Hirschs Helpful Hints for the Middle Class

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Middle-class children acquire mainstream literate culture by daily encounters with other literate persons.

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But less privileged children are denied consistent interchanges with literate persons and fail to receive this information in school. The most straightforward antidote to their deprivation is to make the essential information more readily available inside the schools. Hirsch, E. New York : Vintage Books. Previous Chapter 7: Directory Next.

Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community … [It is a] universal fact that a human group must have effective communications to function effectively, that effective communications require shared culture and that shared culture requires transmission of specific information to children.

It would be hard to invent a more effective recipe for cultural fragmentation … To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world … That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, on which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.

I am afraid that Coles slips into the fallacious assumption here that teaching students about something is equivalent to promoting it. Clearly, when we teach our students about Nazi Germany, we are not promoting it and to say so would be daft.

National Endowment for the Humanities

Moreover, knowing these things seems to cement their wealth and influence in society. It is for this reason that middle class parents go to great lengths to try to ensure a middle class education for their children.

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

The inverse of this argument is the truth. If you learn about Churchill at school then this does not turn you into Churchill.

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Knowing about Churchill enables you, should you wish, to explain exactly why you think he was an utter bastard and to be able to support this with evidence. Knowing nothing facilitates nothing. It is an abdication of our responsibility to withold knowledge from them. The other two points are false.

Should American education treat children as individuals or have the same goals for all students?

But nobody advocates rote learning of disconnected facts. Neither Milton nor Thomas Jefferson nor any of their more thoughtful contemporaries who championed book learning advocated rote learning. What they did advocate was the systematic acquisition of broad knowledge. And such knowledge is precisely what it takes to become a good reader. So Hirsch is not advocating rote learning. Rote learning implies the memorisation of facts without understanding. To accuse a core knowledge curriculum of being about rote learning is to conflate the learning of knowledge with the learning of knowledge without understanding.

It is perfectly possible to learn knowledge and to understand it. With the best of intentions, it is these ideas that create a servant class that is unable to argue about that of which it knows nothing, let alone foment revolution. View all posts by Greg Ashman. Hirsch, Jr. Specifically, Hirsch criticizes the typical American approach to language instruction, which places great emphasis on skills like finding the main idea or making inferences from clues in the text, yet fails to be prescriptive about the content that students should master.

These skills-based arguments, according to the author, appear to be gaining prominence now as policy discussions on educating the 21st century workforce implicitly devalue content and place an even greater emphasis on skills mastery under the assumption that what students need to know in the future will continue to evolve, while the skills will be the same.

Yet, Hirsch claims this approach is invalid because it mistakes the means skills with the end mastery of content necessary to be functional in American culture.

Should American education treat children as individuals or have the same goals for all students?

Further, the current trends toward increasing testing and the stakes attached to it for both schools and teachers lead to a counter-productive narrowing of the curriculum away from subjects that actually teach content like science and social studies to a subject where standardized tests do not prescribe content reading and language arts. This skills-focused orientation pairs quite naturally with the dominant attitude in American schools towards student-focused instruction. Skills are assumed to be universal across content areas, and students really unleash their learning on the things they engage with—be it medieval history, fashion, or comic books.

Thus, prescriptions about what to teach are not deemed necessary to help students succeed.

Books by Robert Hirsch (Author of Seizing the Light)

Yet, Hirsch argues, this student-centered instructional approach is not research based and likely makes the teachers work harder in a constant tailoring of instruction to an endless supply of students with their own unique interests. This study showed the large majority of textbooks used in most teacher training programs fail to cover the six fundamental strategies that have consistently demonstrated an impact on helping students master new material, based on consensus in the research community which include things like regular quizzing, returning to concepts weeks and months after covering them, and rotating solved problems with unsolved problems.


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Yet, prior arguments about his views of acculturation first described in Cultural Literacy about what constitutes core knowledge continue to apply here. Namely, discussions about content are inherently political and social debates, as they elevate, denigrate or ignore various elements of culture, and not all members of society share those same values. Just look at discussions about how to teach the Civil War, evolution, global warming, or sex education.

However, this strategy ignores the fact that what we teach to many students today influences the culture of tomorrow. Hirsch also discusses the cases of Germany and Sweden, both of which saw dramatic changes in performance as they changed their curriculum.


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