When it comes down to it, E.D. Hirsch would argue that it’s mostly facts that end up separating rich kids from poor kids.
He says its facts like the meaning of “common denominator” or understanding what an “ombudsman” does or knowing who Geronimo was that offer many middle- and upper-class students—who learned the terms at home and in their community—a clear advantage in life, while their poorer peers often miss out on absorbing this basic cultural knowledge.
“Facts are what you need to read properly, and to learn more, and to communicate,” says Hirsch, author, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.
Hirsch argued for the importance of teaching facts in his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. The book included a list of 5,000 names, phrases and concepts that Hirsch claimed were essential for understanding American discourse.
At the time, the book was hailed by some for its innovative and clearly laid-out concepts. But it was sharply criticized by others who said Hirsch’s ideas were elitist, Eurocentric and focused too heavily on rote memorization. They often used that list, replete with phrases borne of Shakespeare, Greek mythology and the Bible, to buttress their arguments.
Hirsch remained undeterred. He continued to advocate for his concepts of cultural literacy by penning new books and articles, giving talks, persuading decision makers such as school administrators and lawmakers, and founding The Core Knowledge Foundation, an education nonprofit based in Charlottesville that promotes the teaching of basic cultural facts in kindergarten through 8th grade.
Now, at 86, he’s seeing the teaching philosophies he’s championed for nearly 30 years becoming a basis for curriculum changes in schools across America.
That’s in large part because of the adoption by more than 40 states of the Common Core State Standards, an initiative that sets expectations for what American students should learn in math and language arts. First proposed in 2009 by state leaders in the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards aim to have students ready to tackle college-level courses and get good jobs.
The standards don’t dictate specifically what facts kids learn, but they do guide what students should generally be able to do in math and language arts, such as “establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance.”
“There’s an enormous amount of data showing that background knowledge is absolutely vital to reading comprehension,” says Dan Willingham, a UVA psychology professor who says Hirsch’s concepts fall in line with current research on how the human brain learns. “Your understanding of text is dependent on what you already know about it.”
Gradgrind was Right
In the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, the gruff Mr. Gradgrind lectures that facts are what children should learn. “He’s pictured as a bad guy, but Gradgrind was right,” says Hirsch, who explains that rich students learn a lot of background knowledge from parents and community experiences, while their less advantaged peers do not.
That was the motivation behind Cultural Literacy and its list, which Hirsch developed with former UVA physics professor James Trefil (Grad ’87, Law ’93). Hirsch says the list was intended to be flexible with the times and offer a starting point for a discussion of, as its title says, What Every American Should Know.
Hirsch says he first developed his ideas on cultural literacy in the 1960s, after he had written a book on interpretation. Writing that book tuned him in to problems of reading—a kind of interpretation—and from there he learned about psycholinguistic studies that revealed readers had to know information that wasn’t on the page to fully understand sentences.
“So the people who have that information are included—they can read and speak to others—and those who don’t have that information can’t,” Hirsch says.
Teaching “facts” to elementary and middle school students, Hirsch believes, helps lay the groundwork for older students to develop higher-level thinking. Ideally, these students would have a storehouse of factual information from which to draw.
“What’s in your head makes the difference between competence and non-competence,” Hirsch says.
When Hirsch published Cultural Literacy “there was great dissatisfaction with what kids knew,” says Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at UVA.
Those frustrations stemmed in part from American students’ low scores on international tests compared with students from other countries. While Hirsch wasn’t alone in advocating for a focus on “facts,” it was his book—and really, that list—that touched off the fierce national debate.
While critics railed that his ideas were elitist and that the list represented the culture of middle-class, white, Protestant America to the exclusion of others, Willingham says many hadn’t paid attention to the research Hirsch included on cognitive psychology that backs up his claims. “[The book] was widely misunderstood because most people didn’t read it,” Willingham says.
But Hirsch persisted and recalls receiving dozens of supportive letters from parents and teachers thanking him for writing his books and articles and for speaking out. “I never felt alone,” he says.
Although they are fewer in number than ever before, Hirsch still has his detractors. Alfie Kohn, an education author and outspoken critic of rote learning, says that Hirsch’s fact-based model of teaching leaves students without the ability to think critically and creatively.
“Thoughtful education researchers and theorists, as well as our best classroom teachers, realize that an awful lot of factual knowledge that’s crammed into kids’ heads is soon forgotten—and in any case can be looked up on a smartphone in 10 seconds,” Kohn says. “That’s why they focus on helping students understand ideas from the inside out, to learn how to think creatively and critically, and they involve students in designing a curriculum that’s organized around problems, projects and questions, rather than one based on feeding them lists of facts.”
Hirsch, however, says Kohn’s argument contradicts more than 30 years of research on how people learn best and that “no knowledgeable cognitive psychologist would agree with [Kohn]. He doesn’t seem to have kept up,” Hirsch says. “It’s not any longer a matter of scientific disagreement. The general argument about equity—which was my chief argument—is understood.”
“There’s an enormous amount of data showing that background knowledge is absolutely vital to reading comprehension.”
—Dan Willingham, UVA psychology professor
With other ideas such as No Child Left Behind never significantly raising test scores, school districts are finding Hirsch’s foundation’s Core Knowledge sequence “the best option,” says Chester Finn Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Success will get noticed, Finn says, as educators realize that content-rich schools fare better on tests.
“The dominant ethos in the education profession is still that (critical thinking) skills are the job of the schools,” says Finn, and that when students need to know facts they can find them on their own. “The Common Core standards might make it necessary for schools to change their ways.”
Hirsch says content-rich curriculums have shown they can lead to higher test scores. In one 2000 study in Oklahoma City, researchers compared test results for students taught the Core Knowledge curriculum with results from students of similar racial and economic status who didn’t receive Core Knowledge. They found that the Core Knowledge students outscored their peers in history and geography by nearly 10 points.
As for how Common Core standards might change what students learn in schools, Hirsch says he’ll reserve any enthusiasm for when he sees how the standards are put into place.
“I want to see some elementary schools that are really giving kids a good knowledge-based education instead of a skills-based education, because a skills-based approach hasn’t worked,” says Hirsch. “I’m going to wait and see what the schools actually do.”
In the meantime, Hirsch says he’s open to changes being made to The List.
“After all, as the culture and the people and the generations change, so does that in-group knowledge,” he says. “If ‘Achilles’ heel’ doesn’t need to be known anymore, that’s fine with me. I just want the poor kids to know what the other kids know.”