E.D. Hirsch Jr. and What Your First Grader Should Know

Among other things, according to E.D. Hirsch, your first grader needs to know the following Indian myth about why owls have big eyes:

Why the Owl Has Big Eyes

(An Iroquois Tale)

Raweno, the spirit who makes everything, was busy creating animals. This afternoon, he was working on Rabbit. "May I have nice long legs and long ears like a deer?" Rabbit asked. "And sharp fangs and claws like a panther?"

"Certainly," Raweno said. But he had gotten no farther than shaping Rabbit's hind legs when he was interrupted by Owl.

"Whoo, whoo. I would like a nice long neck like Swan's," Owl demanded. "And beautiful red feathers like Cardinal's, and a long beak like Egret's, and a royal crown of plumes like Heron's. I want you to make me into the swiftest and the most beautiful of all birds."

"Be quiet," Raweno said. "You know that no one is supposed to watch me at work. Turn around, and close your eyes!"

Raweno shaped Rabbit's ears, long and alert, just like Deer's.

"Whoo, whoo," Owl said. "Nobody can forbid me to watch. I won't turn around and I certainly won't close my eyes. I like watching, and watch I will."

Then Raweno became angry. Forgetting Rabbit's front legs, he grabbed Owl from his branch and shook him with all his might. Owl's eyes grew big and round with fright. Raweno pushed down on Owl's head and pulled up on his ears until they stood up on both sides of his head.

"There!" Raweno said. "Now you have ears that are big enough to listen when someone tells you what to do, and a short neck that won't let you crane your head to watch things you shouldn't watch. And your eyes are big, but you can use them only at night--not during the day when I am working. And finally, as punishment for your disobedience, your feathers won't be red like Cardinal's, but ugly and gray, like this." And he rubbed Owl all over with mud.

Then he turned back to finish Rabbit. But where was he? Poor Rabbit had been so frightened by Raweno's anger that he had fled, unfinished. To this day, Rabbit must hop about on his uneven legs, and he has remained frightened, for he never received the fangs and claws he had requested. As for Owl, he remained as Raweno shaped him in his anger--with big eyes, a short neck, big ears, and the ability to see only at night, when Raweno isn't working.

Now this is certainly an interesting story, and it can be used to draw out a number of useful lessons. But the advocates of the Cultural Literacy movement do not propose it as an example that might be used to illustrate some potentially useful points. They do not claim that it might be useful for a child to learn such lessons in some way. Rather, they claim that in order to be "culturally literate," every American child should know this specific story. They are not concerned with making sure the child understands why this is a potentially useful story. They are not concerned with making sure that the child can do something with the story. They only want the child to be exposed to the story, to absorb its "facts."

In addition to "Why the Owl Has Big Eyes," there is "Puss-in-Boots" and "The Princess and the Pea" among the other 20 stories Hirsch presents as necessary reading. Or you have a choice of one of the 42 rhymes, 13 sayings, or 13 myths and fables also advocated by Hirsch. This is only the beginning of the 5000 things he proposes as core knowledge for every American adult.

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