E. D. Hirsch’s Vision of School

E. D. Hirsch, famed literary critic and educator, founder of Core Knowledge Foundation and author of Cultural Literacy, has a new book out. It’s called The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools , and the arguments there are worth repeating again and again.
While the preferred academic approach to American history and society is a jaded and skeptical one, Hirsch believes that the attitude is the outcome of an education system that has “lost its bearings.” It has forgotten, he argues, that the early leaders of our republic charged the schools with the preservation of American ideals. They felt constant anxiety over the survival of the American experiment, never taking for granted its resistance to demogoguery, factionalism, dictatorship, special and private interests, and general unscrupulousness. The surest thing to hold them at bay was the inculcation of civic virtue, that is, the concern for the general welfare, not only one’s personal well-being. And the best expressions of civic virtue were to be found in the Founding documents (Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Federalist Papers, etc.).
Schools were supposed to teach them to students so that the rising generation might appreciate values and principles beyond power and private gain. Hirsch quotes a passage from Governor Silas Wright’s address to the New York legislature in 1845:

On the careful cultivation in our schools, of the minds of the young, the entire success or the absolute failure of the great experiment of self government is wholly dependent; and unless that cultivation is increased, and made more effective that it has yet been, the conviction is solemnly impressed by the signs of the times, that the American Union, now the asylum of the oppressed and ‘the home of the free,’ will ere long share the melancholy fate of every former attempt of self government. That Union is and must be sustained by the moral and intellectual powers of the community, and every other power is wholly ineffectual. Physical force may generate hatred, fear and repulsion; but can never produce Union. The only salvation for the republic is to be sought for in our schools.

Set that claim in light of the attitude toward U.S. history and society prevailing in academia, particularly education schools, and it looks lifeless. To speak this way is to sound mindlessly patriotic, jingoistic, in fact. It is to overlook the many victims and sufferers of the past, they say. It culpably ignores the fact that the Constitution allowed slavery . . .
The resentment behind those contentions helps explain why young Americans have so little knowledge about the past. If the past contains so many negatives, why remember it? If teachers can’t espouse anything heroic about it, what inspires kids to respect it? That’s the lesson they draw from teachers who harp on the dispiriting facts of the past (Jefferson owned slaves . . .) and ignore the enlivening facts (he wrote “all men are created equal”). What resentment-educators intend–that students have a full sense of the negative in history–doesn’t happen. They leave school with no sense of it at all.
For Hirsch, this means civic breakdown. It kills the values of citizenship–duty, loyalty, memory. He writes:

Our early thinkers about education thought the only way we could create such virtuous, civic-minded citizens was through common schooling. The school would be the institution that would transform future citizens into loyal Americans. It would teach common knowledge, virtues, ideals, language, and commitments.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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