Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Making of Americans by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

I had read a few books by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. that I really enjoyed and that influenced my thinking on educational philosophy. So when I saw one of his later books called The Making of Americans, I HAD to get it. It did not disappoint.

In his previous book, Cultural Literacy, Hirsch argues for curriculum designed to create culturally literate students. These students would have a shared cultural knowledge base so that they could share a base from which to communicate. He felt this was essential for an "educated" person and that our culture should be able to assume a certain level of familiarity with shared knowledge bases.

He elaborates on that idea in this book to specifically talk about how cultural literacy is needed to make Americans. He bases his ideas on the Founders understanding of the importance of a culturally literate populace from the very beginning.

"The reason that our eighteenth-century founders and their nineteenth-century successors believed schools were crucial to the American future was not only that the schools would make students technically competent. That aim was important, but the main worry was whether the Republic would survive at all... Our educational thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the schools as the central and main hope for the preservation of democratic ideals and the endurance of nation as a republic." It's why Benjamin Franklin called our experiment, "A Republic, madam, if you can keep it."

There was a real concern that we would in fact, not be able to keep our nation a republic. That fear is being born out today as America moves farther and farther away from what it was intended to be.

And so the common school was created with "the center of its emphasis... to be common knowledge, virtue, and skill and an allegiance to the larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin." A fact noticed by Tocqueville when he stated, "It cannot be doubted that in the United States the education of the people powerfully contributes to the maintenance of the democratic republic."

He reiterates the importance of specific subject matter knowledge. In fact he believes that, "A shortfall in conveying this enabling knowledge is a chief cause of our educational shortcomings — including our glaring failure to offer equal educational opportunity to all children." Having to acknowledge that certain knowledge is foundational, has caused Hirsch, a liberal, to call himself an educational conservative. He believes that rather than a place of multicultural diversity, the schools should be what unites its citizens. "All of our earliest educational thinkers argued that precisely because we were a big, diverse country of immigrants, our schools should offer many common topics to bring us together; if schools did so, they felt, we would be able to communicate with one another, act as a unified republic, and form bonds of loyalty and patriotism among our citizens." In fact, he had to admit that the fatal flaw of progressive education "was its faith that the knowledge Americans needed would naturally develop when the child became fully engaged in concrete experiences without the encumbrance of a defined academic curriculum." This idea has patently failed to create Americans with a common cultural heritage.

He states the problem we now face clearly, "It is the duty of American schools to educate competent American citizens.... For the past fifty years we have tiptoed around the idea that the schools should form Americans. Child-centered theories of education have focused more on individual formation than on citizen-making. More recently, identity politics has emphasized membership in subgroups over participation in the larger national community and has viewed traditional goals like assimilation and Americanization with suspicion, as an ideology promoted by long-established WASP groups to continue their domination." This has most hurt the minority children who are never completely welcomed into the American experience but are subdivided and segregated and made to feel as outsiders.

Abraham Lincoln, a true son of the Founders, recognized that the "center of children's upbringing and schooling in the United States should be instruction in a religious devotion to democracy... Lincoln was sensitive to the fragility of peace and harmony in a country where people of different religious faiths and ethnic origins bound themselves into one federation. His tragic sense of how precarious that unity is brought him very early to the view that parents and schools must diligently teach a common creed in order to sustain the union."  

Lincoln believed that we need a political religion called "democracy" to bind us all together as Americans. He states, "Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap -- let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; -- let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars."

Because of the human propensity to divide into groups or tribes and create an us vs. them dynamic, it is imperative that in a multi-ethnic and cultural society as ours that we have a political religion to bind us together. "Under our political religion the sense of the group has gradually been made more expansive, so that race, gender, temperament, and religion cease to be core group characteristics and relegated to the private sphere." It is obvious that our society is going in exactly the opposite direction, largely at the urging and celebration of diversity by the educational system.

This celebration of diversity rather than a unifying curriculum designed to make Americans has hurt all students and our country, but most of all those who most need to be included as one of "us." This has led to huge educational gaps that are growing and the cause of much concern. However, Hirsch states, "The chief cause of the competence and equality gaps has been the anti-curriculum movement that took over in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century. It cannot be emphasized too strongly, nor repeated too often, that the most important cause of our shortcomings is not laziness, unionism, waywardness, stupidity, or any moral fault among the leaders of our educational leaders of our educational enterprise but rather a system of attractive but unsound ideas."

He calls for both the left, which has championed the anti-curricular idea, and the right to come together for the sake of the children. He is baffled by those who call themselves liberal and then support such anti-liberal ideas that actually hurt kids. While those who espouse the need for a core of knowledge tend to be conservatives. He doesn't talk too much about the Core Curriculum and its chances of success. Apparently, it is somewhat based on his ideas, its implementation has been problematic. Paradoxically, it has actually gained support from the liberals and disdain from conservatives. Unfortunately education has become very polarizing. Our country suffers as a result. Meanwhile we get farther away from an educational system that creates Americans and towards a system that creates barely literate members of various groups based on race, class, and gender. I don't think this ends well.

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