What to Think and How to Think
Why Knowledge Matters
Our society cannot afford a two-tiered system in which the affluent have access to a superior education, while everyone else is subjected to a dull and incoherent classroom experience. Academic excellence, educational equity and fairness demand a strong foundation of knowledge for all learners.
In 1996, Hirsch published The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that Romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are prevalent in America, and are not only the cause of America's lackluster educational performance, but also a cause of widening inequalities in class and race. Hirsch portrays the focus of American educational theory as one which attempts to give students intellectual tools such as "critical thinking skills", but which denigrates teaching any actual content, labeling it "mere rote learning". Hirsch states that it is this attitude which has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.Hirsch also produced a series of books, each one focusing on the content knowledge that a given grade level must cover. Below is an example:
|Visit http://books.coreknowledge.org/home.php?cat=298 to see this book and others in this series.|
"As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I've written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program's character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia."The first set of verses that Hirsch talked about in the article is part of the poem, "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne. Hirsch recalls an argument he had with an undergraduate student at Yale sixty years ago. The student, not knowing that "mourning" did not use to have its limited connotation of being associated with death, thought the poem was about someone dying. When the student was told of the context and therefore the proper interpretation of the poem, that John Donne was really about to embark on a journey, the student simply argued that it was the reader's right to interpret a poem the way a reader sees it fits his or her world. The next poem Hirsch discussed is Wordsworth's poem:
I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.
...At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge -- information already stored in one's long-term memory -- is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It's more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts.
Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills -- the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly.
Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it's hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills -- just as devotees of the New Criticism had done....Hirsch makes these arguments from the point of view of literature. As a natural scientist, I think this argument is even more powerful when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math. People are perhaps too quick to clamor for "critical thinking" without seeing that a simple lecture on entropy makes their nose bleed....