Hirsch shoulda did his homework

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 26, 2011

There is a school of thought that has always been pervasive which calls for "the good old days.” In the educational field, people who hold this view are constantly begging us to get rid of our fancy and frivolous addiction to unessential subjects and to get back to the basics. We need to get back to the Three Rs say these people. I have termed these people educational nostalgics.

One very popular nostalgic these days is Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. A few years ago he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy. Hirsch’s main idea is that there is a certain list of facts that every American needs to know in order to be educated. The back of his book has the list of ideas, words or names that a person needs to know in order to be labeled literate.

Hirsch makes it seem that people who don’t know all these facts well cannot communicate properly, so that a person who is not familiar with, say Plato, cannot communicate as effectively as someone who is familiar with him. He also makes it seem that the two people, one knowing Plato and the other not, are at an impasse to have fruitful and meaningful communication.

One item on the list I find extremely interesting. Hirsch put down the name John Dewey. Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher that put a lot of his time and effort into the problems of education. He felt that education was the key to a democracy.

What is interesting is that Hirsch began his book Cultural Literacy with an attack on John Dewey as the core of today’s troubled school system. Hirsch claimed that Dewey was sorely misled on his theories of education because, Hirsch claims, Dewey was against the stockpiling of information. He then tied Dewey to Rousseau, implying that Dewey was an adherent of the French philosopher’s ideas: namely, that Dewey was against adult participation in the education of the young. Hirsch accuses Dewey of creating a form of educational anarchy, of leaving children’s education to themselves. Hirsch asserts that Dewey separated knowledge from education.

Thus Hirsch gives us the remedy by giving the list of facts that Dewey supposedly neglected.

Well, the ironic thing is that Hirsch was exposing a bit of his ignorance on the topic. He shouldn’t have started with an attack on Dewey before he had done his homework. It seems that maybe Hirsch read a review of Dewey by a critic and left it at that, since anyone familiar with Dewey’s works and philosophy knows how ridiculous Hirsch’s claim is. Dewey would never have left adults or adult culture out of any child’s education.

One passage should clearly indicate Dewey’s stand on that issue. For a child, said Dewey, "the question of education is the question of taking hold of his activities, of giving them direction. Through direction, through organized use, they tend toward valuable results, instead of scattering or being left to merely impulsive expression.”

Dewey never disliked facts. Facts are a necessary and unavoidable part of any consideration of education. Without facts there can be no knowledge. Dewey criticized not the facts that were gained in schools, but the methods by which those facts were given and acquired.

I haven’t read Hirsch’s new book The Schools We Need, but I have skimmed through it. Someone must have made the above point, though, since he has little bad to say about Dewey this time. In fact, in this book, he seems to quote Dewey somewhat admiringly. Maybe that’s because he had read Democracy and Education by now, or some of Dewey’s other books this time, acquiring his information in a method Dewey would have approved: learning as one works toward a conscious goal, getting knowledge in a meaningful pursuit of something important. Obviously, in his first book Hirsch knew Dewey only as a name on a list, and we can see how good that kind of information is in the long run.

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