V&V Q&A: On E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Cultural Literacy

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, Dr. Paul Kengor, the executive director of the Center, interviews Dr. Jason R. Edwards, a research fellow with the Center and an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College. He is also a Center fellow in educational policy and in the study of popular culture. The topic of this Q&A is a new white paper authored by Dr. Edwards—“E.D. Hirsch Jr.: The Twentieth Century’s Liberal Conservative Educator”—which relates to this week’s conference: “Faith, Freedom & Higher Education: A Vision for the Soul of the American University.”

Dr. Paul Kengor: Dr. Edwards, your new white paper for The Center for Vision & Values is on E.D. Hirsch Jr. Who is Hirsch, and what is his association with the term “Cultural Literacy?” What has been his impact on public education?

Dr. Jason R. Edwards: Hirsch arrived on the educational scene with a thunderclap in 1988 with the publication of his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. He now prefers the term “Core Knowledge,” but he has never wavered in his assertion that all Americans—especially disadvantaged ones—must command a common body of background knowledge in order to succeed. As evidenced by sales of his curriculum, thousands have embraced his argument, though more in the realm of home schools and private schools than public schools.

Kengor: Hirsch has at times angered both the left and the right. How so?

Edwards: Hirsch refuses to be boxed into simple categories, which can frustrate both the left and right. His political goals are “left” but the education methods he advocates are “conservative.” His call for a controlling federal presence in education further muddies the contemporary political water.

Kengor: Would you consider Hirsch a liberal or conservative or moderate, or something else? In rejecting him, aren’t liberals rejecting one of their own?

Edwards: He likes the term “pragmatist” but as he always explains, he is a political liberal dedicated to economic egalitarianism; he even dedicated his arguably most important work (The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them) to the Marxist Antonio Gramsci. His frustration comes from the fact that the educational methods he advocates have been labeled “conservative” and thereby rejected by the left. He wants the left to realize that its goals are achievable only through adopting “conservative” educational methods.

Kengor: How is Hirsch received in colleges of education? Do they study him in graduate programs?

Edwards: Assumedly there are exceptions but, overall, Hirsch’s ideas are an anathema to standard education dogma. Hirsch also tends to draw unfavorable distinctions between research done by education faculty and research done by professors of other disciplines—that fact doesn’t make him many friends in America’s colleges of education.

Kengor: Could it be that the left doesn’t like Hirsch because he has favorable views on religious education? In your paper, you write: “Christians would probably be attracted to the fact that Hirsch fully embraces the necessity of all American students to be very familiar with Western Civilization and consequently the Bible. Hirsch certainly thinks it is a major mistake for public schools to avoid discussing and indeed teaching Bible stories, proverbs, and ideas.” This is very interesting, and perhaps why some conservatives like Hirsch. Can you expand on this?

Edwards: The left certainly is uncomfortable with this, but don’t misunderstand: Hirsch does not endorse Christianity. He merely recognizes the obvious: that the West is a product of Christendom. A person cannot understand Western politics, music, art, literature, etc. or even communicate effectively through allusions, metaphors, and stories, without a firm recollection of the Bible. Though not mutually exclusive, one can endorse religious education primarily because one believes Christianity to be true or one can endorse teaching Christianity because it is practically necessary. Ever the pragmatist, Hirsch is in the latter camp.

Kengor: How does the No Child Left Behind act fit with Hirsch?

 Hirsch called No Child Left Behind one of the most promising pieces of recent legislation. He argues that the education establishment has reacted to it improperly but the fact that Republicans and Democrats joined hands to create national standards in education is part of what Hirsch called for.

Kengor: So, overall, what’s your assessment of Hirsch and his ideas? Has his impact on education been positive?

Edwards: Due both to their importance and general popularity of Hirsch’s ideas, he may well be the most significant educational reformer in the last third of the 20th century. His proof that memorized knowledge is essential to thinking is invaluable to our culture, which assumes that “critical thinking” is merely the ability to look something up or to cynically deny the existence of truth altogether.

Kengor: A final thought: You will be speaking at our conference this week, on April 16-17, “Faith, Freedom, and Higher Ed: A Vision for the Soul of the University.” Give us a sample of what we’ll be hearing from you.

Edwards: I’m thrilled to be on a panel with my colleague Dr. Andrew Harvey. Our session will explore the role of “place” within higher education. Since universities are now so eager to embrace the virtual world and “global community,” we will explore the importance of the actual physical campus, face-to-face communication, and true community in education. We will approach those topics through the work of Wendell Berry. Like Hirsch, Berry is immensely popular but not easy to categorize as he is frequently both loved and loathed by the left and right.

Kengor: Dr. Edwards, thanks for chatting with V&V Q&A.

Edwards: Thank you for the opportunity.

About Jason R. Edwards

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with the Institute for Faith and Freedom and a professor of history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at [email protected]

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