• Victor C. Bolles

A Piece of the Puzzle

I just finished reading E. D. Hirsch’s latest book, How to Educate a Citizen, the Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. I have mentioned previously how expanding my reading beyond economics and government has given me insight into the origins of the problems we face as a nation and has indicated possible methods to resolve those problems. Professor Hirsch’s book provides another piece to this puzzle.

Intuitively, we know that education is the most potent tool we have to provide every person in the country the equal opportunity of achieving their unique American Dream. Alexis de Tocqueville described in his book, Democracy in America, his amazement at the widespread literacy among Americans. Literacy is so important to the liberation of a people that Negro slaves were forbidden to learn how to read, as was described by Frederick Douglass in the narrative of his life along with the efforts he made to evade that evil proscription and learn how to read.

American public schools not only taught Americans to read. They also taught them how to be Americans. The day started with the Pledge of Allegiance. Books like Noah Webster’s Speller and the McGuffey readers were steeped in American language, culture and history. The common knowledge contained in these books taught the same language and customs to Swedish immigrants in Minnesota and Irish immigrants in Boston and also to Poles, Jews and Russians in New York City (not to forget the Italians and many others). It was the common bond of a shared heritage (even if it was an adopted heritage) that gave backbone to American GIs at the Battle of the Bulge.

There is only one justification that can be made to force citizens to be taxed in order to educate other people’s children. It is not to make the students feel good about themselves and view mediocrity as achievement. It is not to keep them occupied so that their parents can go to work. It is not to fatten the already swollen pension funds of the teachers’ unions. No! It is to create educated and productive citizens of the United States who are cognizant of, and able to take on, the duties and obligations of being a citizen.

Dr. Hirsch states in his book that a shared background is essential for effective communication. He wrote, “We know that a chief element of language mastery is a vast domain of shared knowledge that is unspoken and unheard. The necessity and extent of this unspoken and unheard dimension of speech -and the need for its common possession among speech participants- is the most important finding of language psychology in the past one hundred years.”

Even relatively simple statements contain a lot of assumed knowledge, unspoken but understood. Take the lyrics to this old ditty:

Take me out to the ball game, Take me out with the crowd; Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back. Let me root, root, root for the home team, If they don't win, it's a shame. For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out, At the old ball game.

You have to be steeped in Americana to understand this little song. You would have to know that a “ball game” implied a baseball game not a football game (also keeping in mind that football in America means something very different from football in the rest of the world). You also have to know what Cracker Jacks are and the basic rules of baseball. American public schools provided this common core of knowledge to Americans all across this country. Not only so that they could talk with each other, but also that they could understand each other.

But as Dr. Hirsch points out, that all changed back in the middle of the twentieth century. A new American philosophy of teaching came to the fore and replaced the old-style shared-knowledge teaching with child-centered teaching, focusing on the inclinations of the child instead of the need of the nation for an educated citizenry. They replaced the “sage on the stage” with the “guide on the side.” The theory was that children learn naturally and that education should be individualized in accordance to the child’s natural curiosity. Instead of desks directed toward the front of the classroom where the teacher would impart the lessons, the child-centered classroom featured tables scattered around the classroom with seats for four or five children where they could work on projects together. The teacher would come by to monitor progress and answer any questions the child might have.

The focus in child-centered learning is on building skills rather than imparting knowledge. The result has been nothing short of disastrous. SAT verbal scores have declined steadily since Its introduction in the middle of the twentieth century. And the decline continues. The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks students across many countries. In the first ranking completed in 2002, the US ranked fifteenth in reading ability. By 2015, the ranking of the US had dropped to twenty-fourth.

But the disastrous consequences of child-centered education goes far beyond the dumbing down of a generation and falling PISA rankings. The children no longer are learning the same curriculum but are following different threads of learning. The common stock of shared knowledge has been lost. People can understand the words other people are saying, but the meaning may elude them. The bonds of shared knowledge that hold the American society together are unraveling.

I am no expert on education, but Dr. Hirsch’s hypothesis rings true to me. America’s teachers are sincere, diligent and hard working. They work long hours and make personal and financial sacrifices to educate our children. But the results have been disastrous. If sincere effort and hard work fail to achieve success then perhaps the child-centered education theory is at fault (remember the definition of madness).

Plus, Dr. Hirsch’s theory dovetails nicely with NYU psychology professor Jonathan Haidt’s theory about how helicopter parenting and “safetyism” are coddling the minds of American children. The result has been identity politics, cancel culture and antifa rioting. The lack of a common bond compounded by the Internet and social media has created a divided culture in America. Making children the center of the universe and protecting them from the outside world has not helped the children. Children need challenges and adversity in order to develop the ability to deal with the hardships of adult life.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools in the spring and that has delayed the reopening of public schools this fall in school districts around the country, many parents are now home schooling their kids as an alternative. And many of those parents are appalled at the level of knowledge their kids exhibit. Now is a good time to reform education in America and use it to help bring unity to the American people. America and the American people need the return of shared-knowledge common schools like those that made America great and were envied and emulated around the world. This is especially the case for elementary schools. By the time kids are in high school and college the damage has already been done. We need a national curriculum of renewal.

Additionally, Dr. Hirsch wrote that the gap in reading ability between students of low socio-economic status and those of high socio-economic status in France increased substantially after France adopted child-centered teaching throughout the country. The SAT score gap between blacks and whites of about 100 points has kept blacks out of elite colleges and resulted in calls for affirmative action or quotas to increase black attendance. Dr. Hirsch speculates that a return to shared-knowledge teaching would help blacks and other disadvantaged minorities to close the SAT score gap. That would achieve an important social justice goal by solving a problem at its source rather than having government dictate a preferred outcome.

There will be a lot of resistance to such an initiative. The left is currently pushing the 1619 Project that casts America as an inherently racist society as a curriculum for schools at all levels. They would viciously attack any attempt to portray America as a good country that kids can be proud of. The right would resist any attempt to create a national curriculum as government overreach that infringes the rights of local communities (and possibly prohibited by the Constitution).

Many people are dissatisfied with the poor quality of public education in the United States. That is why so many are turning to charter schools (many of which use shared-knowledge driven curricula provided by Dr. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation). A return to shared-knowledge schools will help children learn better and with greater proficiency while at the same time rebuilding the commonality of the American people. It is just a piece of the puzzle but an important piece. With our increasing knowledge of the science of how the human brain works we can develop tools to make America unified and strong once again.

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