The Heroism of E. D. Hirsch

E.D. Hirsch (Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr)
Once more into the educational breach

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who will turn 89 years of age in March, is one of the true intellectual heroes of our time, and his work, on two levels, deserves the widest dissemination and discussion. His new book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, is both a summation and an extension of his life’s work as both a K–12 educational reformer (creator of the K–6 Core Knowledge elementary-school curriculum, now in use in over 1,200 schools in the U.S. and abroad) and a literary theorist of the highest distinction. In the former category, Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute is surely right in calling Hirsch “the most important educational reformer of the past half-century.” (See my article on Hirsch from 2013.)

Unlike several other distinguished critics of the romantic-progressive tradition of Rousseau, Emerson, Whitman, John Dewey, and Dewey’s now millions of educational disciples (in the U.S. and abroad), Hirsch has not just doggedly and lucidly critiqued the contradictions and ineffectiveness of pantheistic romantic naturalism as applied to elementary education (though he has done this profoundly and superlatively well). He has also inspired a grass-roots movement involving thousands of school administrators, teachers, parents, and other individuals of good will in shaping the Core Knowledge curriculum over the last 30 years as a realistic alternative and antidote to the dominance of the ideas, methods, and curricular disorganization and ineffectuality of the existing American elementary-education establishment, which is still universally and exclusively dominant in the nation’s schools of education. In Why Knowledge Matters Hirsch predicts the downfall of this regime, which it has been his life’s Herculean labor to expose and critique — an outcome devoutly to be wished, but still a struggle against long odds of institutional and intellectual self-interest, close-mindedness, and momentum. The replacement in New York City of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (a late but influential convert to Core Knowledge) by demagogic mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Fariña, for example, is a serious defeat for educational reform that shows that this war has many a battle yet to come. (See Robert Pondiscio’s comments in The Education Gadfly.)

At the level of literary theory, 50 years ago Hirsch established himself as one of the major world voices in the theoretical investigation and illumination of the nature and uses of language with an outstanding scholarly book entitled Validity in Interpretation. In this brilliant, patient, deeply learned, now-classic book Hirsch explained and defended the very possibility and procedures of objectivity in literary interpretation, vindicating while reformulating and updating the central civilizing Western tradition of rationality and language from Plato and Aristotle through St. Augustine to Samuel Johnson and Schleiermacher and the 20th century. Hirsch’s earliest efforts in this program earned the approval of C. S. Lewis, whose own The Abolition of Man (1943) is one of the classic defenses of the same essential Western (and world) tradition.

It may seem to anyone outside of a university both incredible and absurd that intellectuals would deny or dispute the very possibility of objective interpretations of oral and written language, as the possibility of such objectivity is the very foundation of our social, political, and legal order and our sanity as human beings with an irreducible stake in normative ideas of rationality and ethics. Hirsch’s friend and sometime colleague Roger Shattuck (1923–2005) noted while doing jury duty in Boston toward the end of his life that the very operating assumptions of our justice system were utterly dependent upon the possibilities of rational-ethical communication, of truth, and of fairness, but that these possibilities were implicitly or explicitly denied by our dominant academic theories of language (as I discussed here). The “learned foolishness” that great orthodox satirists such as Pascal, Swift, Orwell, and C. S. Lewis so brilliantly mocked is at flood tide in our universities today.

Hirsch’s high-level theoretical work in Validity in Interpretation is thus not ultimately remote from the concerns he has expressed and the arguments he has made in his books on K–12 education since the publication of the ground-breaking Cultural Literacy 30 years ago. Like the great Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis (1894–1978), Hirsch insists on the communal and creative character of language and on the essential continuity of human civilization as mediated through its greatest tool — language itself. But unlike Leavis, Hirsch brings to bear profound linguistic and philosophical learning that has enabled him to battle and expose the various seductive intellectual schools, structures, and voices that would obfuscate or obliterate the central rational-linguistic reality, trajectory, and momentum of the quest for objectivity. By means of decent human-linguistic tradition, every human person is implicitly disposed to seek the true and good — reality and justice. Hirsch’s learned dialogue with and critique of Anglophone, German, French, and Italian theorists — their own texts in their own languages — is an enormously impressive scholarly achievement, conducted with extraordinary precision, modesty, and an unfailing personal but disinterested disposition to the trans-personal realms of epistemology and ethics, of the true and the good.

Nor is Hirsch easy to pigeonhole politically as an ideological partisan, despite the dogged efforts of the romantic-progressive K–12 establishment (e.g. Howard Gardner of Harvard Graduate School of Education) to paint him as a conservative. Like his 1996 The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, the new Why Knowledge Matters contains an epigraph from the Prison Notebooks of the Italian anti-Fascist Communist Antonio Gramsci, who spent the last eleven years of his life (1926–37) in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Criticizing the new “progressive” education in Italy in the first decades of the 20th century, Gramsci wrote in 1929:

The new education created a kind of church that paralyzed pedagogical research. It produced curious aberrations like “spontaneity,” which supposed that the child’s brain is like a ball of string that the teacher should help unwind. In reality, each generation educates and forms each new generation. Education opposes the elemental biological instincts of nature; it is a struggle against nature, to dominate it . . . 

Two of the great themes of Hirsch’s profound critique are present here: the romantic-progressive establishment (John Dewey was at the height of his power at Columbia in 1929) as a new religion or religion-replacement (“a kind of church”), and “Nature” as its “God-term,” an allegedly obvious, perspicacious criterion for the true and the good. Hirsch could as easily have found this critique in conservatives such as Irving Babbitt, T. E. Hulme (whom he has quoted), Russell Kirk, or the renegade Protestant thinker R. J. Rushdoony (The Messianic Character of American Education (1963), a classic book that deserves a new edition), or in the writings of dissenting “centrists” such as William Chandler Bagley of Columbia Teachers College (whom he has praised and quoted). But he has clearly not wished to allow simplistic, binary, “premature polarization” to typecast him as a mere defender of things-as-they-are (or “things-as-they-were”: laudator acti temporis). He really believes in the possibilities of modern education to improve individuals (and nations) and to transcend “gender, race, and class,” in the real prospect of equal educational opportunity in having access to the aggregated public goods of a civilization, mediated by the K–12 schools.

Why Knowledge Matters reiterates several of the arguments that Hirsch has been making in one form or another in his books since the 1960s, including his early study of romantic pantheism, Wordsworth and Schelling (1960). Its appendix “The Origins of Natural-Development Theories of Education” is a very useful overview of this theme of intellectual-literary-educational history that is indispensable for understanding the present incoherence and ineffectuality of our public elementary schools and their ideological basis.

But the most notable, revealing feature of Hirsch’s new book is his discussion, and documentation, of the truly shocking, catastrophic recent decline of public education in France. Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) was the fountain of romantic progressivism in education (Emile, 1762), and his descendants have been numerous in the literary and educational fields, this radicalism in literature, linguistics, philosophy, and education did not deeply affect or mar the delivery of very-high-quality education at the early levels in France (the radicalism of French universities and Paris-based culture is another story) — until quite recently. The older tradition of high French rationalism — Pascal and Descartes are major figures — retained great force in the authoritative creation and maintenance of a very high standard of public education in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Noam Chomsky’s “Cartesian linguistics” pays tribute to this older, non-reductive, high rationalism.)

The most notable, revealing feature of Hirsch’s new book is his discussion, and documentation, of the truly shocking, catastrophic recent decline of public education in France.

What Hirsch shows beyond any doubt is that this great, enviable French public achievement, from preschool through high school, has been grievously, perhaps irreparably, damaged by the 1989 Socialist educational “reforms” under the leadership of Socialist education minister (later prime minister) Lionel Jospin — a truly new, catastrophic French Revolution, 200 years after the ambiguous political one. (See my own “Saint Socrates, Pray for Us,” on the continuing cultural fecklessness of the French Left.) Based on a wealth of longitudinal, statistical data on the effects of the so-called Jospin Law (loi Jospin) of 1989, it has been apparent since at least 2007 that the enviably effective pre-1989 French public-education system has suffered a profound decline in effectiveness, plausibly due to the importation of banal but bacterial romantic-progressive bromides à l’américaine.

Ironically, though it can be argued that these ideas originated with Rousseau’s Emile, France itself had successfully resisted them for 225 years: The school as a naturalistic-pantheistic “church” (Tocqueville thought democracies were prone to this); “the child’s brain [conceived as] a ball of string that the teacher should help unwind”; curriculum as “child-centered,” and instruction “individualized” and “differentiated”; whole-class instruction derided and neglected; early reading and writing mistrusted and delayed. The results of the attack of the Jospin “reforms” on France’s long-effective public-education system have now been described in a series of important books (see also Rachel Donadio’s recent piece on French cultural anxiety, despite its neglect of the educational issues). From one of them, Marc LeBris’s 2004 Et vos enfants ne sauront pas lire . . . ni compter (“And your children will neither know how to read . . . nor to count”), Hirsch quotes one of his epigraphs: “One sees immediately that this kind of system will diminish acquisition of specific knowledge by taking refuge in vague evocations of vague general skills.” Voilà! A 2007 book edited by the distinguished French mathematician Laurent Lafforgue and a colleague is entitled La Débâcle de l’École: Une Tragédie Incomprise (“The Debacle of the School: An Uncomprehended Tragedy”). As Hirsch points out, “Débâcle is the term the French apply to their country’s military defeat [rapidly by the Germans] in 1940,” and Lafforgue develops “that historical analogy in his introduction to the essays. His view . . . is that top French intellectuals made big avoidable mistakes in 1989, just as higher-ups had made serious, avoidable military mistakes in 1940.”

Hirsch refers his readers to “the astonishing 2007 data compiled by the French Ministry of Education” and recently made available on the Web. In doing so, he extends his own insistence on using large-scale, valid empirical evidence for the evaluation of educational programs, not only or mainly the undependable, small-scale, even intra-district or intra-school “research” that so many teachers’ colleges and education schools have used in imprudent, invalid, and bamboozling ways over the last hundred years. Hirsch himself had helped document statistically the major decline in American secondary-school outcomes under the “progressive” regime in Cultural Literacy (1987) and then, in more detail, in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them and The Knowledge Deficit (2006), where he wrote: “Verbal SAT scores in the United States took a nosedive in the 1960s, and since then they have remained flat.” In The Schools We Need he quoted a usefully brief assessment by David Barulich: “In 1972 over 116,000 students scored above 600 on the verbal S.A.T. In 1982 fewer than 71,000 scored that high even though a similar number took the exam.” Progress it is not: rather, decapitation.

In the case of the French development, we may hypothesize or surmise that the great French traditions of rationalism, including scientific rationality but not restricted to it, successfully resisted the various seductive heresies of Romantic naturalism pioneered in the Francophone world by Rousseau and his disciples. But the anarchic influence of restless, quicksilver, novelty-obsessed, radical French intellectuals (’68ers: “soixante-huitards”), whose writings have done so much to eviscerate and undermine the Anglo-American universities since the 1960s, finally penetrated the public-school system of which they were the clever, voluble beneficiaries. The left-wing intellectuals Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida were both on the educational committee whose report inspired Lionel Jospin’s disastrous major “reform” initiative of 1989. As Hirsch points out, “in 1989, the Left in the [French] National Assembly (Socialists plus Communists) had an absolute majority; they could pass any law they wished. The vote was 280 in favor, 266 against. The conservatives were not persuaded.” But the guillotine was nevertheless used on an excellent educational system.

In passing the loi Jospin, the French Left betrayed the traditions of the moderate Enlightenment and classical rationalism to which great French intellectuals such as Tocqueville, Jacques Maritain, étienne Gilson, Denis de Rougemont, and Raymond Aron had remained faithful. Hirsch himself has been one of the chief articulators of a centrist Anglo-American tradition, which his own education at Cornell and Yale by scholars such as M. H. Abrams, René Wellek, and William K. Wimsatt had conveyed. His own career is a vital contribution to the reality of that tradition and its applicability, both at the popular, democratic-republican level of schooling and at the erudite intellectual level of worldview and theory. In this regard he is a worthy inheritor of long and deep civilizing traditions, starting with Plato and the Bible (in the current book he quotes the Bible against the elementary-school overvaluing of “imagination,” a word tarnished by promiscuous overuse in educational matters) and including thousands of decent intellectuals (and many millions of decent people) in what Charles L. Glenn Jr., another great contemporary educational thinker, has called “the radical middle.”

Among these educational thinkers of great influence in the Anglo-American world in and since the 19th century was Matthew Arnold (1822–88), one of whose greatest curricular insights (about teaching the knowledge of the best that has been thought, said, and created in the world to everyone) lies behind Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. In the introduction to a 1906 Everyman edition of Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, G. K. Chesterton wrote:

Our actual obligations to Matthew Arnold are almost beyond expression. . . . The chief of his services may be perhaps stated thus, that he discovered (for the modern English) the purely intellectual importance of humility. He had none of that hot humility which is the fascination of saints and good men. But he had a cold humility which he had discovered to be a mere essential of the intelligence. To see things clearly, he said, you must ‘get yourself out of the way’. . . . He realized that the saints had even understated the case for humility. They had always said that without humility we should never see the better world to come. He realized that without humility we could not even see this world.

Our “actual obligations” to the heroic E. D. Hirsch are very great.

M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has written for National Review since 1984 and has taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. His father, Adrien R. Aeschliman, saw frontline combat against the Japanese in 1944–45 in New Guinea and the Philippines in the 32nd Infantry Division, one of the most battle-hardened divisions of the U.S. Army in any theater of operations in World War II.


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