How to Educate a Citizen by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

I remember writing an essay once making the argument that what a person knows isn’t as paramount as their willingness and ability to learn. Never have I called that idea into question as much as after reading How to Educate a Citizen: the Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. In it, E.D. Hirsch articulates the philosophy that a shared, core knowledge base is a very important component of a peaceful, productive society. Perhaps 2020 is good evidence of that, or at least the pitfalls of the failure to achieve it.

As someone who loves information, it is perplexing to me that we seem to have arrived at a place where the collected body of knowledge, often acquired at great cost, is regarded disdainfully, if not outright rejected, by so many people. Hirsch, an educator, literary critic and author of other books, such as Cultural Literacy, is concerned about the Constructivist approach the American educational system has largely followed since the 1960s. Sometimes called child or student-centered education, it has become the norm in most classrooms across the country. This approach relies on the student to guide or “construct” their own educational experience by asking questions and doing research and experiments as they are motivated. It does not necessarily teach them how to do the research or give them a jumping-off point from the apex of collective knowledge.

You may have heard it lauded in the expression, “Be a guide on the side not a sage on the stage.”  Hirsch argues that a so-called sage can entice students in a variety of interesting ways. Additionally, it avoids the frustration of expecting students to inherently know what questions to ask in directing their own educational path, as necessitated by the child-centered method.

The readers should not misunderstand Core Knowledge as simply a discrete list of facts. The facts, Hirsch says, must be tied into the context of culture. Understanding culture, including the depth of its histories which shape it, is essential.

What, then, is a concerned citizen to do?

Consider this excerpt, which will likely be relatable to readers with children in their lives: “A parent in the [child-centered] schools, when a child comes home, says ‘How was your day? Okay, what’d you learn?’ The child says, ‘Uh.’ In [Core Knowledge] schools, the parent knows specifically what to ask the child. ‘What did you learn about the solar system today? What did you learn about the Bill of Rights today?’…In other schools, parents don’t know what role to play. I don’t want parents selling cookies and all that nonsense. I want them to be responsible for learning, and having them demonstrate their knowledge.”

This would suggest taking an interest in the curricula in your community’s schools. If you’ve ever read through any state’s latest educational standards, you’ll find vague statements that leave a wide berth for variations in curricular implementation across classrooms, even in the same communities at the same grade levels. It is lacking in “specific subject-matter details.” This, according to Hirsch, is problematic because it leaves society devoid of a unifying set of understandings. Without that, different people see the same events and come to vastly different conclusions.

Hirsch cites empirical evidence that the child-centered approach, when contrasted with the content-based approach he calls Core Knowledge, is lacking. The success of schools who commit to a content-based model is evidenced in their above-average test scores, their level of improvement after switching from another method, even their victories over competitors in debate championships, including students living in poverty or other oppressive life circumstances. The level of unity and competence rises in students who receive content-based instruction.

Hirsch also points out that living in society requires cooperation among people. He challenges the reader to consider the threats to democracy that individualism poses. I appreciate that Hirsch’s style is devoid of self-righteous certitude and moral indignation that makes some nonfiction reading burdensome. I recommend thoughtfully reading How to Educate a Citizen: the Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation.  When you’re done, you can check out Hirsh’s Core Knowledge series shelved in the Learning Collection of the Davenport Public Library. A list of the Learning Collection books can be found in the LibGuide here.

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