Friday, October 26, 2012

ED Hirsch and his unknown knowns

Suddenly the name of ED Hirsch is popping up all over the place. Doesn’t ring any bells? He promotes an educational theory that he calls Cultural Literacy, which revolves around elements of knowledge that students are expected to have acquired by a specific stage in their learning, to enable them to function in the modern world. It sounds pretty good so far, especially to a grumpy old sod whose preferred leisure activity is banging his head against the floor in response to the slack-jawed idiocy of some of the contestants on Pointless, but particularly those who identify themselves as students.

However, even a moment’s thought reveals two serious objections to Hirsch’s ideas. One is that it has the potential to turn education into a vast, Gradgrindian exercise in knowledge dumping, with no time allocated for real understanding. Did you ever collect Panini stickers? Do you remember going through someone else’s collection and muttering “Got that... got that... got that... haven’t got that...” I’m sure that’s not what Hirsch had in mind, but when his system is allied to the league table approach of British education, that’s what you’re going to get. The other problem, of course, is the question of who actually decides what these all-important facts should be, and what educational (or political or moral or social or economic) criteria they use to reach their decisions. And at the same time, what precisely do they mean by “knowing” a subject? For example, the right-of-centre think tank Civitas argues that by the end of his or her first year of education, a child should be expected to know about English Civil War. Which I think is wonderful, because this means that from the age of six, kids will be well versed in the ideas of the Levellers and the Diggers and the Putney Debates, and from then on it’s a doddle to get into the fine tradition of British dissent, of John Wilkes, of Tom Paine, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Rebecca riots, the Suffragettes, the Kinder trespass, the Jarrow marches, the 43 Group, the Committee of 100, Grosvenor Square, the Miss World protests, Greenham Common, the Poll Tax riots, Swampy, Brian Haw, Occupy St Paul’s and... Do you reckon maybe they didn’t think this one through?

In any case, if every single schoolchild did end up knowing about every single subject on the list, sharp-elbowed middle-class parents would insist on their own offspring knowing more. If the kid next door knows about acorns, Mexico and Henry Moore (all on the Civitas year one list), yours needs to know conkers, Bolivia and Degas. Until you find out that the brat down the road knows mistletoe, Honduras and Bernini. And ultimately, it’s the same kids as it always was who get left behind.

However desirable it is for members of a society to have a common corpus of knowledge, its actual components will ultimately be pretty arbitrary unless there happens to be a dominant ideology (overt or otherwise) behind their selection. Of course, if I were in charge, I’d insist that every three-year-old had an intensive knowledge of spin bowling, tapas, the novels of Douglas Coupland and the first three Velvet Underground albums. (I’ve always thought Loaded is overrated.) Because, seriously, how can you cope in the modern world, let alone go on Pointless, without knowing stuff like that?

PS: If you really want arbitrary, check out this list of the six best novels since 1919. How many of them should a child have read by the end of school, Dr Hirsch?

PPS: And you are still reading my Infinite Jest Blog, aren’t you? That’s OK then.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Acorns, Mexico and Henry Moore, eh? Gradgrindian indeed. Isn't it important how one learns? Isn't education (as opposed to training) the learning of how to learn? At our 70s comprehensive I'm sure we studied our share of useless stuff, but e.g. if one studied a poem that one hated one might then better know how to enjoy a poem that one felt to be more relevant. Maybe I'm the old git banging my head on the floor. (Blimey, Luther flippin' Blissett, I used to watch him at Vicarage Road when he first started his career...)

Anonymous said...

Better some corpus than no corpus.
Though all this talk of corpus sounds very ecclesiastical.

My suggestion for poetry is... put it music - of Shane MacGowan and Rufus Wainwright.

As for the six - I'm on two and I don't care - doo dah.

Tim F said...

But surely you know of Luther's other claim to fame, Gadjo?

That would be an ecumenical matter, BWT.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Only now I do, Tim :-) I live a long looong way away from anything remotely Postmodern. My mum used to teach his kids at nursery skool.