Starting out as a garden-variety left-liberal while teaching at Yale, and a scholar and admirer of Romanticism, Hirsch has gradually but radically changed many of his views since moving to the University of Virginia (English Department, not education school) nearly 50 years ago. Despite great, international eminence as a literary theorist, in the Seventies he voluntarily took over the usually thankless task of running the undergraduate English Composition program at the increasingly competitive and eminent flagship of the Virginia university system, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, one of the nation’s best public universities. To his shock and distress, the promise of the Sixties civil-rights movement, with the admission of blacks (and poor whites) to the formerly elitist Virginia, had turned into disappointment. Many of the African-American students had been so badly educated in the K–12 schools of Virginia that they could not do university-level work and were in need of remediation, leading to an ironic and defensive re-segregation in Black Studies courses. Most of them (and many lower-class white students) did not have the common coin of the literate realm, the “cultural literacy,” as Hirsch called it, to take effective advantage of the newly available opportunities of access to elite institutions.
In Hirsch’s 1996 book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them–just now translated into Spanish in Spain with an introduction by the eminent American educational-policy specialist Charles L. Glenn Jr. – he launched a full-scale critique of educational Romanticism – of “messianism” and “spilt religion” – worthy of Tocqueville and Hulme (both of whom he has quoted), as well as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and Russell Kirk (whom he has not). As against the self-indulgent, sentimental, pantheistic longings, seductive illusions, and quicksilver bromides of Rousseau, subsequent German Romantics, Emerson, Horace Mann, Whitman, Dewey, and Dewey’s teachers’-college parishes all over the country, the intellectual historian Hirsch carefully critiqued the foolishness and ineffectuality of Romantic-Progressive educational thought and practice since 1900, a record of fecklessness and incompetence noted by Hofstadter in 1964 and devastatingly documented recently in Diane Ravitch’s indispensable Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).
Hirsch’s critique drew for its authority not only on his careful anatomy of Romantic-Progressive incoherence and incompetence in K–12 education, but also on the great, positive, historical sources of prudent, civilizing ideals in Western education, among them Plato, St. Augustine, and the American Founding Fathers. He also remembered gratefully, and praised, earlier opponents of the Dewey juggernaut, including thoughtful Columbia Teachers College minority voices William C. Bagley (d. 1946) and Isaac L. Kandel (d. 1965), author of the prescient, anti-skeptical The Cult of Uncertainty in 1943, both of whom were buried under the Dewey landslide from the 1920s to the 1960s and ended in oblivion. Hirsch was apparently unaware of anti-Dewey critiques by Kirk, other conservative writers, and another Columbia Teachers College rebel, Philip H. Phenix (d. 2002).
Now 85, Hirsch is himself possessed of a historical sense, making him aware of what he has called “the perils of romanticism” and agnostic about claims for radical pluralism and multicultural “diversity” (Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty”), eventuating in “e pluribus plures,” from many, many, instead of the decent, sensible, republican-democratic “e pluribus unum.” He knows that reflection on history implicitly teaches ethics and a degree of prudent rationality, despite fashionable scholarly skepticism, esoteric specialization, and the militant, reductionist “gender-race-class” grid of so much contemporary university teaching and writing in the fields of history and literature. He saw the radical, post-modern, left-Nietzschean relativism of the Mandarin academy close up in his own Department of English and Comparative Literature at Virginia, especially in the person and work of his ironic, radically skeptical, “anti-foundationalist” colleague Richard Rorty. In the dishonorable but revealing career of the immigrant Belgian deconstructionist and chameleon Paul De Man – brilliantly exposed and anatomized by David Lehman in Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul De Man (1991) – post-modern relativism had massively penetrated Yale after Hirsch’s departure: fashionable Francophone decadence and radical relativism corrupting and disgracing a once-great and beneficent Literature Department.
But is it true that history implicitly teaches ethics? Not, of course, if the historian is an anarchist or a Marxist, or some other form of determinist or fanatic. But the premises of rational generalizability – “What if everybody did that?” – and moral evaluation —this event, person, or idea is deficient, evil, or destructive (e.g., slavery, anti-Semitism, prostitution), that one good – are implicit in the conceiving, writing, and teaching of history. George Orwell’s eloquent, hard-won understanding of common “decency” as a standard is the effect and product of the long-term, residual momentum of the Natural Law tradition. It is incarnated in the history of Western law, classic writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, and Dickens, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, and the speeches of Lincoln, not to come nearer in time to the writings of C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, or Solzhenitsyn.
As well as teaching children to read through phonics, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum systematically exposes young students to this humanizing patrimony of history and literature, remote as it may be from Allen Ginsberg and Mick Jagger. In the century since 1914, the consequences of the various substitutes for classical-Christian Natural Law/Natural Rights common sense – the matrix of most great English literature and the American founding documents and institutions – have been and continue to be catastrophic, an argument brilliantly articulated and documented by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al-Qaeda (2006).
Another partisan of Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty,” the agile liberal relativist Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), has been given far too much credit for invoking toward the end of his life the wisdom of Kant’s famous assertion that “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” True enough, but it is simply a secular paraphrase of the Christian doctrine of original sin, endlessly illustrated throughout human history: G. K. Chesterton called it “the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian religion.” Human proneness to egotism, to force and fraud, to the abuse of power in all its forms, is what led wise men such as Madison and Hamilton, and most of the other American Founders, to craft their documents and institutions as they did. The durability, serviceability, and importance of these documents and institutions are unique and incalculably valuable, but –like all historical phenomena –vulnerable to forgetfulness and erosion. The theoretical and practical work of the educational pioneer E. D. Hirsch –blessed and graced with historical sense, literary skill, and civic commitment –serve the American (and human) “res publica,” justify the prudence and chaste hopes of the American Founders, and help redeem the time from anarchy and oblivion.
— M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and professor emeritus of education at Boston University. He recently edited a new edition of Charles Dickens’s great historical novel on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities(Ignatius Press).