First Up for Fabius! Bombast, and Education Reform

I’m up and running. Having had a hellaciously busy couple of months, I have some down-time now before my new teaching gig starts. I may now turn to the delightful past-time of railing into the vacuum. Behold my wise and eloquent words that will awe our readers and shake the very foundations of modern society! Let the effusion of my mind flow forth through the virtual ink of the netherspace and mark for eternal posterity the record of our doings. Or at least as long as the domain name stays current and paid for.

But until that sorry day, write on! Or until the wife calls me inside for lunch.

Coming soon, a screed on the abortion issue.

And, until I figure out this supposedly brilliant “what I’m reading” section our web-guru is excited about:

I’m finishing up “The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools,” by E.D. Hirsch. It’s a darned useful work on education. Hirsch is a life-long education reformer, and founder of the “Core Knowledge” program. The book is a multi-faceted argument for curriculum reform in schools. Namely, that we should have curricula.

Hirsch lays much of the blame for declining educational performance in American schools on a seventy-year push for “progressive education” and an institutional monopoly on education therein, which is anti-curriculum and “pro” all the progressive buzzwords of “child-centered,” “active-learning,” and the like. The argument is that progressive-educational theories in the 20’s and 30’s pushed out old-fashioned content-first pedagogy, with disastrous results. Modern public education tends to stress various forms of “learning skills” rather than actually taking in knowledge which students then develop skills around. So modern schools focus on trying to build “creativity” and “curiosity” and heinous test-taking skills rather than actual content-first classrooms.

Hirsch advocates returning to some form of standardized curricula in schools, because children need actual knowledge and content around which to develop those learning skills. Curricula should be inter-subect, so children can receive a cross-section of related content (e.g. read literature from the time period covered in history, etc).

Particularly fascinating, is Hirsch’s thesis that standardized content-first curricula will actually help erase the competence and equality gap in schools. The best way to help poor inner-city schools is to hammer home content rather than nebulous “learning skills,” because standardized tests are actually a proxy for measuring broader “cultural literacy.” Rich kids from homes with well-educated parents tend to pick up a lot more of the language skills and background content that enables them to place their learning in context; it gives them some knowledge to build upon. Poor kids from broken homes don’t get exposed to the same array of background knowledge, and so much of what they’re tested on appears meaningless to them. For example, take a generic passage about cotton growing and domestication across history and throughout the world. Privileged are simply more likely to know more about cotton, geography, and agriculture, than poor kids who simply have no idea what the passage is referring to. The poor kids test worse, not because they’re necessarily, dumber, but because they lack the background knowledge necessary to put the passage in context.

The notion of “cultural literacy” (Hirsch wrote an earlier book on that exact subject) plays into a larger and mostly pleasant thesis, that a Democratic society needs a civic body that’s not just well-educated, but which has enough background knowledge to communicate effectively in the common sphere, whether in politics or business. An open and Democratic society  is held together by shared knowledge and cultural assumptions, and the sustained vitality of the society requires its members to have some commonalities to hold on to together, in order to render internally diverse groups ineligible to one another, and to give each group a vested interest in the whole.  I say this is a mostly pleasant thesis, because there’s just more than a whiff of idealistic universalism in Hirsch, he’s actually a bit of an old-fashioned liberal himself. I’m a little more skeptical about the grand American Democratic project to exist in a vacuum without some firm anchors in particularistic traditions.

I do find it very interesting, that Hirsch, and avowed liberal who sees his project as one of explicitly expanding social justice, has been so warmly received by Conservatives, who embrace his call for a shared educational curricular with set standards and content. His Core Knowledge program is being put into place by tons of Charter Schools and Private Schools, and there are some impressive results of inner-city schools showing test results far above the local public schools.

To wrap up, I think this is a damn good example of something Conservatives can and should embrace (for the most part), and specifically because this is relatively ideologically-free. It’s a great example of some truly practical policy solutions that cut through a lot of the culture war miasma and end up giving Conservatives a lot of what they want, without the heavy-handed grand sermonizing.