The Schools We Need

by E.D. Hirsch.
Reviewed by Mike Eisenberg (March, 1999)

Although it takes strong, even combative views, E.D. Hirsch's book The Schools We Need resists easy classification. Hirsch's main argument is that education (at least early education) is best characterized as the accumulation of "intellectual capital"; that this capital is realized in a curriculum that stresses the communication of culturally central facts and skills; that this curriculum is an identifiable property of national heritage and (at least to a first approximation) stable over time; that it is most effectively structured as a coherent, fine-grained, and closely monitored sequence of educational objectives; and that the appropriate instructional methods for this curriculum include extensive doses of whole-classroom instruction, with an emphasis on order, discipline, and the introduction of material in small, easily mastered chunks. Along the way, Hirsch finds many targets to attack: proponents of "holistic learning", "lifelong learning", "child-centered education", "individual learning styles", and "higher-order learning skills", among others. In Hirsch's view, all these are outgrowths of a basically failed Romantic intellectual view, whose heritage can be traced back at least as far as Rousseau's Emile.: the Romanticists' belief in the natural goodness of human beings have led to an educational philosophy that ignores its responsibility to improve the lives of children through the occasionally tough love of outright instruction.

Is such a view "conservative" or "liberal"? In the current confusion and anger of American political debate, it's hardly an easy call. Hirsch shares at least two of the key rhetorical assumptions of conservative argument: that American culture is in widespread decline and that there is an imperilled national consensus. (The progressives, despite their continued intellectual failures, seem forever to be in the politicial ascendant.) Some "conservatives" would applaud Hirsch's jabs at the many varieties of progressive educational theory; they would be comfortable with the notion of a quiet, orderly, easily managed, and readily assessed elementary school classroom. The appeal here is to the image of political order and stability transferred to the realm of childhood. But Hirsch would argue that, on economic grounds, his arguments should appeal to the "liberal" strain of thought that sympathizes with the economically disadvantaged; he argues that the poorest children are most harmed by the Romanticist classroom, and would benefit most from an emphasis on intellectual capital. The Hirschian classroom would arguably be a more egalitarian one, with little or no emphasis on "elite" (and by implication "non-elite") students. And what would America's religious right make of Hirsch's stress on a common, cultural core of learning: might not they see a threat in a collective, secular, nonsectarian nationwide curriculum?

There is indeed a battle here, but it's not, as Hirsch well understands, an easy matter of left-versus-right. It is a broader, maybe vaguer matter than that-a battle of aesthetic points of view, of images, tastes, of contrasting senses of the purpose of education (or what Neil Postman calls "the end of education"). It isn't just that Hirsch disagrees with his opponents over questions of evidence, but that he and they see the process of education, and maybe of life, through different lenses.

Hirsch's portrait of education is, at heart, one of skill and knowledge acquisition. The child's role, in this picture, is to garner the intellectual tools to cope with a competitive, perhaps hostile world. Education-again on this view-is a matter of preparation, of cautious preparedness; even the notion of "intellectual capital" conjures up images of stockpiling resources. To push this picture a little-but only a little-in the direction of caricature: the world is a grim, demanding place, and children must grow up to be ready to handle it. The primary result of a successful education will be a readiness to cope, as reflected in job security and financial success. Over and over, Hirsch uses the language of "competencies", "knowledge", "skills" (though he emphatically favors specific, well-defined skills, such as decoding of words in early literacy, over fuzzier "metacognitive" skills); such things are possessed, acquired, built upon.

There is certainly an internal coherence to this world view, and some truth to it as well. Children need to grow into adults who can acquire jobs, hold jobs, put food on the table and a roof over their families' heads. And yes, the world is a grim place, at least sometimes. But is it unfair to say that there is something nagging about this vision as well-a kind of joylessness, perhaps? The Hirschian child will most likely grow into a skilled, well-behaved, knowledge-rich adult. There is no particular reason to expect that he or she will develop a sense of intellectual passion, a personal project or mission, a lifelong interest in anything in particular. It seems eminently likely that, as a result of the Hirschian education, the child will grow into an adult who accepts (but barely tolerates) his or her job; at the end of the day, the well-educated adult goes home to watch six hours of television, and understands perfectly every common cultural reference. If the adult has not repressed his or her classroom experience entirely, that experience is remembered with a stern sense of accomplishment, a rite of passage completed, a tough job well done.

Hirsch may claim that joy, playfulness, and a sense of mission are natural side-effects of intellectual capitals, but these concepts appear infrequently in his rhetoric. He criticizes his opponents for selective attention to educational research (and for favoring sloppy research methods), but he himself shows an interesting partiality to classroom-wide, statistical research of a kind that says little about the experience of individuals. Biography, in this view, isn't data-or, as it isn't narrowly construed scientific data, it must be unimportant. But there is an odd discrepancy between Hirsch's views and the reminiscences of creative adults; repeatedly, when creative individuals reflect upon their own educations they recall activities, materials, settings, and role models. (Books such as [John-Steiner], [Csikszentmihalyi], [Mathematical People], and [Origins] are illustrative compendia of such anecdotes.) It is rare to find such a person reminiscing about the acquisition of particular facts, or bodies of facts; it is even rarer to find such a person reminiscing about the positive effects of their own classroom-wide instruction. Consider the astronomer Margaret Geller's reflections:

My father is a crystallographer. Not only is he interested in crystallography, but he is also interested in design-the design of furniture and buildings.... He had an attraction for any kind of toy that had anything to do with geometry.... [T]here were toys where you could connect flat shapes up with rubber bands to make solid figures. He bought me that, and he'd explain to me the relationship between things that I built and things in the world. For example, I'd make a cube, and he'd explain to me the relationship between that and the structure of table salt. And I'd make an icosahedron, and he'd explain how you see that in the real world.... I would be able to visualize in 3-D. And I realize now-I've talked to lots of people in science-that very few people have that ability."

Or the mathematician Norbert Wiener's:

"I was brought up in a house of learning.... When I was about seven years old, Father [invited] a chemical student... to set up a little laboratory in the nursery and to show me some simple experiments.... Once I had been sensitized to an interest in the scientific-and various toys of scientific content played almost as great a role in this as my reading-I became aware of stimulating material all about me."

Or this account of Isaac Newton, as told by a contemporary:

"Every one that knew Sir Isaac [Newton], or have heard of him, recount the pregnancy of his parts when a boy, his strange inventions, and extraordinary inclination for mechanics. That instead of playing among the other boys, when from school, he always busied himself in making knick-knacks and models of wood in many kinds. For which purposes he had got little saws, hatchets, hammers, and a whole shop of tools, which he would use with great dexterity. In particular they speak of his making a wooden clock...."

Or this image of Stephen Hawking's youth, as recounted in a recent biography:

"Stephen's [Hawking] room... was the magician's lair, the mad professor's laboratory, and the messy teenager's study all rolled into one. Among the general detritus and debris, half-finished homework, mugs of undrunk tea, schoolbooks and bits of model aircraft and bizarre gadgets lay in untended heaps. On the sideboard stood electrical devices, the uses of which could only be guessed at, and next to those a rack of test-tubes, their contents neglected and discoloured among the general confusion of odd pieces of wire, paper, glue, and metal from half-finished and forgotten projects."

Stories of this type are legion; but what is the "intellectual capitalist" to make of them? Undoubtedly, these creative individuals learned the factual knowledge that Hirsch extols. But there is a tension between the images purveyed by these stories, and the images of the well-ordered classroom-wide sequential instruction of Hirsch's vision. For these undoubtedly successful adults, their factual knowledge is inextricably woven into their intellectual lives and passions; and it is precisely passion that is missing from the intellectual-capital view.

That Hirsch and his opponents are really talking in different languages is starkly apparent in his response to the (admittedly vague) slogan of "Teach the child, not the subject." Here is his description of the idea, quoted in full from the critical guide to educational terms that appears at the end of his book:

"Teach the child, not the subject." A phrase connoting the principle behind "child-centered schooling" (which see). The benign and reasonable interpretation of this famous battle cry of progressivism is that one should attend to the moral, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the child at the same time that one is providing an excellent grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Only a hard-hearted person would dissent from this goal. Historically, however, the progressive tradition has continued to attack the disciplined teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic in favor of "holistic" methods, which supposedly engage and educate the whole child. Progressivists have also continued to disparage merely academic learning. Not surprisingly, disparagement of "the subject" has resulted in a diminishment of student competency in subject matters.

Hirsch's "benign and reasonable" interpretation shows an interesting bias. Let's try another one: "One should provide an excellent grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic as a necessary but relatively less-than-compelling part of a broader education in which one energetically attends to the idiosyncratic, intellectual well-being of the child."

Hirsch's view of acceptable data notwithstanding, biography is interesting, and constitutes a body of lore that is itself part of our cultural inheritance, and part of our collective common sense. Education is primarily a matter of shaping personal biographies, of helping people learn to have fun with their minds, of fostering interests and passions. Discipline, hard work, and respect for one's chosen subject matter are a necessary part of this picture; so are certain bodies of generally-known facts and basic skills. But it is the shaping of a person's internal narrative is paramount, and that in my view is the real goal of education; Hirsch's intellectual capital is a necessary but far from sufficient part of that process. Teach the child, not the subject.