Flaws in Hirsch's Program

Hirsch's cultural literacy program has a number of flaws:

• It promises more than it could ever hope to accomplish. If everyone should know facts about airplanes, for example, we can make them memorize lists. But if they ever want to do anything with a plane (fly one, repair one, design one, even be a passenger in one), more is needed. Literacy does not ensure that an airplane will fly without crashing.

• It is distinctly conservative -- the facts Hirsch believes to constitute cultural literacy tend to be the ones known to those in power. Hirsch vigorously believes that the best way to even society's playing field is to make the underprivileged familiar with these facts. Since "Puss-in-Boots" is part of a European heritage, let's make everyone know about this heritage and everyone will be equal. What Hirsch fails to comprehend is that in a multicultural society neither of the obvious fixes works. You can't make everyone the same by forcing them into one mold. Neither can we teach everyone something about everyone else. When he throws in an Iroquois folk tale, presumably for breadth, he leaves out Apache folk tales, Egyptian folk tales, and Thai folk tales. Trying to cover everyone leaves many people out. Trying to make everyone the same means making them like those in power. Neither approach will work.

• It advocates methods which are contrary to its goal. In his attempt to build a more democratic society, Hirsch is willing to destroy democracy in education. Literacy lists deprive students of the very choices they will exercise as soon as they are freed from school. Hirsch wants to make everyone the same, as if this somehow were the real mission of education. The concept of "acculturation" fails to account for the hallmark of a democracy, individual difference. Not everyone has the same interests. To presume so, or to assume that the task of educators is to make students the same is simply not democratic.

The irony of all this is that Hirsch justifies his cultural literacy program by cloaking it in the mantle of science, specifically in what cognitive scientists have learned about the important role background knowledge plays in communication. Cognitive psychologists have learned quite a lot in this area, but Hirsch, an English professor, has profoundly misunderstood our results.

Next Story What Hirsch Wants

Outline Where am I in the content of the book?

Give Me An Example

Give Me Alternatives

What Is Next

What Led To This?

What Should Be Avoided?

What Can Be Done?

Give Me Background

Start Over Who Built Engines? Contact EFE Team ILS