The ‘pariah’ behind the Common Core

Sep 5, 2014 by

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated. For nearly 30 years, he has been labeled a blue-blood elitist and arch-defender of the Dead White European Male. Now, the retired English professor is finding that his ideas, once dismissed wholesale by the educational establishment, are being credited as the intellectual foundation of the national reform movement that has swept the country in recent years, pushing expanded access to preschool and the Common Core state learning standards to improve the chances of America’s poorer children. It’s a welcome reversal, but an odd one. “It’s hard to feel like a guru,” he says, quietly. Then he offers a soft chuckle. “I’ve been a pariah for so long.”

It was back in 1987 that “Don” Hirsch, then English department head at the University of Virginia, published his first popular work, Cultural Literacy. The book proposed that all public schoolchildren should be provided with instruction aimed at familiarizing them with a wide variety of topics, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art and music, in order to have the background knowledge that would make them successful readers and learners. But the book, subtitled “What Every American Needs To Know,” quickly became famous not for its seven dense chapters of educational theory but for The List—a 63-page index of 5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.

It captured the public’s attention in a way that few books on education have before or since, tapping right into rising public concern over struggling urban schools that churned out functionally illiterate graduates. Immediately, prominent conservatives such as Education Secretary William Bennett embraced the author as an antidote to what they saw as the multi-culti fad sweeping American schools. Cultural Literacy was compared to—and frequently reviewed with—The Closing of the American Mind, an attack on higher education by the late conservative darling Allan Bloom, which was published around the same time. “That was just bad luck,” Hirsch says. “Allan Bloom really was an elitist.”

But Americans didn’t care: They bought the book in droves—diving into The List as a kind of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” parlor game and making it a New York Times bestseller.

via ‘I’ve Been a Pariah for So Long’ – POLITICO 50.

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