What Should Kids Learn?

A teacher looks at E. D. Hirsch’s work on “Cultural Literacy”

By Bob Peterson

As a fifth-grade teacher I use a variety of resources to provide my students information that is hopefully comprehensible, yet challenging.

I use anything — yellowed newspaper clippings, old textbooks, audio tapes fr m National Public Radio. Often a student will want more information than our classroom or school library can provide, so in the evening I poke around my dusty basement files or go to the public library. It was one such incident that introduced me to E. D. Hirsch.

A group of students had been interested in mountains — high ones of course — and wanted help finding more information. That evening I went to a local bookstore and a huge display of Hirsch’s books greeted me as I entered. I decided to check them out.

Upon paging through a book — What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know— I found a section on mountains. Out came my plastic and for $20 plus tax I had a new textbook.

The next day I Xeroxed the section for my students. While the factual information was correct — as corroborated by cross checks by my students — we uncovered two troubling passages.

In describing the highest mountain of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, Hirsch writes that it “was known to local people as the ‘Mountain of Cold Devils’ because of its snow capped peaks. The news of a snow-capped mount so near the equator was not believed for many years after its discovery in 1848 by two missionaries.”

“What’s odd about that passage?” I asked my students. Initially they thought the name a bit odd. But their second response was that two missionaries could not have “discovered” the mountain because Africans had already been there and, as even Hirsch acknowledged, had named it.

“That’s like saying Columbus discovered America,” said one student.

The account of Mount Everest was equally troublesome, highlighting the cultural biases in even seemingly neutral subjects such as geography. “In 1852, a British surveyor excitedly burst into the office of his supervisor and announced: ‘Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world.’”

That night I questioned whether I should have used the material. I decided yes, because with questioning and discussion, it can help children see the European bias that is woven throughout such passages. It reminded me of one of the few things I like about school textbooks — they’re useful in getting students to critique bias.

My use of Hirsch’s 4th-grade book roused my curiosity, inspiring me to read the other books in the series. Rather than easing my fears, however, my investigation left me even more concerned. I came away convinced that the project is fundamentally flawed and that, because of its wide notoriety, has the potential to negatively affect education in the United States.

Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” project is problematic on a number of levels. First, Hirsch misdiagnoses what ails American education, arguing that a lack of emphasis on “content” has left our children “culturally illiterate.” Second, he defines knowledge in a way that equates learning with memorization and teaching with the transmission of information. Third, his definition of “core knowledge” attempts to institutionalize a curriculum that focuses almost exclusively on contributions and perspectives of mainstream European Americans — albeit with a slight nod toward a more multicultural perspective. In this regard, Hirsch is smart enough to try to co-opt what he can’t defeat.

Hirsch also makes some valuable points, however. He raises the issue of unequal access to knowledge and literature in our stratified society. And he argues that schools have a responsibility to ensure that all members of society have sufficient “intergenerational” knowledge so they can participate in the economic and political affairs of our nation. That his solution to these problems is off base does not negate the validity of this concern for equity.

Growing Popularity

Hirsch is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. His big splash on the educational scene came in 1987 with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Combining theoretical analysis with entertaining anecdotes about illiteracy and a list of 5,000 things that “culturally literate” Americans need to know, Hirsch’s book climbed to the top of the New York Times best selling list.

Funded in part by the Exxon Education Foundation, Hirsch then began a publishing project that started with the immodestly titled, What Your First Grader Needs to Know. He continued with each grade until, by the fall of 1993, he had reached What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know.

He has also published other books including A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Our Children Need to Know. According to its less than humble introduction, the dictionary contains “what American children should acquire by the end of 6th grade.”

Hirsch also founded the Cultural Literacy Foundation, which later was called the Core Knowledge Foundation. The foundation, based in Charlottesville, Va., publishes a newsletter, promotes its Core Knowledge Sequence Curriculum and other materials, conducts training, advises schools free of charge, and boasts of having 100 schools in 25 states using its curriculum.

Hirsch’s perspective strikes a popular chord. It has been endorsed by a range of people including Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, James P. Comer, noted African-American psychiatrist, and William Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Bush.

Some people find Hirsch appealing because he is an articulate champion of mainstream Western European heritage. He holds more appeal in this area than his late contemporary Allan Bloom, author of Closing of the American Mind, who stridently opposed efforts to acknowledge this country’s multicultural history.

Other people find Hirsch appealing because his ideas mesh all too nicely with a conservative analysis of the problems with American schools and society. Hirsch argues that students’ achievement in reading and writing are declining — and poverty is increasing — because schools have stressed skills instead of content and do “not give children a specific core of shared knowledge in early grades.” He offers a low-cost, straight-forward solution — all students should obtain “core knowledge” — and conveniently ignores the all-too important issue of equity in funding and resources.

Still others find Hirsch appealing because he directly confronts a central question that runs throughout controversies about multiculturalism, outcomes-based education, and textbook adoptions: “What do our kids need to know?”

In critiquing Hirsch, it is essential to note that the debate over his views is part of a broader controversy in American society sparked by shifting demographics, the civil rights and feminist movements, increased immigration by people of color, and the changing global economy and rising prominence of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As historian Ronald Takaki, author of A Different Mirror, has noted: “What is fueling this debate over our national identity and the content of our curriculum is America’s intensifying racial crisis.”

In response, Hirsch, Bloom, Bennett, and others have “attempted to create an ideological consensus around the return to traditional knowledge,” according to Michael Apple, University of Wisconsin Professor of Education. They believe that the “‘great books’ and ‘great ideas’ of the ‘Western tradition’ will preserve democracy… increase student achievement and discipline, increase our international competitiveness, and ultimately reduce unemployment and poverty.”

This “return to tradition” perspective contrasts sharply with those who in recent decades have pushed for a more inclusive definition of American culture and school curriculum. For instance, Theresa Perry and James Fraser point out in their book Freedom’s Plow: Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom that, “If there is to be democracy in the 21st century, it must be multiracial/multicultural democracy….The debate is about the United States of America, and what its definitive values and identity will be in the next century.”

The debate over Hirsch, then, is about far more than culture and education, but strikes at the core of our vision of this country’s future. The irony is that Hirsch, in his attempt to define the 21st Century American identity, relies on educational methods and content that dominated the 19th Century.

Hirsch and Culture

My criticisms of Hirsch’s perspective fall into two categories: his definition of “national culture” and his definition of knowledge.

Hirsch writes about a “single national culture” that all literate people share. He argues that middle-class children acquire mainstream literate culture “by daily encounters with other literate persons” and that “disadvantaged” children don’t.

Schools, he argues, should provide an “antidote to [the] deprivation” of “disadvantaged” children by making “the essential information more readily available.” As he writes in Cultural Literacy,“We will be able to achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared background knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else.”

Hirsch admits that multicultural education is “valuable in itself” but then goes on to add an all-important caveat that it “should not be allowed to supplant or interfere with our schools’ responsibility to ensure our children’s mastery of American literate culture.”

Equal access to culture is an undeniably worthwhile concern and Hirsch’s care for equity should be commended. But a deeper look at Hirsch’s assumptions and limitations reveals that implementation of his ideas would more likely marginalize instead of enfranchise those students Hirsch says he wishes to help.

There are several related issues here involving complex questions of culture in a changing society. One needs to look not just at Hirsch’s rhetoric of concern, but at his definition of “traditional culture,” his neglect of “non-mainstream” cultural histories and traditions, and his dismissal of the need to teach children to think critically.

First of all, what is Hirsch asking children to learn? After reading eight books by Hirsch it is clear that his view of “American literate culture” is overwhelming European-American based. Moreover, while Hirsch talks about the “classless character of cultural literacy” he virtually ignores the history, tradition, and literature of and about the working class and other marginalized groups and their conflicts with dominant society. He knows better than to dismiss the contributions of women completely, but recognizes them in a way that doesn’t question the status quo.

I have no problem with children learning “American literate culture” if it includes all Americans and the competing, often conflicting, views from the many peoples that make up this diverse nation. Hirsch’s “core knowledge,” however, is little more than a distillation of that which already dominates most textbook series and what kids have been getting for decades.

Before looking at this issue more completely, let’s examine Hirsch’s books.

A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacyis divided into sections such as literature, mythology, and history. The section on literature has 201 entries, 24 of which are literary terms. Of the remaining entries, 166 entries (94%) are of European/American origin. Of the remaining 11, six deal with stories from The Arabian Nights, one deals with Native Americans (Hiawatha with a reference to the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and four refer to African Americans, (Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and the stories B’rer Rabbit and Uncle Remus). There are no references to Latino or Asian-Americans. The only entries dealing with working-class life or struggle are two works by Charles Dickens and “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the chapter on mythology all 80 references are to European myths. There is not a single reference to racism, sexism, or prejudice in the entire 271-page book — not even at the level of words that kids should know.

To claim that this dictionary “outlines the knowledge” that elementary children need to know is offensive to anyone who believes in justice and equality.

Because of similar criticisms, Hirsch modified his “lists” of knowledge for both adults and children. But the fundamental problem remains.

A statistical analysis of his series of books, What Your First [through Sixth] Grader Needs to Know, shows that 82% of the pages devoted to literature and poetry have Euro-American selections. Of those that deal with non-European cultures 37% have animals as main characters, compared to 11% of the Euro-American selections. The not-so-subtle message is that stories about non-European cultures are not as serious.

There is a question of more than European culture, however. Hirsch, for example, is concerned that children learn the traditional fairy tales such as Snow White or Cinderella. But nowhere does he question the biases in many of those fairy tales. As educator and writer Herb Kohl noted in a review of the books written for the 1st and 2nd grade, the literature sections include “tales of royalty and wealth filled with passive or wicked females, evil step-parents, pure and handsome princes. …

Young women need to be rescued from older women, purified for marriage into royalty or sacrificed to save their fathers.”

By contrast, I try to promote values in my classroom that include respect for all types of families, cooperative, non-hierarcichal approaches to working together, and equality of the sexes and all races.

One could argue that What Your First [through Sixth] Grader Needs to Know is meant for parents and shouldn’t be held to such standards of criticism. However, similar problems permeate a curriculum for schools published by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The curriculum, Core Knowledge Sequence Grades 1-6, is designed explicitly for schools. Further, Hirsch advocates that the sequence “should be taught as recommended, with no omissions or rearrangement of content to a different grade level.”

The fourth grade literature sequence, for example, calls for the students to read 10 “stories.” Seven of them are Euro-American: A Voyage to Lilliput, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, Little Women, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Little House on the Prairie.

For some unexplained reason, there is a particular emphasis on Robinson Crusoe. This emphasis is typified in A School’s Guide to Core Knowledge: Ideas for Implementation by Constance Jones.

Principal of the Three Oaks School in Fort Myers, Fla. — the country’s first “Core Knowledge” school — Jones twice mentions that students read Robinson Crusoe: once as an example of how students “practice the skills of recognizing the main idea in a passage,” and second as part of a Cross-Disciplinary Unit on Christopher Columbus and “discovery.”

During the discovery unit, children read Robinson Crusoe as a class and everyone keeps a daily journal “about the adventures he/she would have if he/she were marooned on an island.” The Core Knowledge Sequence Grades 1 -6 suggests that teachers may want to purchase class sets of Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719-1720, is an interesting choice. Often considered one of the fi st true novels ever written in English, it has an undeniable place in the literary canon. But the book also uncritically mirrors the racial, religious, and imperialist biases that dominated English culture at the time. As University of Columbia Professor of Comparative Literature Edward Said notes in his book Culture and Imperialism, Robinson Crusoe is “the prototypical modern realistic novel” in which the protagonist “is the founder of a new world, which he rules and reclaims for Christianity and England.”

Hirsch says he is concerned that “disadvantaged” children be enfranchised by acquiring “cultural knowledge.” Yet how can an uncritical look at a novel that constantly refers to non-white people as “savages” and is infused with a belief in the inherent superiority of white people help so-called “disadvantaged” children?

One might counter that the study of such a book would be valuable if it were done in the context of a study of colonialism and imperialism. Unfortunately, Hirsch instead has students read Robinson Crusoe as part of a unit that explicitly equates “discovery” with “adventure,” not with colonialism.

Which gets me into my other criticisms of Hirsch’s approach to culture: he not only neglects the cultures of those who have been traditionally silenced in school textbooks, such as working-class whites and people of color, but even when emphasizing “traditional culture,” he has children do so uncritically.

Would it be too much to ask that children study competing narratives of people in history in order to understand the complexity of social phenomena? Couldn’t children be taught to question Defoe’s use of the term “savages” as a way of exploring the social dynamics of the time?

Hirsch seems content that students know who wrote Robinson Crusoe and when, and understand its plot line and major characters. This kind of “just the facts ma’am” approach may produce people good at playing Trivial Pursuits but doesn’t produce critical thinkers. Instead, I believe a teacher should help students read such literature critically and set it in a broader context that raises fundamental issues about justice and equality.

A teacher, for example, might have students write from the perspective of Friday, Crusoe’s “servant.” Or students could locate the events in the novel as part of the African slave trade, which might cast Crusoe in a less than heroic light. (Crusoe shipwrecks while on a voyage to West Africa to capture slaves.)

I’m not suggesting that children shouldn’t learn what some would call “traditional” American history and culture, but that it be done critically and broadened to include all the peoples who have shared the North American continent and who have shaped our history. Even within the “European-American” tradition there is a rich history of social and ideological conflict, which is usually omitted in school textbooks.

Hirsch’s materials continue this long-standing American tradition of silencing those voices. In the process, he sends a powerful message that one culture, the dominant culture, is more valuable than others.

It’s true that students need to know that mainstream culture is more valued in our society. But that should not be equated with teaching children it is more valuable. Yes, students need to know that they will be at a disadvantage in the world of politics, education, and culture if they don’t learn about the dominant culture. But that’s not enough.

To function effectively within future society, students will need much more than what Hirsch suggests. Cultural literacy is far more fluid and complex than his approach outlines. And it’s not just a question of dominant or non-dominant culture. His very approach to “knowledge” assumes that students “receive” and succumb to knowledge and the values and institutions it represents — rather than viewing knowledge critically and challenging its underlying assumptions.

Promotional rhetoric aside, the Sequence of Core Knowledge is not substantially better, and perhaps worse, than many basal social studies, science, and literature series. In fairness, it should be noted that both Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation say that this planned sequence should only consume 50% of the teaching time in a school. Yet when I read the dozens of things that are to be covered, I was incredulous.

The history sections alone — if done well — would require a significant portion of the school day.

It should also be recognized that many good teachers are used to dealing with lockstep curriculum programs and won’t passively accept such scripted materials.

Just as teachers select a few interesting poems and stories from basal readers, they may do the same with Hirsch’s materials.

Hirsch and Knowledge

The only conceivable way that a teacher could “cover” the amount of material prescribed by the Core Knowledge Foundation in the suggested time is if one defined learning as superficial acquaintance with “facts” — elevating word recognition to the status of knowledge. Although the Core Knowledge Sequence says it is “not a list of facts to be memorized,” practical realities will push in that direction.

In analyzing Hirsch’s books, it’s clear that his definition of knowledge is synonymous with a superficial familiarity with facts and relies on rote memorization and the acquisition of disconnected bits of information. In fact, Hirsch himself admits that his lists will almost certainly lead to “the trivialization of cultural information.”

Moreover, it is likely that Hirsch’s “core knowledge” curriculum might serve as fertile ground for a new crop of standardized tests which rely on “facts” rather than knowledge.

In an age where technological advances have led to what is uniformly acknowledged to be an “information glut,” Hirsch stands firmly in a 19th Century approach and boldly states that “only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and illiterate, between dependence and autonomy.” And in many cases, Hirsch implies, it’s not necessary to understand whysomething is important; one must just know that it isimportant.

When meeting with college-level English teachers from the National Council of Teachers of English and Modern Language Association in 1987, Hirsch was criticized for the “narrowing of national culture” and the teaching of small bits of information. “A telling moment came when he [Hirsch] said it wasn’t so important to read Shakespeare or see performances of the plays themselves — plot summaries or ‘Lamb’s Tales’ would do fine,” according to Peter Elbow, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Ultimately, Hirsch’s emphasis on the transmission of disconnected facts — what he calls “core knowledge” — directly contrasts with the need for students to think, analyze, critique, and understand their world.

Even if the facts that Hirsch promoted were completely multicultural, his approach would be flawed by his definition of knowledge. Students need more than facts. They need to understand the relationships between “facts” and whose interests certain “facts” serve. They need to question the validity of the “facts,” to ask questions such as “why,” and “how.” They need to know how to find information, to solve problems, to express themselves in oral and written language so their opinions can be shared with, and have an influence on, broader society. It is only through such an approach that students can construct their own beliefs, their own knowledge.

For example, in his sections on the American Revolution and the constitution, Hirsch essentially dismisses as irrelevant the pro-slavery, anti-woman assumptions of our Founding Fathers.

No mention is made that about 40% of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slave owners, that Washington himself had slaves, and that in 1779 he ordered that U.S. Troops launch an expedition against the Iroquois Confederacy and seek the “total destruction and devastation and the capture of as many persons of every age and sex as possible …. Parties should be detached to lay waste all settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”

A teacher should not shy away from presenting a complete picture of Washington, and should encourage students to grapple with such facts. A teacher might, for example, have students write a dialogue poem between Washington and one of his slaves. Or do a fictional role-play of a Constitutional Convention in which disenfranchised people speak and advocate for themselves. Or have students imagine they were members of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1779.

It is only when students compare, analyze, and evaluate information that they can go beyond memorization and construct meaning. As Michael Hartoonian, head of Social Studies for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, writes: “Information provided by a teacher or textbook is generally, and wrongfully, perceived as knowledge…. [Instead] knowledge is something created through a process of personal involvement that allows for complex relationships between the learners (including the teacher) and the text and context of the classroom, even when the classroom includes the larger community.”

The National Council of Teachers of English was even more explicit in its critique of Hirsch’s approach. In a 1988 resolution just shortly after Hirsch hit the national limelight, the council passed a resolution underscoring its concern with “curricula that reduce literature to lists of information.” The resolution went on to note that reducing literature “to an accumulation of particular facts such as title, names, phrases, and dates negates its very integrity.”

Hirsch and Teaching

Embedded in Hirsch’s viewpoint on culture and knowledge is his approach to teaching.

First, rather than calling upon students to study less, but understand more, he advocates a more-the-merrier approach — regardless of whether children understand what is presented to them. Second, he distorts the relationships between content and skills, criticizing what he claims are current emphases on “mental skills,” “learning-to-learn skills,” and “critical thinking skills.”

On the issue of more versus less, good teaching requires a precarious balance between exposing students to lots of information and studying a few topics in depth. While Hirsch alludes to this balance, ultimately he advocates pumping as much information as possible into students. This stands in sharp contrast to the fine work of many teachers — whether in groups such as the Coalition for Essential Schools or as part of national curriculum groups such as the National Council of Teachers of English — who hold that “less is more” and encourage in-depth projects by students.

The question of content versus skills is a bit more complicated.

Hirsch emphasizes content over skills largely on the grounds that students will understand what they read only if they have sufficient “relevant prior knowledge.” Likewise, he argues that broader thinking skills also depend on a wealth of “relevant knowledge.”

Like any good teacher, Hirsch recognizes there is an important relationship between content and skills. No good teacher would deny the importance of prior knowledge in the educational process or that adults have important information to share with children. However, Hirsch distorts this relationship by overemphasizing content to the degree that the teaching of skills all but disappears from the curriculum.

Despite Hirsch’s rhetoric of giving children what they need to seek meaning from reading, his prescriptions make it likely that reading will become a mechanical process dependent on calling up what one has memorized. But isn’t reading a more complicated process? Doesn’t it also involve learning strategies to understand and critique what one has read? Further, students need to be taught how to read difficult texts which may go beyond previously learned “relevant knowledge” — otherwise they’ll rarely venture into and understand new areas of knowledge.

Rather than adopt Hirsch’s approach, we should establish classrooms where children are encouraged to take responsibility for their learning, to become independent writers, readers, thinkers and speakers, and to take an active role in creating a more just society.

I also disagree with Hirsch’s basic premise that teachers throughout America underemphasize content and overemphasize skills.

Hirsch charges that the main problem in U.S. schools is “educational formalism,” i.e. there is an overemphasis on teaching “mental skills” and that to the degree there is content, it is fragmented. My experience, however, is that too few teachers are concerned with mental skills and too many follow content-heavy basal systems in a lock-step manner. John Goodlad, author of APlaceCalled School, found in his research that “not even 1% of the instructional time in high school was devoted to discussion that requires some kind of response involving reasoning or perhaps an opinion from students.”

The problem is not that students don’t get the “core knowledge” and facts that Hirsch holds dear. Rather, the problem is that students are being bombarded with thousands of bits of disconnected information and rarely write, discuss, or read things that are meaningful to their lives.

What Should Kids Learn?

One of Hirsch’s major arguments is that there needs to be a collective discussion about what children learn. I agree. We just disagree on what and how. Hirsch’s work, for instance, has many omissions. He says little about racism and sexism. History from the perspective of working people is virtually an unknown. The issue of the mass media and its biases is nonexistent. Other key problems in society — violence, the environment, rapid technological change — are ignored. Hirsch addresses some controversies, such as bilingualism and multilingualism, but mainly to oppose them.

Instead of opposing multilingualism and bilingualism and ignoring issues of racism and prejudice, it would be better to figure out how to prepare our children to live in a multicultural, technological, ever-changing world. Children need to develop cross-cultural literacy, critical abilities, and respect for different viewpoints and experience. They also need to learn social responsibility and their individual role in the collective struggle against discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Shouldn’t such issues be at least as important in our “Core Knowledge” as learning the plot line of Robinson Crusoe?

In attempting to answer the question, “What should our kids learn?” the list approach should be discarded and a different framework adopted. One such effort is the K-12 Reform in the Milwaukee Public Schools. The core of this system-wide curricular reform is 10 “Teaching and Learning Goals” developed by parents, educators, and community members (see box). The goals, in turn, are detailed in more specific age-appropriate “performance indicators.”

For example, the first goal is “Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through their participation in a multilingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.” Implicit in the goal, and explicit in the performance indicators, is a sense that students have a social responsibility to act upon what they have learned. This is radically different from Hirsch’s approach, which not only views students as passive recipients of facts, but also as passive members of society.

The K-12 reform effort differs not just in content from Hirsch, but in approaches to teaching. While Hirsch explicitly states that his Core Sequence does not require any specific teaching method, the K-12 reform effort openly advocates teaching styles that are student-centered, activity-based, use heterogeneous groupings, and promote deep thinking and problem solving.

Hirsch and School Reform

Never humble, Hirsch argues that his approach is the solution to our country’s educational crisis. Even more astounding, he also maintains it is key to economic reform and the reduction of poverty.

Hirsch says that reform must be based on an approach that teaches children “a specific core of knowledge in each of the first six grades.” Such a low-cost proposal undoubtedly appeals to some policymakers. Unfortunately it ignores institutional causes of inequity, which have been eloquently summarized by Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities.These include inadequate and unequal funding for decent, safe facilities, lower class size, adequate technology, teacher training, and programs for children with special needs.

Hirsch’s stance also dovetails with the tendency to scapegoat our schools for all our country’s economic problems. He writes: “The great scandal of the American school system during the past 10 years is that poverty has increased in a rising economy. This misfortune is mainly due to a lack of economically useful skills among the poverty class, a lack created by the unequal education of our students.”

Like many of his conservative counterparts, Hirsch wants to blame poverty on the schools and suggest that there are educational solutions to fundamental economic problems, such as the massive global restructuring that has led to the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs as multinational companies seek out ever-cheaper sources of labor and production. The subtext in this approach is obvious: no fundamental economic or political change is necessary to ensure equity in our schools or society.

One would hope that such silliness would speak for itself. But unfortunately, Hirsch’s views on literacy and curriculum are already affecting classroom practice and parental perspectives.

For kids in my class who briefly read Hirsch’s article on high mountains, or for the hundreds of thousands of others who are daily bombarded with facts either through Hirsch’s series or one of several basal programs, the issue is not whether they will be able to recall 50, 500 or even 5,000 core facts.

The issue is whether they will be in classrooms where they are respected and challenged — not only to understand the world but to develop the cross-cultural perspectives, critical skills, and moral courage needed to deal with the vast racial, gender, class, and ecological problems that their tomorrow will bring.


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Bob Peterson teaches 5th grade at Fratney Street School in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He would like to thank Bill Bigelow, Stan Karp, Robert Lowe, Barbara Miner, and Ira Shor for their help on this article.