Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cultural Literacy

Writing in City Journal, Sol Stern looks at education reformer E. D. Hirsch's push for cultural literacy. An excerpt:

I was one of those parents. My children were students at P.S. 87 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School. Our school enjoyed a reputation as one of the city’s education jewels, and parents clamored to get their kids in. But most of the teachers and principals had trained at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a bastion of so-called progressive education, and militantly defended the progressive-ed doctrine that facts were pedagogically unimportant. I once asked my younger son and some of his classmates, all top fifth-grade students, whether they knew anything about the historical figure after whom their school was named. Not only were they clueless about the military leader who delivered the final blow that brought down America’s slave empire; they hardly knew anything about the Civil War, either. When I complained to the school’s principal, he reassured me: “Our kids don’t need to learn about the Civil War. What they are learning at P.S. 87 is how to learn about the Civil War.”

Were it not for Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, I might have accepted the reassurance. But Hirsch, as it happened, had cited an experiment that found that college students unable to comprehend a difficult passage about the Civil War by historian Bruce Catton were also likely not to have learned anything about the Civil War in the early grades. From that point on, my wife and I accelerated our children’s supplementary home schooling and sometimes used the Core Knowledge Foundation’s guide to the “mere facts” that children should know in each grade.

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