Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Education manifestos... part 1, E.D. Hirsch

I could really go for a nice juicy manifesto. It would be nice to wake up and have a nice raison d'etre to go with your morning coffee...
from Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin


I'm lately disenchanted by my workplace, not my classroom but the wider workplace, the system if you will...it too often has the feel of an episode in "The Office". Our school system and the people in it are for the most part amiable, good natured folk, but it seems to me like we're all adrift on some wide, slow river...in my darker moments, I wonder if I don't hear the faint rumblings of a great waterfall somewhere downstream.

I'm not a utopian by nature; in fact, I don't trust utopians at all. But I do envy them. I envy the sense of mission, the direction which stem, I imagine, from their animating principles. And so I'm in the mood to sample claims made by educational reformers (utopians?) as to what those animating principles out to or ought not to be. This will be the first in a series of postings on educational manifestos. I'm not sure how often I'll post them or how many I'll find, but I aim for a wide sampling. I don't expect necessarily to find one to call my very own; perhaps this exercise will help me accept and appreciate anew my own non-utopian leanings.

The first manifesto comes from E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and more recently the founder of the Core Knowledge movement which has sponsored schools all over the country. He has published a series of books with titles like What Every First Grader Needs to Know in which he offers content prescriptions for grade levels K-8. He has positioned himself in opposition to the professional teacher training programs operating in most American universities. He describes himself as a political liberal and an educational conservative. Here's an excerpt from his book The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them.
We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked minds conversant with individual subject matters like history and biology. We need to reject the ill-founded notions that every child learns naturally at his or her own pace and that teaching the child is more important than teaching the subject (whatever that means, beyond failure to teach the subject). We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning. We must reject the disparagement of verbal learning and the celebration of 'hands-on' learning, based on the false Romantic premise that mere words are inauthentic components of human understanding. We cannot afford still to accept the untrue belief that adequate schooling is natural and painless, and mainly a function of individual talent rather than hard work. We must reject the false claim that delaying learning until the child is 'ready' will speed up learning in the long run. We must cease listening to the siren call that learning should be motivated entirely by inward love of the subject and interest in it, without a significant admixture of external incentive. In short, we must cease attending to the Romantic ideas that the reformers of the 1990s, echoing the reformers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and all the decades in between, have been pronouncing in chorus. These ideas are emphatically not reforms. They are the long-dominant controlling ideas of our failed schools(p.216-217).

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