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 , which makes it difficult to teach grade . 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.