Knowledge matters: E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s fifth book on education is as important as his first

Don Hirsch has done it again. Never mind that he’s eighty-eight. Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, his fifth book on education reform—there were at least five earlier ones in his original field of English literature, criticism, and composition—is as clear and trenchant as Cultural Literacy was in 1987. And it is arguably even more needed, as there’s ample evidence that the “knowledge” part of K–12 education has been backsliding even as we’ve seen slight improvement on the skills side.

There’s the curricular narrowing associated with our reading-and-math obsession and the accountability regimes attached thereto. There’s the perverse effect of Google and other technologies leading us to assume that we “can always look it up.” And most perniciously—it is the theme of Why Knowledge Matters—there’s what Hirsch terms “the tyranny of three ideas” that steer educators in the wrong direction.

Here, in short form, are the mistaken ideas:

  • Early education should be age-appropriate and seen as part of a “natural development process.” (“Early education” in Hirsch’s world isn’t preschool; it’s kindergarten and the first several grades of school.)
  • Early education should be individualized as far as possible.
  • The main aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other “general skills.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong, as Hirsch musters ample evidence from psychology and social science to prove. What kids mostly need in the early grades is a common, knowledge-centric curriculum (they’ll learn more, too, since they’ll find it so much more interesting). It’ll boost their reading scores; prepare them to succeed in middle school, high school, and beyond, where U.S. test scores (and other metrics) crash; and equalize opportunity in American society in ways that no anti-poverty or compensatory education program can possibly do.

This assessment isn’t coming from an impartial observer. I’m on the board of Don’s Core Knowledge Foundation and helped launch the Knowledge Matters Campaign. I also lent him a bit of help with this book as a longtime friend and admirer. Ever since Diane Ravitch and I happened upon his seminal 1983 article in the American Scholar and encouraged him to turn it into the book that became Cultural Literacy four years later, I’ve found his informed ideas about what ails American education persuasive and sound—far more than those of just about any other thinker, in fact.

Readers of this book will also be exposed to a riveting and well-documented object lesson as Hirsch recounts the sorry fate of academic achievement in France after that country abandoned its longstanding national curriculum. Read it and see for yourself.

Yes, you will likely be provoked by Don’s heterodox thinking about many of reform’s most prominent standards-and-accountability initiatives; by his earnest advocacy of the kind of standardized state or national curriculum that many politicians assume to be a “third rail” proposition; and by his insistence that for knowledge truly to be acquired, the curriculum has to be systematic and cumulative rather than a random assemblage of “units.” Though he sees potential in the “commonness” of the Common Core, he argues that true learning gains will only follow if states turn more demanding ELA standards into a mandate for knowledge-rich curricula and if test makers understand that “close reading” of texts could make things worse unless those texts are integrated with such a curriculum. Otherwise, they will lead to even more class time given to counterproductive efforts at skill building rather than inculcating knowledge. Moreover, kids will be even less prepared than they are today to handle the demands of the upper grades and thereafter.

I don’t know whether this will turn out to be Don’s last book. Informed as it is, however, by almost four decades of experience and research on these issues, it’s probably his best. 

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.