Educational Reformer Hirsch Promotes Knowledge Against Its Enemies

Feb 18, 2017 by

by M. D. Aeschliman –
Once more into the educational breach E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who will turn 89 years of age in March, is one of the true intellectual heroes of our time, and his work, on two levels, deserves the widest dissemination and discussion. His new book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is both a summation and an extension of his life’s work as both a K–12 educational reformer (creator of the K–6 Core Knowledge elementary-school curriculum, now in use in over 1,200 schools in the U.S. and abroad) and a literary theorist of the highest distinction. In the former category, Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute is surely right in calling Hirsch “the most important educational reformer of the past half-century.”
Unlike several other distinguished critics of the romantic-progressive tradition of Rousseau, Emerson, Whitman, John Dewey, and Dewey’s now millions of educational disciples (in the U.S. and abroad), Hirsch has not just doggedly and lucidly critiqued the contradictions and ineffectiveness of pantheistic romantic naturalism as applied to elementary education (though he has done this profoundly and superlatively well). He has also inspired a grass-roots movement involving thousands of school administrators, teachers, parents, and other individuals of good will in shaping the Core Knowledge curriculum over the last 30 years as a realistic alternative and antidote to the dominance of the ideas, methods, and curricular disorganization and ineffectuality of the existing American elementary-education establishment, which is still universally and exclusively dominant in the nation’s schools of education. In Why Knowledge Matters Hirsch predicts the downfall of this regime, which it has been his life’s Herculean labor to expose and critique—an outcome devoutly to be wished, but still a struggle against long odds of institutional and intellectual self-interest, close-mindedness, and momentum. The replacement in New York City of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (a late but influential convert to Core Knowledge) by demagogic mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Fariña, for example, is a serious defeat for educational reform that shows that this war has many a battle yet to come.
At the level of literary theory, 50 years ago Hirsch established himself as one of the major world voices in the theoretical investigation and illumination of the nature and uses of language with an outstanding scholarly book entitled Validity in Interpretation. In this brilliant, patient, deeply learned, now-classic book Hirsch explained and defended the very possibility and procedures of objectivity in literary interpretation, vindicating while reformulating and updating the central civilizing Western tradition of rationality and language from Plato and Aristotle through St. Augustine to Samuel Johnson and Schleiermacher and the 20th century. Hirsch’s earliest efforts in this program earned the approval of C. S. Lewis, whose own The Abolition of Man (1943) is one of the classic defenses of the same essential Western (and world) tradition.

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