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The Primal Scene of Education’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In your March 2nd issue you published an article by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. which purports to identify as “the single most disastrous mistake of American schooling during the past forty years” a mistaken emphasis on skills and a derogation of “mere facts.” Hirsch illustrates his argument with what he refers to as the “primal scene of education in the modern elementary school.” He sets up a hypothetical teacher in a classroom of twenty-five students, twenty of whom know a bit about the solar system, and five of whom don’t. Those five are assumed by Hirsch to be minorities or children with learning problems. Now comes the problem. The teacher wants to teach the class about molecular structure using the analogy of the solar system and is presented with the following dilemma: if she or he goes ahead and teaches the lesson as planned the five without the facts will be left out and bored; if the teacher pauses to explain the solar system to the five then the majority of the class will be “bored and deprived of knowledge for that day.”

Hirsch then goes on to suggest that most teachers forge ahead, leaving the poor, mostly minority, students behind, thus leading step by step to the inequality of the poor and the average decline in achievement test scores of American students as a whole. He summarizes his position with a banking analogy: the facts you know are your capital, and they accrue interest in school. Facts increase the way money increases, and the more facts you start with the more facts you end with. He doesn’t address the issue of whether the banking of facts leads to high intellectual performance or an idiot savant mentality, nor does he analyze the relationship of thinking skills to the informed use of facts. Instead he jumps to the need for a single body of common shared knowledge for all students in the US, which he claims will somehow make students competitive with the Germans and Japanese and solve all the problems in our schools.

Hirsch is looking for “American facts,” for a special kind of cultural literacy that will define us as Americans and show that our culture is just as good as any other one in the world. His assumption is that the accumulated body of common knowledge in other countries somehow accounts for the fact that their students score better than students in the United States on tests of scientific knowledge and that SAT scores in the United States are falling. He forgets that there is more to learning in Germany and Japan than being able to recognize the kind of nationalistic clichés, names, dates, places, titles that characterize a good percentage of his list, and ignores the fact that even the concepts he lists must be learned through dialogue and other time wasting skill development exercises such as thinking and problem solving.

Before considering Hirsch’s body of common knowledge in more detail, I’d like to take another look at his primal scene, this time from the point of view of a teacher who believes that the acquisition of thinking skills is more important than the banking of facts. First, the educational task Hirsch sets does not consist of having students master facts but rather of helping them understand concepts. Mastering the idea that electrons move in orbits around the nucleus (a not fully accurate bit of science by the way) is not a matter of memorizing facts so much as acquiring a tentative understanding of the principles that underlie the structure of matter. The analogy with the solar system is interesting but neither exact nor necessary to teach molecular structure. Seeing the relationship between macro and micro events helps children develop the skill of using analogies to think through problems so it’s worth trying. However it does not make any difference whatever whether everyone in the class knows about the solar system or not, to teach the analogy.

Here’s one way of approaching the problem that Hirsch overlooked: Ask one of the children to stand up, and then ask another to get up and walk around the first. Then have a third child walk around the first child only in a larger orbit. Continue this with the whole class illustrating an orbiting structure. As a next step ask students to think of different natural phenomena that could be modelled by their little dance. Through questioning, discussion and, when necessary the teacher providing information, the class would come to the notion that the solar system and the molecular system are similar orbiting structures. Someone might even note that some social systems have a central body and orbiting smaller bodies, and the teacher might bring up Le Roi Soleil and the analogy that title implies between Louis XIV and the solar system.

The students in this case would be acquiring information while skills were developed and thought excercised. The facts per se would be less important than the general principles, which is very healthy since the whole question of the nature of electron orbits is more complex than the analogy with the solar system implies.

It’s important to note that the primal scene here is one which involves movement, an understanding of structure, participation in the making of analogies, discussion and the potential of embarking on an open ended exploration of hierarchical systems. The facts are secondary, and no student in the group is put at a disadvantage.

The method described here is not new and is similar to one described by Frances T. Parker in 1894, by John Dewey, and by many other people who identify themselves with open education or other forms of experientially based education which also put an emphasis on discovery learning and the acquisition of thinking skills. These programs have been in opposition to fact based programs for over a century, and have frequently come under attacks similar to the one Hirsch makes in his article and his book Cultural Literacy. Implicit in these attacks is that progressive ideas in education have been given their chance and have failed, a claim wholly at odds with my perceptions over the past twenty-eight years of teaching and writing about education. Fact based curriculums dominate the schools, as do basal readers and phonics workbooks. I doubt whether there ever was a time when more than 10 percent of the schools in the United States actively embraced progressive ideas. The failures of American education should be laid solely at the door of those who try to bank learning, mistaking facts for knowledge, and memorization for understanding.

The primal scene I portrayed is one not likely to be found in the American classroom for a number of reasons. It involves movement, encourages discussion, allows for open ended exploration, and encourages unexpected insights. It, from Hirsch’s point of view, wastes time liberally, and does not account for each day’s penny worth of fact. It requires the teacher to be active rather than to be a custodian of the text and a time and motion expert. In other words it puts human process ahead of mechanical efficiency and might, if given a chance, just prove that American schools can produce thinking, intelligent, and sensitive students from all classes and of all races.

Debby Meier’s excellent work in District Four in Manhattan is based on principles similar to the ones I’ve been referring to. It deserves the attention it gets. However the work in District Four and in other places throughout the country with similar programs, should become the norm. These programs should not have to fight for survival while schools with long histories of failure, pervaded by banking systems of education go on and on. Hirsch’s cry for a return to the “facts” is nothing but a restatement of the position of the back to basics movement. That call for the return to the basics assumed that there was some time in our past when authority was unquestioned and the schools in the United States worked for all of the children. Yet no scholar has ever turned up any evidence to support the idea that public education ever approximated this goal.

I believe there is a hidden agenda in Hirsch’s approach to the old problem of “facts, facts, facts,” and to his implicit attack on multicultural curriculums and skill oriented programs. He assumes that there is a common body of knowledge that he and his friends can list, one which represents their aspirations and values. Yet Hirsch’s values (he seems to forget that statements about the importance of culture are value judgements) are not necessarily the common values of all of the people in our society. It can be argued for example that the three dates he suggests sixth graders should know, 1492, 1776 and 1863–1865 are not any more worth knowing in the sixth grade than 1789, 1929, and 1941 (the date of the founding of the UN). In fact the whole idea of tying dates to grade levels is foolish, and will certainly not lead students to develop an understanding of different historical periods. However, if Hirsch means by saying that sixth graders should know about 1492 that they should be taught about the Inquisition, the expulsions of the Jews from Portugal and Spain, and the dreams of empire builders, then perhaps it’s worth conceding him that point. But that’s not what he means. 1492 is, for him, the year our Columbus discovered our America, the native peoples aside. It was a good year, it is part of our cultural mythology.

Hirsch, by developing his list, has assumed the arrogant position of asserting that he is one of a small number of cultural experts who have the right to legislate a canon of knowledge for all American children. Add to this assumption Hirsch’s educational reductionism which turns complex cultural and intellectual issues into lists of facts and we see another quick fix for the schools. Hirsch’s real primal scene as opposed to the one he described in the article is one of a poor powerless teacher trying to forcefeed cultural facts to a passive audience, of an expert who instead of reaching out to the children cares more for the banking of time and the listing of facts than for the development of the mind.

Herbert Kohl
Hamline University
St. Paul, Minnesota

Jr. E.D. Hirsch replies:

Herbert Kohl, the author of several books about education including The Open Classroom (1969), has devoted his career to the improvement of American schooling, especially for disadvantaged students. I share his social goals, and wish that we could be allies instead of disputants in the cause of education reform. I regret that he has misread both my essay and my intentions. At the start of his letter he quotes at least one passage of my essay that he hasn’t misread, in which I state that an overemphasis on skills has been a “disastrous mistake” in American education—especially for the disadvantaged children on whose behalf Kohl has devoted his energies. Kohl tunes in on that remark, and counters it by saying that “the failures of American education should be laid solely at the door of those [like Hirsch] who try to bank learning, mistaking facts for knowledge, and memorization for understanding,” thereby answering my Tory history with a Whig history of his own. Let me declare a standoff between these two competing historical oversimplifications, and proceed to the central issue that I raised in my essay.

No matter what teaching methods we may use, this country will not begin to make adequate improvements in our system of education until we reach agreement on a central core of knowledge that should be possessed by children at the end of each school year from grades one through six. Such a shared core of knowledge should not constitute the whole curriculum, but possession of it would give all students a foundation for literacy and further learning.

To convey a feeling for the reform I am really proposing, in contrast to the simpleminded plan for memorizing facts and creating idiot savants that Mr. Kohl takes me to be proposing, it will be useful to look again at the extended classroom analogy between the solar system and atomic structure. Let’s assume that using the analogy is an acceptable way to teach sixth graders, who, at age eleven or so, are not ready to deal with quantum-theoretical conceptions. Let’s also assume that Kohl is teaching the class beautifully, in exactly the way he imagines in his letter. Then the class ends, and another class of sixth graders arrives to learn the same things from him. But the social background of the second group is very different from that of the first. These pupils show themselves to be resistant to Kohl’s teaching strategy. They complain that moving about the room in orbits is “too first-gradish”; they decline to get the larger point; they clown, and feel uneasy; they resent the whole exercise. Kohl, with a good teacher’s sensitivity to significant differences between groups, would make appropriate adjustments in his mode of proceeding, and would probably abandon the dance-of-the-planets strategy in favor of one that worked.

In my first teaching job, when I had to teach exactly the same material to three different classes, one after another, I learned very early that good teaching requires sensitive adjustments to the particular culture of each class. Now, after thirty-two years of teaching, and much talk with other teachers, and much reading about pedagogy, I have seen nothing that has diluted that early insight. Most old hands have concluded that good teaching is an art, not a science that can be dependably pursued with preconceived methods and strategies. My silence on the subject of teaching strategies should not therefore be taken by Kohl as implying that I advocate authoritarian and insensitive teaching methods, or mindless memorization. Quite the contrary. My silence indicates my skepticism about all precooked teaching methods and strategies. Good teaching is too variable and complex to be reliably reducible to slogans or models.

But basic principles of teaching, in contrast to particular strategies, are reliable. I wonder just how far Mr. Kohl wishes to take the implications of his statement “it does not make any difference whatever whether everyone in the class knows about the solar system or not.” I take the remark to imply that the problem of diversity in American classrooms can be overcome by an open-ended, active, participatory method of teaching. This is certainly wrong. In his discussion of the solar-system analogy, Kohl quite overlooks my main point, which was stated as follows:

The problem is more subtle and pervasive than the [solar-system] example suggests because a teacher’s analogies are usually less elaborate and extended than the one between atomic structure and the solar system. Analogy forms part of the very texture of a teacher’s discourse. Teachers refer constantly to concepts like Cinderella or the American Revolution in order to connect new pieces of information with things that are already familiar. But if the analogies are consistently unfamiliar to ill-prepared children, they will fall ever further behind, or else the teacher will be compelled to make instruction very slow, repetitive, and inefficient, to the boredom of better prepared students.

Even in open classrooms, the main work of teaching is conducted by means of verbal communication between the members of the class. There is an inherent link between effective classroom communication and effective learning. If Kohl wishes to suggest that successful classroom learning doesn’t depend on students’ sharing extensive background knowledge, then, with regard to that particular issue, I have no hesitancy in saying he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I am much more sympathetic to his uneasiness with the idea of demanding that every child know about 1492 and 1776 instead of about 1789 and 1929. (Incidentally, Kohl assumes his readers will understand all four dates without explanation, thus neatly illustrating his assumption of cultural literacy among NYRB readers. Surely he would wish his students on graduation to be able to read the New York Review if they wanted to.) But sympathetic as I am to his preference for the tragic and antichauvinistic in history, I am astonished that he thinks I would object to teaching children about the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in addition to teaching them the traditional history connected with Columbus. Please, Mr. Kohl, we are more or less on the same side; a central shared core of knowledge must be flexible enough to accommodate different aspects of many subjects and it is not the whole of the curriculum in any case.

To label an attempt to win adherence to a core of knowledge grade by grade as “arrogant” is greatly to oversimplify an extremely complex political initiative. Success in such an effort depends upon wide acceptance by thousands of autonomous school districts. When the Cultural Literacy Foundation first issued provisional recommendations for third and sixth grade, it invited suggestions from hundreds of people all over the country, and when it subsequently adjusted its recommendations on the basis of public response, it was following a democratic rather than an arrogant procedure—a much more democratic procedure, I may say, than aloofly supposing, without any consultation at all, that children should not be taught the traditional history of the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Finally, a word about Kohl’s inference that I posit a golden age when “schools in the United States worked for all of the children.” What I actually stated was simply that our schools worked better two decades ago. My evidence included the declines in our SAT scores and in our rankings in international comparisons. This worsening performance is sometimes excused by arguing that we are attempting to educate more poor and minority students to higher levels than ever before. But that explanation was rendered implausible when the College Board released figures revealing that the SAT decline has been very pronounced at the top of the scale, where few “minorities” are to be found. Out of a constant pool of about a million test takers each year, there was a 56 percent decline in the numbers of students scoring over 600 between 1972 and 1984. There was a 73 percent decline in the numbers scoring above 650 during the same period. The absolute percentages for those scoring above 600 are 11.4 percent in 1972 and 7.3 percent in 1984. The absolute figures for those scoring over 650 are 5.29 percent in 1972 and 3.0 percent in 1984. To infer from these figures that our system has become less and less effective in recent decades is not to posit a golden age but to infer an obvious truth. The golden age accusation, which I have heard from many quarters, is a golden herring.

As to the unfairness or inappropriateness of comparing our performance with that of other countries, I would be much more sympathetic to the argument if educators talked less about our unique diversity, abandoned their evasive stress on skills, and started adopting practical methods that have worked in other countries. It was very much to the point for me to look to the example of Sweden. (I did not look to Germany and Japan, as Kohl implies.) Although Sweden is not more culturally homogeneous than several other European countries, its school system is the envy of Europe. Visitors who know the country will have observed that young Swedish workers carry out even menial jobs with notable competence and use language with considerable wit. Their productivity per worker is 1.5 times the average productivity for the EEC. Even their famous suicide rate has declined since they put school reform in place in the 1960s—a reform that was built upon a grade-by-grade core of shared knowledge. Why not look at what other countries are successfully doing, instead of complaining that the open classroom and similar theories were never properly put into practice.* I urge Mr. Kohl at least to consider the possibility that our schools would improve if the schools themselves decided to adopt methods that have demonstrably worked elsewhere, instead of continuing to follow theories and slogans that, for whatever reasons, have demonstrably failed.

  1. *

    Diane Ravitch’s comment in her history of recent American education is pertinent here. “The curious aspect of open education was the rapidity of its ascent and then apparent eclipse as an educational phenomenon. In the 1970s there were literally hundreds of articles about open education in the journals. By the mid-1970s, the number began to drop sharply, and an occasional article appeared with a title like ‘open education is not dead,’ which implied that someone thought it was…. I suspect that open education may turn out to be much like progressive education, which was equally broad in its definition, in that it will be very hard to know whether it was implemented in the right way because there is little agreement on what ‘the right way’ is or even what ‘it’ (open education) is” (The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980, Basic Books, 1983, p. 368).

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