“Certain things then follow from that”: Notes on ED Hirsch’s Policy Exchange lecture

Posted on 19-09-2015

On Thursday evening I had the privilege of hearing ED Hirsch give the Policy Exchange education lecture.  Hirsch in person was much like Hirsch the author: self-effacing, erudite, quietly compelling and wryly humorous.  He spoke about what the best kind of early education should look like, and stressed the egalitarian effect of teaching knowledge to young children. In order to become good readers, children have to develop a large vocabulary and a lot of knowledge about the world, and both vocabulary and background knowledge are ‘plants of slow growth’. That’s why it’s so important to start in the early years. We also cannot rely on search engines to teach pupils this vital knowledge, because “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder”: to look something up on the internet requires knowledge to begin with.

One of the most interesting moments came near the end of the lecture, when in response to a question, he said that if you acknowledge the research on reading comprehension, “certain things then follow from that.” This, I think, is one of the most pleasurable things about reading books by Hirsch. He is a master at compiling a logical case. He practises what he preaches about knowledge: every book or article of his that I have read marshals a vast array of evidence, carefully detailing each piece of research, and then clearly outlining the implications which flow from it. The links between experiments on chess players, the evolution of irregular verbs, and kindergarten resources on ancient Mesopotamia are not immediately clear, but Hirsch makes them so.  It’s like watching a master craftsman at work, or reading a clever detective novel where every clue and red herring falls neatly into place in the final chapter.

Hirsch’s own intellectual journey is similarly full of such unexpected meaning: he began as a literature professor writing about the Romantics, critiqued the popular literary theory of reader-response in Validity in Interpretation, and carried out original research on students’ ability to appreciate written style. It was this latter research which led, obliquely, to his interest in education, because the experiments also showed that students were unable to understand a text if they lacked knowledge of its subject.  This intellectual journey reminds me of another famous Virginian: it was Thomas Jefferson who said that he was “bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way.”  For Jefferson too, certain things followed from reason, and sometimes those things contradicted the prevailing authorities. The modern educational establishment is obviously not as warlike as George III, although sometimes it can feel as though they are equally blasé about reality.

One other point I found of particular interest was Hirsch’s discussion of some of the popular modern aims of education. He quoted the motto of school boards in Tucson, Milwaukee and Santa Fe  – all variations on the theme of ‘children will develop organisational, critical thinking and problem-solving skills’. He argued that such vague, motherhood-and-apple-pie type statements are so popular because they are very convenient with bureaucrats. I could not agree with this more. I have written at length lately about the problems with performance descriptors – those wishy-washy statements which are meant to ‘define’ what a pupil can know and do. Despite the fact that most people recognise how useless they are, they have a zombie-like tenacity. Why is this? As Hirsch says, they are popular with bureaucrats, and I think this is because they offer an illusion of meaning, and also because the alternative to such statements is to specify knowledge, which always requires hard thinking and often leads to controversy. This brings me to the final reason why Hirsch’s work is so important: his work is always practical. The Core Knowledge Curriculum is used in thousands of schools in the US; the ‘What your nth-grader needs to know’ series are bestsellers; the Core Knowledge Language Arts resources have been adopted by New York City and been the subject of a highly successful evaluation. Untold numbers of children have had a better education because of Hirsch.

This is the light in which we should view the famous list of facts at the end of Cultural Literacy. I know it’s popular even among people who are sympathetic to Hirsch to dismiss the list of facts and statements in Cultural Literacy as ‘simplistic’ or ‘naïve’. Not at all. It is precisely the concrete simplicity of the list which is so valuable. It is easy for academics to waffle on at length about the importance of knowledge, and then, at the crunch moment, resort to some vague statements of competency and skill which have absolutely no practical use.  The list may look simplistic, and it is simple, but it is the product of much abstract research. In Hirsch’s work, clarity of action proceeds from clarity of writing, which proceeds from clarity of thought.  Hirsch makes research tangible. That is his genius.