E D Hirsch: A wilful misrepresentation?

“Hirsch has unfairly been characterised as a right-wing, neo-conservative educationist for advocating views which – I would warrant – are entirely mainstream within US society.”

Nick Gibb, How Hirsch Came to Shape UK Government Policy, Policy Exchange, 2015

John Severs interviewed the educationalist, E D Hirsch for last week’s TES. It is important for a piece like this to have some sort of angle and Severs’s approach was to suggest that Hirsch has been misrepresented in the UK and that Hirsch feels uncomfortable about this. “Has it been a wilful misrepresentation?” Severs asks and singles out Nick Gibb, UK education minister, and Katherine Birbalsingh, head of a new free school in North-West London. Severs also seems surprised to discover that Hirsch has left-leaning political views and presents this as something of a revelation.

It is important to note that Hirsch certainly has been misrepresented by those who strongly disagree with him. Following the publication of “Cultural Literacy” in the 1980s, American commentators went to town, vilifying him as a reactionary figure. More recently, Tait Coles had a pop at Hirsch in The Guardian. This might make him wary of how his ideas are presented and it seems that Severs sensed this. However, the claim in the TES piece is that Hirsch is being misrepresented by UK admirers like Gibb and Birbalsingh. “The academic’s true doctrine differs markedly from that of his followers,” the article claims. This is the part that needs to be detailed and substantiated.

But it isn’t really. Severs’s article is like one of those sneezes that continually fails to reach a climax. “He is… the theorist whose ideas are seized upon by teachers who support the new curriculum and a more “traditional” way of teaching. They’ve all got him right, haven’t they?” Severs asks. Expecting a rebuttal, we then read in the next line that, “Hirsch would never contradict such a view directly – it’s not his style.” Oh. And it goes on like that.

There is the insinuation that Gibb has not done his homework. Despite quoting Hirsch a lot, Gibb has apparently only ever sent him one email. We are invited to think that Gibb should have been checking his ideas more thoroughly with Hirsch prior to making claims based on his work.

Yet Hirsch has a large corpus of writing that makes abundantly clear what he thinks. And it seems to me that Gibb references it entirely appropriately. In this speech from 2010, Gibb cites Hirsch as an advocate for teaching core knowledge and someone who traces the anti-knowledge current in education back to Teachers College, Columbia University and John Dewey. This is accurate. In his article for Policy Exchange earlier this year, Gibb focuses on Hirsch providing the social justice argument for a knowledge-based curriculum and against the kind of generic skills that were at the centre of the 2007 National Curriculum (England and Wales). Again, this is all entirely consistent with Hirsch’s writing and demonstrates that Gibb is actually a pretty good student of Hirsch. At no point does Gibb claim that Hirsch is right-wing (quite the reverse) or that Hirsch thinks skills should be not taught at all or that the curriculum should involve rote recitation of facts.

Indeed, the word ‘rote’ is rarely used by advocates of Hirsch’s ideas. In his Policy Exchange essay, Gibb actually complains about its use by critics of the government. ‘Rote’ is pretty pejorative because it implies learning something without understanding. Such an aim would be inconsistent with Hirsch’s goals because it would not aid reading comprehension; the nub of his argument for a knowledge-based curriculum. Indeed, in “The Schools We Need”, Hirsch includes a glossary of popular edu-jargon with an entry on how the term “rote learning” is used rhetorically against teaching knowledge. He explains that, “valid objections to purely verbal, fragmented, and passive education have, however, been used as a blunt instrument to attack all emphasis on factual knowledge and vocabulary.”

And yet Severs makes the claim that “Hirsch has become associated with rote learning and being against group and project work” Really? Who by? It is apparently exemplified when Birbalsingh says, “Hirsch makes clear that a ‘traditional teaching of knowledge’, not ‘progressive’ methods, fosters a child’s self esteem.”

Erm… if you know just one thing about Hirsch then it is probably that he is in favour of teaching knowledge and, well, this is a pretty traditional aim of education. So I don’t see anything inaccurate about that. And Hirsch does indeed discuss ‘progressive’ methods which he traces back to the romantic movement and which he criticises on the grounds that they de-emphasise the teaching of knowledge.

The problem, perhaps, is that ‘progressive methods’ encapsulates a number of different ideas both about what should be taught – generic skills over knowledge – and how it should be taught – group work and project work over explicit instruction. I would agree with Hirsch that we don’t want to pump knowledge into students by rote, but are Gibb or Birbalsingh or anyone else using Hirsch’s name to make this case? Taking it further, suppose that I agreed with Hirsch that teaching knowledge is important but expressed the view that a particular teaching method is not very good at achieving this. Would I be claiming that Hirsch opposes that teaching method? Not really. Not unless I make that claim explicitly. Perhaps there’s some confusion around this?

On the issue of teaching methods, Hirsch actually has a number of interesting things to say. In “The Schools We Need” he writes about the progressive trope of characterising traditional education as ‘passive’:

“The caricature is another example of the way a valid point gets carried too far through simplistic slogans, causing teachers to become polarised and to reject sensible practices. The implication is that whole-class instruction makes the teacher boss instead of friendly coach, leads children to become docile and unable to think for themselves. Progressivists claim that this docility is just what traditionalists want to achieve, whereas progressive methods will produce independent-minded, active students who think for themselves. To the extent that more “active” methods like “discovery learning” provide children with less factual knowledge on which to base independent judgements, the claim to produce independent-mindedness seems doubtful.”

Interestingly, given the argument about group work and project work that nobody seems to be making, Hirsch also cautions us on the use of these methods:

“The wise and effective orchestration of several groups in a classroom is difficult to do well, needing careful monitoring, clear purposes, and definite incentives. A faith that the method itself will providentially take care of results is not warranted. Cooperative learning, used with restraint, can be an excellent method of instruction when used in conjunction with whole-class instruction. It has not been effective when used as the principal or exclusive means of instruction…

…The [project] method was based on a Romantic faith in the superiority of a natural to an artificial approach to learning. It claimed, incorrectly, to be based also on the latest findings in psychology. Subsequently, observers found the project method to be the least effective mode of pedagogy in use in American schools.”

Like most educators, Hirsch emphasises a balance of approaches but he also stresses that unfashionable teaching methods such as explicit, sequenced, whole-class teaching, have their place and can be highly effective; “The only general principle that seems to arise from process-outcome research on pedagogy is that focused and guided instruction is far more effective than naturalistic, discovery, learn-at-your-own-pace instruction.” This is noteworthy in a climate where we are often told the opposite.

Perhaps the concern is more that people are drawing inspiration from Hirsch and then going beyond his ideas? His attention is on ages 3-11, which is reasonable given his focus on reading comprehension and the ‘fourth grade slump’. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum addresses this age group and is his lever for trying to improve whole education systems. Clearly, if we get primary school right then this should have a positive impact.

But does this mean that we have to reject his thinking if we are involved in secondary schools? Does the value of background knowledge suddenly disappear at the age of 12? What about kids who have had a knowledge-lite curriculum up until this point? Do we give up on them? Limiting a discussion of Hirsch’s ideas in this way is a bit like saying that Martin Luther King should not have drawn inspiration from Gandhi because Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent resistance were ‘about India’.

So it’s pretty hard to swallow this idea that we’ve all got Hirsch wrong. I can see why it is an appealing narrative, the notion that right-wing ministers and heads of demonic free schools are a bit silly and misinformed – a slap in the face for the traditionalists – or worse, that they may be ‘wilfully’ misrepresenting Hirsch.

But it seems to be a narrative in search of supporting evidence.

By Policy Exchange [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Policy Exchange [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


7 Comments on “E D Hirsch: A wilful misrepresentation?”

  1. Thanks Greg. Well argued and logical, as ever. Hirsch’s description of ‘false polarisation’ should be required reading for anyone who is trying to caricature him. He points out, as you say, that this a primary method used by the opponents of core knowledge. I’ve not yet come across an opponent of Hirsch who didn’t caricature him, which leads me to wonder whether they’ve actually read his magnum opus, ‘The Schools We Need’.

  2. heatherfblog says:

    It seemed to me that the writer knew readers would not accept any suggestion that it was their typification of Gove et al that was wrong. Therefore, it made sense to argue Hirsch didn’t fit in with the views of Gove or Gibb than to explain that it was the people’s perception of these views which was faulty.

  3. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Some things that Hirsch says are matters of science. For example, cognitive science is now clearly demonstrating the importance of background knowledge. Others are more philosophical in character, such as what should be in the curriculum. When I was interviewed by Nick Gibb to determine my suitability to be a member of the Expert Panel advising the government on the National Curriculum in England, I said I was a big fan of Hirsch’s work, and especially his ideas about “core knowledge”. I pointed out, however, that such a project could only work where there was a strong national consensus about the knowledge needed to participate effectively in society. While such a consensus could reasonably be claimed to exist in the US, it was not clear that any such agreement existed in England. I also estimated that a national debate about what should be in the school curriculum in England would probably take about ten years. Needless to say, no-one was interested in that, so the government basically made up its own mind about what should be in the curriculum. The power of Hirsch’s ideas rests on a wide agreement about what the core knowledge should be. Without that, it’s just one powerful group imposing their views on the less powerful, and education because less useful and important.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I’m not sure it’s quite as subjective as you imply. You could, for instance, do an analysis of the background knowledge assumed by the writers of the Guardian or the Times or the producers of BBC news. Yes – there would still be issues of taste but I’m pretty sure that The Romans would feature. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing that needs a market – a few core knowledge (lower case) curricula for schools to choose from.

      • Hirsch points out that there need to be alternative versions of core knowledge, because Americans demand a choice. He certainly isn’t arguing for anything monolithic. He doesn’t envision any kind of national consultation, but rather a market, as you suggest, Greg.

  4. I think there might be a general consensus in England on what constitutes core knowledge – probably would cover history from either 1066 or Alfred; Chaucer and Shakespeare; geography of British Isles, map reading possibly; evolution, human biology; some knowledge of art history (maybe); some knowledge of various games e.g. cricket, football etc, Arithmetic and maths would be included – though not everyone agrees what they mean. Some would add pre-history, most of those would add Classical civilizations meaning Egypt, Greece and Rome (might add Mesopotamia), and knowledge of a modern language, usually European. (Music, drama and dance are considered periphery by many, sadly, along with being able to paint or draw – which some believe are natural skills.)
    Not everyone would agree those things were useful to know though – some people think history is worthless because we’re now in the 21st century and history doesn’t matter, others think geography and map reading are pointless as you’ve got a satnav and maths doesn’t matter as you’ve got a calculator, and you can look anything up on Google (they never believe anyone who points out that actually you can’t). These points are used to suggest we need a skills curriculum not a knowledge curriculum when talking to parents – and many parents agree.
    Maybe I am wrong – maybe there is no consensus?

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