Wednesday Wisdom from Thinker E. D. Hirsch

On my Facebook and Twitter pages I have a weekly segment called Wednesday Wisdom, where I provide quotes from great thinkers in various fields. One topic I return to often is education, for I view my central calling in life as that of a teacher. One of my favorite educational reformers is E. D. Hirsch, Jr. His books have influenced my general view of education in America, and I have used them in the education of my own children.

What follows is a brief biography of Hirsch along with four of his provocative quotes on education, reading, and books that I’ve used in my social media #WednesdayWisdom segment. I also react to these nuggets of wisdom and hope you’ll find them useful too.

Who is E. D. Hirsch?

E. D. Hirsch (born 1928) is a leading American educator and literary critic. He is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is best known for his work on cultural literacy and is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.1 He is the original author of the national bestseller The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.His ideas of reforming American education are reflected in such books as The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them and Core Knowledge Series (Kindergarten to Grade 6).

#1 On the Purpose of the Core Knowledge Curriculum

Hirsch has stated that he created an educational curriculum to

. . . place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That’s one way to secure civil rights.2

Hirsch has expressed concern over the disadvantages that lower income and minority students face in the classroom, and believes that receiving a competitively equal education is the way for all children to flourish in life. His belief echoes America’s founding fathers, who maintained that a good education helped to provide three things: (1) an adequate living (employment), (2) civic responsibility (politics, law), and (3) a fulfilled life (reflection on truth and morality). A thriving education may be the best thing America can give to its underprivileged minority youths.

#2 On the Importance of Reading

We all know that reading is the most important academic skill, and that there is a big reading gap between haves and have-nots in our schools. We know that reading is a key not just to a child’s success in school but also, in the information age, to his or her chances in life.3

Human facility with language, including reading, reflects a highly complex symbolic communication system and yet most people have developed a basic mastery of it by age seven. Various philosophers and scientists view the symbolism reflected in human language as one of the distinguishing factors of human exceptionalism (the idea that humans are different from the animals in kind rather than in mere degree).

Though humans are endowed with profound language abilities, becoming a skilled analytic reader requires something more. The stretching of one’s mind comes from reading books that are over one’s head.

#3 On the Importance of Common Core Knowledge

Although it is true that no two humans know exactly the same things, they often have a great deal of knowledge in common. To a large extent this common knowledge or collective memory allows people to communicate, to work together, and to live together.4

To be a culturally literate American means having a basic knowledge of a body of information. Hirsch’s latest edition of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy includes 23 chapters of information from such diverse fields as the Bible, literature, fine arts, history, politics, social sciences, mathematics, the physical and life sciences, medicine, and technology.Achieving cultural literacy usually requires a love of learning and the acquisition of knowledge.

#4 On the Bible

The Bible, the holy book of Judaism and Christianity, is the most widely known book in the English-speaking world…. No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible…. Far from being illegal or undesirable, teaching about the Bible is not only consistent with our Constitution, it is essential to our literacy.6

Here, Hirsch affirms that Scripture has deeply shaped Western civilization. If we agree with Mortimer Adler’s definition of a classic book as one that is inexhaustible, the Bible is surely the greatest of all the great books.

As a practical apologetics matter, I contend that the new atheists are not as formidable as the old atheists because the newer ones typically demonstrate little knowledge of the content of the Bible and, thus, of the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity. Atheists from a century ago or longer were conversant with the Bible and their arguments presented more rigorous challenges to the Christian faith. We can invite further dialogue with skeptics by asking them if they have read the Bible the way it is intended to be understood.

These quotes provide a brief introduction to the ideas Hirsch presents in more than ten books he has authored on learning. He is rightfully considered one of the great contemporary reformers of American education, and his diligence has provided all of us with plenty of Wednesday Wisdom.

Reflections: Your Turn

Are there public intellectuals that you’ve learned from? Who are they and what did they teach you? 

Resources

Endnotes

  1. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge, accessed August 13, 2019, https://www.coreknowledge.org/about-us/e-d-hirsch-jr/.
  2. Mike Bowler, “Knowledge, Front and Center; Curriculum: An English Professor’s Vision Has Produced Educated Children—and an Education Controversy Lasting Two Decades,” The Baltimore Sun, December 28, 1999, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1999-12-28-9912280098-story.html.
  3. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, James Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, revised and updated, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), vii-viii.
  4. Hirsch, Kett, Trefil, The New Dictionary, x.
  5. For an introduction to an earlier version of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, see “Take Up and Read: The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.”
  6. Hirsch, Kett, Trefil, The New Dictionary, 1–2.

  One thought on “Wednesday Wisdom from Thinker E. D. Hirsch

  1. Bret Zagar
    September 9, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    Hi Ken,

    I’ve heard you mention Hirsch and The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy in some of your audio lessons that are online. So I picked up a copy of this book four or so years ago. I haven’t read it all, but I might read a lot of it for the Graduate Record Exam re-take, verbal reasoning section.

    To share: I’m expecting to apply to some PhD programs in philosophy in about December 2020. And I want to bring up a little my GRE verbal reasoning score. The University of South Florida-Tampa has a good researcher of medieval philosophy who would be a good guide for a dissertation on, say, Aquinas.

    I’ve always liked M.J. Adler and his books, too. I like How to Read a Book and How to Speak How to Listen. I just wished he rounded out the series with “How to Write a Book.” But, it seems like the best methodology by which to write a book is the syntopical methodology. If that’s the case, then just learning and practicing writing in terms of the syntopic method is in a sense Adler’s “How to Write a Book.”

    I’ve heard you mention Gene Edward Veith, too. I don’t have any of his books, but they seem valuable.

    bz

    • September 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm

      Thanks, Bret.

      -Ken Samples

  2. Christine Goudy
    November 11, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    In late 90’s and early 2000’s I taught English as a 2nd Language to adults, with most my classes focused on writing and reading. I read Ed Hirsch’s 1st ed of “Cultural Literacy” and was convinced ESL classes should focus on cultural literacy rather than on memorizing grammar facts and vocabulary. Research out of City University of New York supports this idea with “Reading Fluency”.

    Two friends and I developed a “curriculum” to teach cultural literacy, using selected cartoons such as “Non Sequitur”, in which students would use a worksheet that directs them to library resources that will help them know the implied references. For instance, in business and sports Americans may say it was a “David vs. Goliath” situation, but if you don’t know about the Bible’s Old Testament story, it’s impossible to understand the meaning. We presented at the annual international conference in our field, and I hoped to develop a reading curriculum for adults that used Dr. Hirsch’s work. I’m now retired, but maybe someone will take this as a jumping off place for a PhD dissertation and research.

    Thanks for reminding me of Dr. Hirsch’s invaluable contribution to learning and reading in English!

    Christine G.

    • November 11, 2019 at 2:39 pm

      Christine:

      Thanks for your career of helping people to learn to read and write. That’s a significant legacy.

      Thanks as well for sharing a little about your educational approach to helping students to learn to read and write..

      I’m so glad to hear of your appreciation for Hirsch’s important work.

      My best regards.

      Ken Samples

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