I’ve written previously about the impact Hirsch’s ideas in Cultural Literacy had on me, and so, with all the zeal of a convert, I clamoured to hear him speak at Policy Exchange last week.
Nick Gibb introduced Hirsch, outlining the influence he had on his thinking and the direction of travel in the Department for Education. He noted the strong social purpose behind Hirsch: the desire to equalise the distribution of intellectual capital in society, and compared this to the 2007 National Curriculum’s hostility to teaching prescribed knowledge.
Hirsch followed, quipping amiably: ‘it’s so rare for people in the USA in high political office to read books,’ before launching into a forty minute survey of his major educational theories. He explored the idea of developmentalism – to allow a child to develop on their own – and noted the ensuing confusion from such a disparate method of education, and gave some of the theoretical history which underpinned such notions.
Behind every utterance, the drive to use curriculum to equalise society was discerned. Explaining the wrong-headed focus on teaching reading skills, Hirsch cited Willingham’s research which suggests that ‘about a week’ is enough time to teach children ‘reading skills;’ ‘any more than that is a waste of time.’ High reading ability can only be achieved by a broad, wide-ranging and well-rounded education. He cited studies of poor readers who could outperform good readers when they knew more about the given topic, and, perhaps more fascinating, that students with low IQ and high IQ who both knew lots about the topic did equally well in reading about it. Knowledge, for Hirsch and most of his audience, overcomes ‘brute handicaps.’
Furthermore, just as the novice finds it debilitatingly hard to look up new vocabulary in a dictionary (in particular, discerning the ambiguities of words), so the internet age rewards those who already have wide knowledge: ‘Google is not an equal opportunities fact finder.’ I know from sending students off to ‘research’ a topic that this is true – too often they stumble across extremely dubious sites, and come away with ever more misconceptions than they began with.
The overriding purpose of education, for Hirsch, is an acculturation of children into society; we need to teach them the language and ideas of that society before they can enter into its dialogue. For those who worry that teaching knowledge is indoctrination, this is a vital point: it is impossible to (successfully) argue from ignorance. The old paradigms of transferable skills and discovery learning ‘have not been successful in bringing about equality’: core knowledge, conversely, has shown a remarkable gap-closing propensity in Massachusetts, Japan and Shanghai among others.
Throughout, Hirsch was self-effacing, describing himself as a classic ‘hedgehog’, knowing ‘one big thing’ (‘I just go around, repeating my one big thing’). We are so grateful to the Inspiration Trust for bringing Hirsch to London and to Jonathan Simons and Policy Exchange for organising this lecture so we can hear this legend repeat this one, big, hugely important thing.
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