Review of _The Schools We Need_ by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

I read The Schools We Need by E.D. Hirsch last month, and I wanted to get my ideas down here. This is a post that I had hoped to spend more time on, but I have had a tough time finding time to blog about it. I have 30 minutes now, so I am going to see what I can do.

I wanted to read Hirsch’s book for a couple of reasons. I have heard about Hirsch since I was an undergraduate. I have always viewed him as a “bad guy” in education, in that Hirsch and I would probably disagree about a lot of things. But I was never really informed about his views, and I was hoping this book would help (spoiler: it only sort of did); if I am going to disagree with someone, I figured I should know what they actually are saying. Additionally, we have friends with kids in a Hirsch-inspired charter school, and I wanted to be able to speak knowledgeably to them about the school.

I had a tough time figuring out what to think about the book. I vacillated between thinking that his ideas were completely uncontroversial and thinking that his ideas were bad. In the end, my opinion is that he has some reasonable ideas, although he has more bad ideas (again, my opinion). Most of all, it seems to me like he mostly likes attacking straw men.

Here is my summary of his ideas (again, I read this book a month ago, so take this with a grain of salt): a big problem with education is that different students learn different things in grade n, which makes it difficult to teach grade n+1. Compounding this is that the U.S. has a pretty transient student population, so it can be impossible to know what a transfer student knows. His solution is to have a set of national standards.

But more than this, he thinks that the standards should be a set of facts that students know. For instance, it is very important to know what the capital of Egypt is after the first grade.

He emphasizes that these facts need not be learned through rote memorization. On the other hand, all of his recommendations about what to do seem to suggest that he thinks that rote memorization is the way to do.

My biggest question is whether he correctly describes the attitudes of K-12 teachers. He repeatedly talks about K–12 teachers’ disdain for facts. Listening to Hirsch, one would think that K–12 teachers go out of their way to make sure that students don’t learn any facts; that is how much he thinks that the teachers hate facts.

I have spent some time around teachers—enough to see how one could possibly get this impression. I have heard teachers say things to the effect of, “They just want us to teach the kids a bunch of facts.” But my interpretation of this is that the teachers were complaining that they were being told to only teach facts, and nothing else.

(Coincidentally, I also recently learned about classical homeschooling. This seems to be the sort of fact-based education that Hirsch might like).

I also found it interesting that he complains that progressive educators say that progressive education has never been tried and should be given a chance, when (Hirsch says) we have actually had a progressive education system for almost 100 years. He then goes on to complain that a traditional education has never been tried (recently, anyway), and should be given a chance. So Hirsch makes exactly the same complaint that the progressives do, yet provides little evidence that he is more correct than they are.

Here are my main takeaways:

  1. Hirsch is helping to convince me that some sort of national standards is probably a good idea. I was leaning this way already, although I still could change my mind on this.
  2. I would like to find out if the culture of K–12 education is as hostile toward facts as he says it is. I suspect that he is wrong about this, but I would like to hear from people who know more about this than I do.
  3. Even though I understood much of what he wrote as being very reasonable (I am a big fan of facts), I think that I am not correctly understanding the severity of his stance. He makes several statements that suggest that he is much more extreme than I would like (e.g. he seems to implicitly endorse doing a lot of rote memorization).

Any sort of background on Hirsch’s ideas would be welcome in the comments.


8 Responses to “Review of _The Schools We Need_ by E.D. Hirsch Jr.”

  1. Raymond johnson Says:

    It helps to see Hirsch in a broader perspective of various education "traditions" we've had in the United States. Hirsch is part of the tradition that puts the emphasis of education on content, which loosely aligns him with people who advocate for educational content standards or with the Committee of Ten, who, in the 1890s, set the standards for what a typical set of high school subjects should look like. The progressive traditions puts emphasis on the needs of children, while a pseudo-progressive tradition of educational efficiency puts emphasis on the needs of society, which we still see in economic arguments or where we educate to rank and sort. Two other commonly identified traditions are the spiritual tradition, focused on education for religious and moral purposes, and a relatively newer critical tradition that puts an emphasis on education for equity and social justice.It's not that there are many who would claim that content is unimportant, but critics of Hirsch often claim that Hirsch's view of content is a white, Euro-American male view, and his "cultural literacy" amounts to cultural assimilation. So in addition to the "focus on facts," there's plenty of room to disagree with exactly which facts are important or who those facts "belong" to.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I love that I have internet friends who can write comments like these. It almost seems as if we could get around so much bickering if everyone just read that comment and decide which camp they fall in. Then we could realize that we might be talking about different things (content, needs of children, etc) when we talk about “education.”

      “So in addition to the ‘focus on facts,’ there’s plenty of room to disagree with exactly which facts are important or who those facts “belong” to.”

      My introduction to Hirsch was when I was in college, before I was really interested in education. I had a friend who was an education major, and she said that one of Hirsch’s criteria for being cultural literate was to understand what “takes a cotton to” means. Having grown up in a part of the country where this phrase is not common, I thought that it was a ridiculous requirement. This probably started me off on the wrong foot with Hirsch.

      “It’s not that there are many who would claim that content is unimportant”

      Thanks for the input. I am certain that Hirsch disagrees with this, although your take matches with mine.

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    Hi Bret,
    Thanks for this review, It really helps me understand better where Hirsch is coming from. Here’s my question: in a world with “facts” at our fingertips, what’s wrong with being a teaching and complaining that “all we teach is facts”? For me, I’m really trying to think about what it looks like to try to concentrate on synthesis of information, creativity, and application/problem solving. Facts on the tip of your tongue is probably better than facts at your fingertips, but not a huge amount better, right?

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Andy,

      I am going to give you two answers: what I imagine Hirsch would say, and an answer I think that Hirsch and I would agree to (to varying degrees, though).

      Hirsch would say: “The premise of the teachers is wrong. Schools barely teach any facts these days. I hope we get to the point where a teacher can legitimately make this complaint.”

      I think that we would both say: It is true that we have more access to information than ever. However, at least some facts need to be at ‘the tip of your tongue.’ In particular, it is difficult to make any sort of connection between knowledge if you don’t have some of the facts already in hand (e.g. If you don’t already know that the order of the Alt(4) is 12, you probably won’t connect it to the fact that there are 12 symmetries of the tetrahedron).

      Moreover, there is evidence that complex tasks _require_ students to have some facts on hand. There have been a couple studies that show that students who have their multiplication facts memorized have a much easier time adding fractions than those who don’t. I am speculating that even if the students have a multiplication table/Google/a calculator next to them, the fact that they have to leave temporarily leave the complex task of finding common denominators, find a product, and then return to the complex task can be enough to cause confusion; it would be easy to lose track of where you are in the process.

      I don’t know where to draw the line. Hirsch might want students to memorize the state capitals, but I probably would not. But it seems difficult for me to learn anything if I don’t already have some facts to construct the new knowledge around, even if I have easy access to all of the knowledge that I would need.

      What are your thoughts?

  3. suevanhattum Says:

    The book Mathsemantics, by Edward MacNeal, has one very interesting chapter on estimating. The author suggests that we need a web of knowledge to help us estimate well. For me that includes knowing the population of the world, the U.S., and California, along with some knowledge of the populations of big cities. Then we improve our estimation skills by estimating often, committing to an estimate by saying it to someone of writing it down, and then checking afterwards how close we were.

    I agree with Andy that I want to focus on “synthesis of information, creativity, and application/problem solving”. I also know that having some info in my brain is helpful.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

      That’s a really great point, Sue. I was amazed once when a class was asked whether McD’s had served “millions” or “billions” and they really struggled answering. I certainly have tons of weird facts in my head that I make use of to estimate. If I just used google, I wouldn’t bother getting facts for related things, I’d just get what I was supposed to estimate. How do we determine what those facts should be? (not #NaBloCoMo because it’s a repeat)

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Instead of commenting to Andy’s original comment, I probably should have just read Sue’s comment first. That is a great example of needing some sort of facts in order to do something creative.

  4. NaBloCoMo results | SuperFly Physics Says:

    […] […]

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