`Core Knowledge' Education Reform Getting Good Marks: Basic Cultural Literacy Called Essential

Article excerpt

A decade ago, the idea that public schools should teach every student a core body of facts flew in the face of educational theory and the rise of multiculturalism.

So when E.D. Hirsch Jr., a University of Virginia professor of English, proposed a national return to "core knowledge" in his 1987 book "Cultural Literacy," he quickly became a lightning rod.

In December, Mr. Hirsch's reform model may be at the head of the class of 25 others in what is considered a first-ever consumer report on specific approaches to fixing public education.

The 26 different programs will be ranked in a report to be produced by independent researchers. It has been commissioned by five groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

In the 1980s, the cultural literacy idea of Mr. Hirsch - a self-described liberal and pragmatist - was embraced by conservatives and denounced by the left, which championed "progressive" education.

"What surprised me was that both my enemies and my friends perpetuated the incorrect perception of the book," Mr. Hirsch said in a recent interview. "The whole aim of the book was social justice."

Both the left and right said "core knowledge" harkened back to rote memorization of the Eurocentric past. Mr. Hirsch wanted to say that cultural literacy simply helps poor kids succeed.

Now, everyone concedes that the idea is a complex and open system that combines both tradition and innovation - what Mr. Hirsch said he had in mind in his first speech on cultural literacy in 1980.

"I just couldn't worry about the perceptions," he said. "I had to stick to my guns."

What he stuck to was the argument that a person's educational and financial success often hinges on being culturally literate.

That literacy means to have a basic storehouse of knowledge - old sayings, famous people, the functions of government and landmark events - to navigate both school and the marketplace.

"It's bringing the disadvantaged urban kids up to the level of the kids in the suburbs," he said of the use of a Core Knowledge Sequence, a curriculum guideline for grades one to six.

The opposite view to Mr. Hirsch's has been handed down by European romanticism and American educator John Dewey, who said learning is primarily about experience and skill. …