratched the surface of the scientific evidence in the field? It might be less onerous for students to “think critically” about all the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the last ten years. It would perhaps be easier for them to “think critically” about capitalism if they understood the difference between monetary policy and fiscal policy and their differing effects.
Professor Hirsch, a scholar of the history of ideas, has quite clearly identified the two intellectual forces that battle against the value of knowledge:
“The two ideologies or philosophies that dominate in the American educational world, which tend to corrupt scientific inferences, are naturalism and formalism. Naturalism is the notion that learning can and should be natural and that any unnatural or artificial approach to school learning should be rejected or deemphasized. This point of view favors many of the methods that are currently most praised and admired in early schooling–‘hands-on learning,’ ‘developmentally appropriate practice,’ and the natural, whole-language method of learning to read. By contrast, methods that are unnatural are usually deplored, including ‘drill,’ ‘rote learning,’ and that analytical, phonics approach to teaching early reading. We call such naturalism an ideology rather than a theory because it is more a value system (based on the European Romantic movement) than an empirically based idea. If we adopt this ideology, we know in advance that the natural is good and the artificial is bad. We don’t need analysis and evidence; we are certain, quite apart from the evidence, that children’s education will be more productive if it is more natural. If the data do not show this, it is because we are using the wrong kinds of data, such as scores on standardized tests. That is naturalism.
“Formalism is the ideology that what counts in education is not the learning of things but rather learning how to learn. What counts is not gaining mere facts but gaining formal skills. Along with naturalism, it shares an antipathy to mere facts and the piling up of information. The facts, it says, are always changing. Children need to learn how to understand and interpret any new facts that come along. The skills that children need to learn in school are not how to follow mindless procedures but rather to understand what lies behind the procedures so they can apply them to new situations. In reading, instead of learning a lot of factual subject matter, which is potentially infinite, the child needs to learn strategies for dealing with any texts, such as ‘questioning the author,’ ‘classifying,’ and other ‘critical thinking’ skills.” (p. 135)
Both Professor Hirsch, in 1987, with Cultural Literacy, in 1996 with The Schools We Deserve, and now, in 2006, with The Knowledge Deficit, and Caleb Nelson in 1990, have tried to show us the reasons why so many of our students are ignorant, and thus unable to comprehend good lectures and read serious texts. No wonder so many of our students give up on school or on college, when we have arranged it so that far too many of them don’t know what educated people are talking and writing about. As the Nation At Risk Report said in 1983, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Professor Hirsch, in his timely new book The Knowledge Deficit, provides the insights and the recommendations needed to help us protect our students against the anti-intellectual and anti-knowledge forces they face every day now in our schools (and in our colleges), and instead try to give them the knowledge they will need to help them read, listen, and gather more knowledge in the future.
[E.D. Hirsch told me this was the first serious review of his book, and he liked it.]