Reconsidering Hirsch

Friday February 4, 2011

That's E. D. Hirsch, Jr., for those coming in late.  I encountered him in grad school because of this (from the wiki on him):

While giving tests of relative readability at two colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining comprehension, an even more important consideration was background knowledge. Students at the University of Virginia were able to understand a passage on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, while students at a community college struggled with it, apparently lacking basic understanding of the American Civil War. This and related discoveries led Hirsch to formulate the concept of cultural literacy — the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. He concluded that schools should not be neutral about what is taught but should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers take for granted.

 In my classes, he was kind of vilified, although now that I think back on it I'm not sure whether it was more by our teachers or by us students.  If we, for the moment, simplify all socio-economic issues down to black and white, the argument was that Hirsch's ideas were racist because they devalued black culture, only including white culture.  Now I think we can dispense with that argument as based on the rather racist premise that white culture is a culture of knowing things and black culture is a culture of not knowing things, combined with the point that it is possible at least in theory to include both white and black traditions, if they can be so separated to begin with, in a program of training for cultural literacy.

The other mark against Hirsch was that we actually looked at a section of his dictionary of cultural literacy.  It was full of stuff that seemed silly (like The Three Little Pigs) and stuff that we didn't know ourselves - old political references or whatever.  So we disparaged his list-making and sort of moved on.

Now in Korea, I teach some advanced English classes with textbooks that include sections about "allusions" - and they try to include some lists of things that English-speaking authors might make allusions to.  It's sort of what Hirsch was talking about.  If you're a Buddhist Korean kid, you're not going to know Bible stories.  So what do you do when somebody is compared to Cain, or somebody isn't somebody else's keeper, or whatever?  There's a section of Bible stories in the textbook, along with a section of topics from World War II, with the implied but not written subtitle "from the American perspective."

So upon reflection, I think that Hirsch is right, in some important ways.  Cultural literacy, in as much as that means having a base of knowledge shared with other people who you mean to communicate with, is important.  Ultimately I think language is just one aspect, one facet of culture.  The words can't be neatly cut away from the transmitted stories that underly them.  I used to be a little puzzled by the "culture" components of language classes - and a lot of them are still ridiculous, I think; things like making day-of-the-dead masks or whatever - but really a language class is a culture class.

I think Hirsch's main mistake is that he appeared to freeze culture in time, which doesn't happen.  The cultural literacy of today is not the same as the cultural literacy of years ago.  It keeps changing.  You can argue the value of some classics, sure, but a lot of stuff changes.  The secondary mistake is trying to prescribe cultural literacy artificially, in a big list, at all.  It seems to me that any sort of list like that is doomed to fail.

Well, maybe not doomed to fail.  But I don't think you're likely to learn useful cultural literacy by some massive system of flashcards.  Cultural literacy is transmitted culturally.  Of course schools have a role, and maybe this is just getting into a pedagogical self-debate now...  I agree with Hirsch that it shouldn't just be left up to chance.  And I think a cultural literacy of pop music and TV is not the one we should encourage with schools.

Then again, there are people who say modern TV etc. literacy is quite good and complex and why shouldn't it be just as valuable as history and literature of yesterday's school?  Hmm.  It doesn't seem like it is, though.  I feel like this might be it:

Is there anything in those "?" boxes?  Hmm.  Is literature really mentally helpful?  If we studied television really carefully would it be just as good?  Not that people typically do...

I was thinking of how Obama just said it was the nation's "Sputnik moment" - and then on the news everybody was explaining what Sputnik was, because apparently some people didn't know.  Shouldn't that be part of the role of schools - making sure people know about historical things like that?

Maybe it comes down to a matter of what is chosen as the material to cover.  Some choices definitely could be racist, or out of date, or bad in some other way.  And the US seems far from any sort of national curriculum.

Anyway...  Here's a bunch of words without a good conclusion.  Harumph.

Addendum (a day later):

I guess in the end it's some dynamic equilibrium, with the older generation favoring their knowledge even as new knowledge is created.  I think it's pretty similar to my other thoughts on prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistics and language learning.  But I still think picking out a list of super-specific things as "what needs to be preserved" is probably the wrong way to go about it... Although it is still important to come up with educational goals. Hmm.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.