In 1988, E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” became a bestseller.
In this book, Hirsch argues that when we fail to pass along certain pieces of core knowledge to our young people—the dates for World War II, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the meaning of sayings like “Touché!” or “tempest in a teapot”—we may produce readers, but they will be culturally illiterate.
The book contains more than 5,000 bits of information everyone needs to know to meaningfully engage with our culture.
In Chapter I of “Cultural Literacy,” Hirsch recounts some dismaying stories of bright students who nevertheless were culturally ignorant: the pre-law student who thought that Washington, D.C. was in Washington state; the Latin student who believed Latin Americans spoke Latin; the many students who had no idea who Thomas Jefferson was or when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
And that was more than 30 years ago.
Hirsch later went on to found the Core Knowledge Foundation and edit and publish a series of books for elementary school students: “What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know,” “What Your First Grader Needs to Know,” and so on.
These books regale their readers with all sorts of information about history and literature, science and mathematics, art and music. Here, parents and children can find a wealth of what Hirsch called the fundamentals of education.
In “What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know,” for example, we find poems by Wordsworth, Poe, and Dunbar, stories about the Trojan War and Julius Caesar, a section of sayings and their meanings, several histories, a beautifully rendered visual arts section, and much more. Many adults will also learn things from this presentation of core knowledge. For instance, I had never heard of the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner or his warm, sweet painting, “The Banjo Lesson.”
In his introductions to these books, Hirsch gives three reasons for the necessity of core knowledge.
1. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more effective. Here, he makes the point that third-grade students coming together from different second-grade classrooms or different towns often don’t share the same relevant knowledge, and the teacher must, therefore, impart information some of the students already know.
2. Commonly shared knowledge makes schooling more fair and democratic. When all the students who enter a higher grade share a common education—all having a grasp of American history or some of the mechanics of poetry for example—“then all the students are empowered to learn.” In a Core Knowledge program, both rich and poor children have the same base knowledge and they can all build upon that knowledge.
3. Commonly shared knowledge helps create cooperation and solidarity in our schools and nation. Here Hirsch recognizes the diversity of America and the value of different cultures, and argues that a classroom that includes knowledge of many cultures and that has a core curriculum “gives all students, no matter their background, a common foundation for understanding our cultural diversity.”
In his lengthy but worthwhile online essay “A Sense of Belonging,” Hirsch reinforces this last point with these words:
“The federated American idea continues to be, as Abraham Lincoln said, the ‘last best hope on earth.’ The ‘disuniting of America’ has been an unfruitful effort. The individualism of our schools coupled with the divisive anti-nationalist pieties of the recent past have encouraged polarization and helped make our internal politics tribal rather than federated. Our elementary schools need to stop abetting that ominous trend and instead become the first line of defense against them.”
With our schools shut down, perhaps now is the time for American parents and teachers to revisit Hirsch and his ideas about core knowledge, and take a long look at the educational principles he advocates. We might encourage our schools, especially our elementary schools, to add more of this essential core knowledge to their curricula and to build on that knowledge from one year to the next.
In doing so, students might actually possess the information Hirsch views as so critical.
If nothing else, parents can purchase Hirsch’s series of books and use them in the home. The stories, poems, history lessons, art, music, and science should appeal to the young people in our lives and make up for any of the alleged educational deficits school closures may be causing.
“Hitch your wagon to a star” is one of the “Sayings and Phrases” in “What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know.” When we share these books with our children and grandchildren, when we give them the basic building blocks of our culture, we are helping them do that very thing.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog. This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.