The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
Written in 2009 by education reformer E.D. Hirsch, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools proposes a unilateral curriculum for all students in the US educational system. E.D. Hirsch is credited with inventing the concept of cultural literacy — “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge.” Hirsch makes the argument that the so-called “anti-curriculum” movement – which in his mind is the same thing as progressive education – in American schooling, which took off in the latter half of the 20th Century mostly in the K-8 grades, has largely failed our country. It should be noted, too, that this man helped to create the Common Core Movement – which proposes the same set of standards for all students in the US – now undergoing adoption by many states all over the country.
Throughout the course of the book, Hirsch makes a few arguments:
1) Coupled with any language is a large body of knowledge that is essential to utilizing the language properly and succeeding in the society at large, the author says. Schools are therefore charged with teaching a large body of coherent “tacit” knowledge that language users draw from, in this case, English language users. For example, Hirsch argues that it is pointless to teach reading comprehension skills for days, weeks, and months at a time, because what use is that if the students don’t understand the content of the passages they are required to analyze? As he articulates on p. 157 of his book, reading comprehension “is not a universal, repeatable skill” as is pronouncing words correctly or kicking a ball into a goal. Rather, “‘reading skills’ is an over-generalized abstraction that obscures what reading really is,” a set of “separate, content-constituted skills” – for example, the ability to read about the Great Plains or the ability to read about Industrialization. Because reading about every subject entails a different set of knowledge, “…proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another” (p. 156). As he asserts in this article, which I cite for the purposes of providing a primary source, “A lack of knowledge, both civic and general, is the most significant deficit in most Americans’ education.” In his book, he states that “Commonality of language is commonality of knowledge” (p. 114). Foreign language educators know this, as they’re required to teach about the cultures with which their non-English language is connected.
Hirsch is not without his critics on this point. According to Claire Andre and Manuel Vasquez over at Santa Clara University, “force-feeding bits of information taken out of context (which Hirsch calls ‘culture’) to children who have not yet developed their capacity to critically evaluate information results in cultural indoctrination, not cultural literacy.” Critics allege racism and sexism on Hirsch’s part, argue Vasquez and Andre: “Forcing every student to accept the ‘national culture’ that Hirsch advocates is a subtle form of racism and sexism. It is an attempt to force on all citizens the values implicit in the culture of the dominant social class. As such it is unjust.” This makes sense to me, for wouldn’t it be cultural homogenization if we constructed a single (indubitably Eurocentric) narrative of US/Western culture, and then imposed it unilaterally on this nation of 315,000,000 individuals? I encourage you to give your feedback on this critical question in the comments below.
2) Language is power; the ability to use language properly is empowerment. In the United States, the language of power is Standard American English. Teaching different dialects of North America English (Ebonics, Chicano, New York, Southern, New Orleans, etc.) is therefore unwise, because although it ostensibly honors the histories and backgrounds, it ends up reproducing oppression by failing to teach (especially underprivileged) children how to speak the language of this country’s business and mainstream cultures. This logically leads to disempowerment and economic disenfranchisement, because white-dominated workplaces often look down on and thus disfavor those who do not speak “proper” English. United States schools thus have a critical mandate to ensure all of their students are learning the form of English that will maximize their social upward mobility. I do agree with this contention.
He points out that, ironically, the very same proponents of teaching dialects in our schools make their cases utilizing Standard American English. That is no accident. The proponents thereof know well that the version of the English language they’re using is the only one that the Establishment – academic, scientific, economic, political – takes seriously.
3) The anti-curriculum movement of the 20th Century, focused on “child-centered” and “how-to” methodologies, has failed because students from content-rich, often well-to-do homes, argues Hirsch, succeed much more than those from less well-off homes. This perpetuates injustice because poor students often are receiving in school the kind of background knowledge that wealthier, whiter students receive at home. “Language is not a purely enclosed system. It is a tool we use to name, describe, and understand physical, social, and psychological realities. Advantaged children experience not only richer vocabularies and syntax but more of what that language refers to” (p. 140). Such a situation suggests the need for a content-based curriculum in the early grades in order to build up the base of background knowledge needed by every student to understand each class. Hm.
From p. 160: “…it is far more fruitful to teach children the broad array of domain-specific knowledge to become mature readers than to practice reading strategies such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘clarifying’ and ‘summarizing.'” Not only is focusing on such strategies tedious and undynamic, it reinforces the corporate-fueled, test-obsessed culture of education in which we’re embroiled.
“The general knowledge and vocabulary required for effective learning at the high school level are slow-growing fruits of a long process. The way to reform high school is to prepare elementary students to thrive there” (Hirsch, 163).
4) Our three biggest educational problems: “(1) our decline in basic academic achievement, (2) our failure to offer equality of educational opportunity, and (3) our failure to perpetuate… A strong sense of loyalty to the national community and its civic institutions.” (p. 133)
Although I feel that the first and second educational problems he delineates are reasonable enough, the third is specious. Why would the long-oppressed Black, Latino and Indigenous communities of the United States want to cultivate a strong sense of loyalty to a national community and concomitant civic institutions that have oppressed them for centuries? Would doing so lead to their further empowerment or would it be a betrayal to their respective struggles? This illustrates somewhat the situation of oppressed communities in the US: they often have no interest in investing faith or loyalty in certain nationwide institutions, let alone in the imagined national community, that for centuries have put them down, mistreated and abused them. These institutions are usually inherently racist, classist and sometimes white supremacist. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hirsch’s philosophical shortcomings.
Indeed, his work is laced with an unsettling patriotism that evinces at least a few problems with his politics. On page 124, Hirsch casually decries the entirety of one of the most influential political philosophies of all time: “Marxism, another failed system of ideas, is readily blamed for the poor economic performance of the former Soviet Union…” This is a shoddy, curt, unfair treatment of a highly influential system of ideas — sure, it has not succeeded in sustaining any convetional government thus far (the “governments” of the Zapatista-occupied territories in Mexico and the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil seem to be influenced by Marxism), but certainly it has survived and remains very alive among radical, diverse, oppressed groups all over the world. Its intellectual coherence and influence cannot be understated, and therefore, it cannot be deemed a failure so hastily.
The first example comes from the front cover. The subtitle “Democracy and Our Schools” is patently misleading, because in the first place, Hirsch makes the outright antiquated and false claim that the United States is a democracy. A number of excellent arguments exist against the notion that the US is, or ever was for that matter, a democratic country. Here is one from “the most important intellectual alive (1),” MIT Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Noam Chomsky. He asserts that roughly the lowest 70% of the population in terms of income exert almost no influence on policy whatsoever. “As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy.” And if you occupy space at or near the top, you essentially get what you want; that is, they make the policy. The proper term for this, says Chomsky, is a plutocracy, not a democracy. This is due to the fact that a democracy is governed by the people, whereas a plutocracy is governed by a minority.
Perhaps the most telling reality is this: public policy consistently fails to reflect the will of the American people. For decades public polls show that Americans desire one thing, Congress tends to do the opposite. On taxes, the professor argues, the public has been saying it favors higher taxes on corporations, even though corporate taxes have been declining and massive tax loopholes persist (2, 3, 4). Another revelatory conclusion of Chomsky’s? The US is essentially a one-party state: the ruling party is the business party; its two factions the Democrats and the Republicans.
Secondly, on page 76 Hirsch continues to perpetuate the myth that the United States has been a success with the following passage: “Students need to leave school with a good understanding of the civic principles under which the US operates and with an emotional commitment to making this political experiment continue to work.” To claim that this country’s political experiment is “working” not only sustains the denial that the US was founded on anything but injustice, including the participation in two holocausts: the first of Indigenous American peoples, and the second of blacks (4.5, 4.75).
Furthermore, Hirsch fails to explain for whom this experiment is working. Indeed, it certainly isn’t working for the 46,000,000 US citizens living in poverty – that’s approximately one sixth of the population (5). It isn’t working for the working class, which since 1978, has seen stagnating wages just as executive wages have skyrocketed (6). It isn’t working for our infrastructure, long defunded by Congress at the cost of billions per year (6.5), which the American Society of Civil Engineers rated a “D+” last year (7). To assert that this “great” political experiment has succeeded is to forget the atrocities, genocide, and annihilation committed by the US government against people of color for centuries, most notoriously, against the Indigenous peoples here. Ever since the US federal government relocated Indigenous peoples to remote reservations – for better or worse – it has abused in myriad ways. It has long failed (8, 9) to empower, let alone acknowledge the dignity of, Indigenous (also known as Native, American Indian) peoples.
There are many questions about Hirsch’s politics. Does he really believe that by imparting sufficient content knowledge and a foundation in Standard American English to all US citizens, we will achieve social justice? Somehow I believe he’s more intelligent than that. Racism and inequality of opportunity can’t be eliminated that way. Structural and systemic racism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the resultant oppression cannot be undone through a stronger elementary school curriculum. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that a mastery of Standard American English and extensive background knowledge are empowering tools for anyone (not just in the US). The happy-go-lucky patriotism that infuses the book is unconvincing. Indeed, it is alarming, because it illuminates Hirsch’s contradictory stance: yes, America is a glorious thing – a success – and the Founding Fathers were rather benevolent demigods who had the best interests of everyone in mind (let’s just forget about the fact that they were mostly wealthy slave-possessing landowners who had set out to write a Constitution that maintained their considerable power). Let’s just forget the inconvenient truths – that the United States is an illegitimate country in the first place; it should never have existed because without a land-grabbing genocide of Indigenous Americans, it could never have existed. Without capitalism and its initial dirt-cheap labor force, slaves, the US probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve the kind of power it now has, at least not as quickly.
In light of those realities, I will rescind my evaluation of Hirsch as a patriotic man. Indeed, by omitting mention of the US as a country founded on serious atrocities, power inequities, inequality, and oppression, and by leaving out concepts such as structural inequality/oppression, racism, patriarchy, and other systemic problems, he fails to put forth an academic solution for elementary schools that is either comprehensive enough or fully informed from a social justice perspective. This makes his few mentions of the desire (perhaps not his own) to produce social justice through his proposed reforms as, at best, dubious. Finally, the cursory mentions of social justice come off more as placating statements to the politically progressive readers of his book, such as myself.
For other critiques of E.D. Hirsch’s educational philosophy, see below.
Thomas R. McCambridge
Santa Clara University
Many thanks for the read! I warmly welcome your constructive criticism and other comments below; in fact I can hardly improve as a writer without them!