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Dreams of Better Schools

If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relationship between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor.8

Hirsch would agree with this nineteenth-century credo, but he knows it does not get us very far toward understanding what actually goes on, or should go on, in today’s classroom. To this end, he gives the helpfully mundane example of a third-grade reading assignment about farming in ancient Egypt. He makes the reasonable assumption that children from poor backgrounds will never have encountered some of the key words in the passage —such as “annual” and “fertile”—while children with more advantages are likely to have heard such words at home. His point is that if the school, in first and second grade, has built up a foundation of basic knowledge—“that Egypt was a country in ancient times, that the year has seasons, that farming depends on planting seeds in moist soil”—most children should be able to grasp the passage, and, in the process of reading and discussing it, disadvantaged children will add to their vocabulary some words that their better-prepared classmates may already know. Hence “we witness a tiny bit of gap narrowing” by which disadvantaged kids can gradually catch up to their better-prepared peers.

For Hirsch, the mark of a good school is this kind of cumulative learning, grade by grade, that creates “the preconditions for comprehension…for all children in the class,” which means that “the ground for understanding” the lesson about Egypt he has just described “has to have been carefully prepared by a whole series of earlier lessons, some stretching back to previous years.” Otherwise, disadvantaged kids will almost certainly be bored or mystified by the lesson, and be left with feelings of embarrassment, alienation from school, and self-doubt disguised as contempt for learning. Hirsch makes the further point that since they move more often than middle-class children, children of low-income families especially need a standardized year-to-year curriculum if they are to stay on course as they switch from school to school. Sadly, it is a pertinent point, since the number of homeless children in the nation’s public schools now exceeds one million.9

When Hirsch moves from questions of curriculum to the process of learning itself, another antecedent to his way of thinking comes into view. If Horace Mann is his political touchstone, William James (though he does not name him) would seem to have presented, in his remarkable book The Principles of Psychology (1890), the essentials of Hirsch’s conception of how the mind develops. In a famous chapter of that book, James gave an account of habit as a sort of neurological technology that conserves mental energy by freeing the mind from having to expend itself on conscious exertions. “Habit,” he wrote, “diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.” James then goes on to substantiate the claim:

When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous “cue.” The marksman sees the bird, and, before he knows it, he has aimed and shot. A gleam in his adversary’s eye, a momentary pressure from his rapier, and the fencer finds that he instantly made the right parry and return. A glance at the musical hieroglyphics, and the pianist’s fingers have rippled through a cataract of notes.

Here, in prospect, is Hirsch’s basic argument that “acquiring a skill means acquiring ways of indirectly circumventing the limitations of working memory for the purposes at hand.” The job of the school is to bring all children to a stage of development where they can react habitually, in James’s sense, to the “cues.” Helping them to attain such competence by means of systematic vocabulary-building, a repertory of basic historical and cultural knowledge, grammar drills, diagramming sentences—just the sort of thing of which “progressive” educators, according to Hirsch, disapprove—is not suppressive but liberating.

Mike Rose, on the other hand, puts less emphasis on the determinative effects of early childhood and fills his book with stories of late transformation, including his own. He writes, for instance, about a young man from the inner city who, after getting into street trouble and spending time in a juvenile camp, entered a remedial college preparation program in which Rose was teaching. The premise of the program was that students, even though they had limited reading and writing skills, could begin right away to read, discuss, and write about complex issues such as the history of eugenics or income distribution in the US. “Writing filled with grammatical error,” Rose says, “does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.” After twenty weeks, his student was “writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision-making in the Cuban missile crisis.”

None of this is an argument against Hirsch’s call for closing the deficits that start to accumulate for disadvantaged children early in grade school; but Rose’s book has a never-too-late theme and a resilient sense that education can be effective at any stage if only it is experimental, improvisational, and, above all, if it resists discouragement.10 If Hirsch is chiefly interested in the content of the curriculum, Rose is concerned with “the everyday detail of classrooms, the words and gestures of a good teacher,” with “what happens when teachers…create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new.”

Moreover, although he has written a smaller book than Hirsch’s, Rose gives a larger sense of the interplay between what happens in the classroom and the world outside school. We have come a long way since an eighth-grade teacher could say to Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X) that it’s “no realistic goal for a nigger” to become a lawyer, but, alas, we have a long way still to go before most minority children possess what Rothstein, in his Century Foundation report, called the “unconscious faith that the world is not capricious, and that effort is fairly rewarded.” Rose puts the matter this way: “The hope of a better life has traditionally driven achievement in American schools.”

Perhaps the most damaging deficit with which poor and minority children must cope is their deficit of hope. The first-grader whose parents are respected professionals has reason to expect a good deal from life. But if the first-grader’s father or brother or favorite uncle was shot last week, or has spent the child’s whole life in prison, it is a lot to ask of any school—no matter how coherent its curriculum—to convince that child that learning about Valley Forge or even the Emancipation Proclamation has much bearing on his or her experience, past, present, or prospective.

And so the premise behind some of the more ambitious efforts to help disadvantaged children is that real educational reform cannot begin and end with school. Programs such as Early Head Start, the Educare Centers, or the Harlem Children’s Zone seek to provide home support—counseling single mothers, providing assistance in dealing with government and medical bureaucracies—in order to help the child, starting at a very young age, experience school not so much as a shelter from, but as an extension of, home.

In this respect, Rose gives a fuller picture of what is sometimes called the child’s “learning environment” by expanding the frame beyond school, and he also has a more capacious sense of what can happen within the interior world of the classroom. Hirsch reports with a mixture of horror and derision some titles drawn from a best-selling first-grade reader: A Dragon Gets By, Roly Poly, How Real Pigs Act, It’s Easy to Be Polite, Mrs. Brown Went to Town, and many more. His point seems to be that such readings are trivial and banal (he thinks they may even explain the drop in verbal SAT scores); but he doesn’t say what should replace them. Abridged editions of classic literature? Perhaps.

Rose, by contrast, observes a gifted teacher reading a story called A House for Hermit Crab with her first-grade students. She has furnished the classroom (probably at her own expense) with a glass case containing live crabs, and has the students watch their behavior in different environments—cold water, warm water, dry surfaces—and then write about what they have seen. The exercise helps them learn how “to observe closely and record what they see, to form hypotheses, to report publicly on their thinking, to gain the feeling of being knowledgeable.” And it is also an introduction to the pleasure of writing as an act of communication. For Rose, a good teacher can turn almost any material to good use.

Rose trusts teachers more than Hirsch, who wants to give them, in effect, not just a year-long but a multiyear lesson plan. To be sure, there is much to be said for Hirsch’s prescriptive curriculum as template and guide; his ideal school is rigorous and orderly—a place filled with a genuine sense of egalitarianism and, though he does not use the phrase, tough love. And he certainly recognizes the extracurricular challenges faced by disadvantaged children. In an article published in these pages he wrote approvingly of the view that schools need a “new structure, involving teams of counselors and teachers, who would deal with the psychological problems of learning as well as the cognitive problems.”11

From Rose we get a sense of how a creative and instinctively responsive teacher can transform a young life by mixing rigor with humor, by taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, by conveying his or her delight in learning and in helping others to learn—something that no curriculum can make happen or keep from happening. We get the sense that it’s never too late, even for those children who are seemingly lost, if they have the great luck of encountering an extraordinary teacher.


It seems to me that both these writers get a lot of things right. Both emphasize universal education for citizenship as indispensable for democracy. Both are trying to open the discourse about K–12 schools, which is badly in need of fresh air. Hirsch wants to end the standoff between left and right (he cites approvingly such icons of the left as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, and even that quasi-scriptural text Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks12), and, for his part, Rose concedes that “standardized tests can well be part” of responsible assessment, as long as they do not “overwhelm it.”

If there is to be progress in the schools, we need more of this kind of moderation. Otherwise we will remain caught between the usual warring parties: pro-teacher-union verses anti-union groups; those who favor mayoral control against those who prefer community control; devotees of phonics versus “whole language” theorists; “open classroom” versus fixed-seat advocates; those who believe in “pull-out” groups versus those who believe in whole-class learning; those who believe that tests motivate academic improvement versus those who think tests hold teachers unfairly accountable and create a climate of fear; those who think the formative period is early childhood against those who are sure it is adolescence; those who see private initiatives like Teach for America (TFA)—which recruits teachers straight out of liberal arts colleges—as an answer to teacher burnout against those who think TFA gives municipalities an excuse to cut school budgets.

The disputes have gotten tired, and Hirsch and Rose know it. Almost in spite of themselves, they give hints of a middle ground. One can only hope that such conciliatory gestures won’t turn out to be as empty as those we heard early on in the so-called health care debate, and that we won’t find ourselves at what Rose calls another “civic dead end.”

Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for talented, well-educated, passionately committed teachers—on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends.


The Schools Have Gone Down! February 11, 2010

  1. 8

    Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education” (1848).

  2. 9

    I do not advocate a national curriculum imposed from Washington,” he says in a footnote, and seems to allow for local variations as long as there is agreement that “the early school curriculum needs to offer enough substantial commonality of content to connect each American with the larger community of citizens.” For the plight of homeless children, see Erik Eckholm, “Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools,” The New York Times, September 5, 2009.

  3. 10

    For a moving account of a “Great Books” class for addicts and ex-convicts led by two Stanford professors, see Debra Satz and Rob Reich, “The Liberal Reach,” Dissent, Winter 2004.

  4. 11

    The Primal Scene of Education,” The New York Review, March 2, 1989.

  5. 12

    Hirsch has in mind a passage in which Gramsci advocates “a single type of formative school (primary-secondary) which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying, and ruling—or controlling those who rule.” Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (International Publishers, 1971), p. 40.

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