Things To Know About ED Hirsch and the ‘Common Cultural Literacy’ Idea

23rd October 2012

ED Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’ has become quite popular in England this week due to him featuring on a Radio 4’s Analysis and also being the subject of a blog by Daisy Christodolou, Managing Director of The Curriculum Centre. Hirsch is the man who wrote the book ‘Cultural Literacy’ which he followed by creating ‘Core knowledge’ an age-ordered curriculum with an emphasis on facts that, if taught correctly, he argues will give children the most important cultural knowledge. But to understand his work it helps to understand its American context, as the reason for his popularity in the States is really quite different to the way his ideas are being framed in the debate here in England.

The USA does not have a national curriculum, there are no national leaving exams, in fact – there is hardly any national education policy at all because education is not mentioned in the constitution. This means education policy is a state matter and because there are 50 states, there are 50 different education systems. This might be manageable, but the system is further complicated by each state being separated into school districts each of which has more or less freedoms depending on the State’s preferred level of control. In total there are 14,000 school districts; that’s basically 14,000 mini-education systems who can each create their own curriculum accordingly. As you can imagine this makes for a complex system which is difficult for politicians to monitor and measure, and it can lead to widely varying education experiences for students. Hirsch’s common curriculum is liked because it has started to bring some consistency to an otherwise patchy system that has defied measurement and improvements for some time. This is completely different to the message in England where we’re told Hirsch’s curriculum is liked because of its strong focus on knowledge itself.

ED Hirsch himself argues that he created his “cultural literacy” for a reason almost entirely missed in the current UK and USA debates. In the Radio 4 programme, Hirsch says he was perplexed to find that many of his undergraduate students could not read and accurately interpret paragraphs about the American Revolution because they did not have the background knowledge required to do so. This pattern was predominantly seen among Black students, but Hirsch notes those same students could interpret passages about “Friends I like” or other topics about their social lives. Hirsch therefore reasoned that American students were experiencing inconsistent schooling, often based on their race, and that this failure to teach the knowledge required for Higher Education was impeding their learning.

In the UK this variation in learning experiences prior to university is less wide is due to the fact that a majority of students have studied within similar A-Level, BTEC or Highers frameworks. Students taking a degree requiring previous knowledge should have already gained what they need. For example, all Psychology A-Levels require students to learn statistical testing regardless of which exam board you take. However, many university courses in the UK do not ‘assume’ any specific knowledge due to the diversity of A-Level subjects taken by students and due to the fact that many subjects are new to A-Level students. Hirsch’s example of the Revolution, however, challenges the universities who assume nothing and instead he says that some knowledge should be universally assumable.

Unfortunately there are two sticking points for Hirsch’s assumption that all 18s should universally know a corpus of knowledge. One, students are humans and therefore forget things even if learned for a previous exam. Sometimes students simply fail to ever learn a fact even when it’s told, shown and danced at them twenty-three times. That said, there’s no harm in at least trying to ensure all children learn important things. After all, children must learn something at school, and a common list of knowledge that everyone tries their best to understand would potentially more useful for university lecturers. Though one wonders what they will do with Scottish and International students.

But the second sticking point is…. more sticky. Who gets to decide what goes on this list of knowledge that everyone must know? Hirsch was surprised a specific group of Black students didn’t know the terms used in a particular paragraph about the Revolution. Could it be that the students had learned different terms? Or had spoken about different events in the Revolution from a different perspective? And, if they have, how can we know that the perspective and words used in Hirsch’s paragraph was ‘correct’? Thing is, we need to think carefully about what the ‘common’ in Hirsch’s “common cultural literacy” actually means.

Common can mean ‘happens a lot’ or it can mean ‘equal’ or ‘united’. Which one does Hirsch’s ‘common cultural literacy’ mean? In England much of the discourse around ED Hirsch points to his work and says that everyone should know more about Tennyson and Churchill in order that all children are ‘equal’. But in the Radio 4 programme what Hirsch suggests is that everyone should be able to equally understand what is commonly understood by people in universities.

If true then it might seem that the most sensible way of deciding what goes into an English ‘national curriculum of knowledge’ is not whatever-Nick-Gibb-thinks-is-important-about-Henry-VII” (which you can hear on the Radio 4 programme) but what should instead be included is “what is most commonly written about in academic circles” and I add the ‘academic circles’ for a reason. If something is ‘common’ then people don’t really need to learn it, so we decided the curriculum on sheer column inches we might end up pointlessly teaching Strictly Come Dancing even when our students know more about it than we do. But what Hirsch is arguing is that some knowledge is regularly taken-for-granted in writing among the ‘highly educated’ –most likely in the world of academic journals, textbooks, broadsheets, etc. If true, then this is the stuff that needs to be understood.

I therefore wonder that if we are going for a Hirschian model of the curriculum we do so with the following process:

1.Select a list of ‘educated materials’ from which an analysis can be created

  1. The materials reviewed could be decided each year by a Curriculum Review Board

  2. Each year (3 yrs? 5?) use analytic software to decide what is the ‘common cultural literacy’ and from that decide the facts that should be taught.  Again, the Curriculum Review Board could decide how to translate the broad themes into facts.

An example? The last few years have probably seen more references in broadsheets (and academic studies) to the 1929 Financial Crash than in previous years. If we are really aiming for cultural literacy then it would make sense to ensure this was now part of the learning corpus otherwise students can’t access information that would be required. Equally it might be worth linking any relevant principles from science to the Higgs-Boson, something else that has likely become a part of ‘common cultural knowledge’.

Fran Abrams – the presenter of the Radio 4 programme – says at the end of the show that she wants all children to be taught more knowledge and supported – regardless of background – to access the information that will help them get further in life. She says that it’s a persuasive vision, and she’s right. But if the aim really is common cultural literacy, and it’s about understanding academic conversations, then that list of knowledge needs to be based on something more tangible and well-thought-out than the latest Education Secretary’s List of Favourite Things.