Lack of Worthwhile Content Is Ravaging Our Children’s Educations

Published December 31, 2016

Review of Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, By E.D. Hirsch Jr. (Harvard Education Press, September 2016), 280 pp.; $31.00 on ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-953-2, ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-952-5 

In Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, provides an outstanding treatise on the growing failure of the U.S. K–12 education system, presenting considerable research proving learning, reasoning, problem-solving, and concept formation cannot be developed independently of information content.

These skills are intrinsically tied to the content of information being read. In fact, what is ravaging our children’s educations is the very lack of worthwhile content imposed by the Common Core State Standards and similar flawed education psychology ventures.

Testing Regimes

Hirsch offers a well-constructed chapter on the current wrongheaded approach to student testing, writing, “To mask the inherent unfairness of today’s tests, a fictitious alternative world has been devised in which meta-skills, [which are strategies for processing new information,] look as important as knowledge and vocabulary.”

Hirsch does not blame the teachers, whose enthusiasm has been the tragic victim of terribly flawed theories. These theories reflect the belief all children are innately smart in their own way. The result is incoherent classrooms and curricula supported by these dubious theories of individuality that have undermined academic performance.

The author explains building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade to form a big picture over a period of years. Common Core, by contrast, demands students always find one specific idea in their readings, which is simply a boon to test-makers offering multiple-choice questions. The reliable way to achieve technical reading comprehension skills is for schools to stress knowledge front-and-center as the primary reading comprehension skill, Hirsch writes.

Hirsch also suggests the current system’s strategy for teaching children vocabulary has failed. In the absence of a well-integrated curriculum, Hirsch writes, “Reliable vocabulary gain currently depends on isolated word study, which is a method of limited effectiveness.”

Students learn words most effectively when they are not thinking specifically about learning them, Hirsch notes.

Data Collection Flaws

As Hirsch defines the faulty habits of current education, he recounts the history of education theory, showing modern theorists have reversed the positive trends and accomplishments in this field.

Hirsch relies on historic trends in France, where data collection is far more prominent, finding the French are making the very same mistakes educators in the United States have been making for decades. The same is true of Sweden, once a paragon of education leadership.

“The United States invented both the modern democratic nation and the common school that sustained it,” Hirsch notes.

The U.S. education system has historically produced a knowledgeable citizenry and social cohesion through shared knowledge, which has widely been believed to be required for young pupils if they were to have a good chance at success. Success is only achieved, Hirsch argues, if such a communal curriculum includes the sort of material Americans have long taken for granted, such as classical literature. Common Core has largely thrown this concept to the side of the road.

In the 1940s, the U.S. K–12 education system still ranked as one of the world’s best, Hirsch notes. Today, it is well below average. Hirsch attributes this change to the infiltration of socialism into American education, which he says began in the 1930s. By 1960, many high school graduates had been educated under such a misguided and destructive scheme.

Test scores declined compared to other industrialized nations from 1960 to 1980, and they have never recovered, which the author says is proof of the failure of progressive education. Hirsch’s book clearly explains the causal connection between the rise of poorly defined modern educational theories and the nation’s broader educational decline.

Breaking the ‘Intellectual Monopoly’

“We can start breaking free from that intellectual monopoly when the wider public understands that thinking skills, like critical and creative thinking and problem-solving, are not productive educational aims,” Hirsch wrote.

The reader must ask himself or herself how often thinking skills are independent of specific knowledge gained from worthwhile content. The author and this reviewer believe the answer is “rarely.”

Only a well-rounded, knowledge-specific curriculum can impart the information needed for all children, thereby reducing the inequality of opportunity in the U.S. education system. Hirsch’s book makes this clear for those who wish to dig deeper and understand why the nation’s schools should eliminate Common Core and the entire array of progressive educational techniques that have bred nothing but failure and frustration.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.