‘I’ve been misinterpreted from Day 1’

13th November 2015 at 00:00
E D Hirsch is worshipped by Conservative reformers as the divine influence behind their desire for a more ‘traditional’, knowledge-based curriculum. But as Jon Severs discovers, the academic’s true doctrine differs markedly from that of his followers

Under hot lights on a school-hall stage, Nick Gibb is preaching. The schools minister, who has been a key influence on curriculum reform in England, tells a small congregation consisting mostly of converts that they are in the presence of Him, and that they are here to give thanks. “Over the last five years, His ideas have transformed the education debate in this country and had a significant impact on government reform,” Gibb begins. “No single writer has influenced my thinking on education more.”

Gibb’s sermon is a stream of unadulterated adulation. He talks of his devotion to the Book, how it shaped him and thus his work, how He gave him language and how he spreads His word to everyone he meets. Gibb is evangelical. And in the aisles, only British reserve stops the disciples leaping up to praise Him.

Stage left, the old man watches silently, his gaze cast slightly downward. Later, he admits it was difficult to understand everything that was said – at 87, his hearing is starting to wane. But he knew all those people were there for him. All this attention, for him. And it made him uncomfortable.

Oh, he was humbled, sure. He said as much in the first few words of his speech after Gibb finally introduced him, giving way with what almost became a genuflect. “I am not used to that kind of deification,” the old man admits later.

But he was nervous, too. He believes acknowledgement for his ideas is overdue, but he cannot always be sure that the ideas associated with his name are truly his.

“E D Hirsch” stands for many things in education, but rarely for what it truly should.

“From the very first day, I was misinterpreted by both the proponents and the adversaries,” Hirsch says a few days after the Policy Exchange Annual Education Lecture in September, at which Gibb paid him homage (read the full transcript at bit.ly/HirschLecture).

“Even today I am still being misinterpreted,” he adds.

But not in England, surely? Here, Hirsch has been central to the intellectual arguments presented by Gibb and former education secretary Michael Gove for overhauling England’s curriculum. He is also the theorist whose ideas are seized upon by teachers who support the new curriculum and a more “traditional” way of teaching. They’ve all got him right, haven’t they?

Hirsch would never contradict such a view directly – it’s not his style. But, given time, he does begin to talk. And for Gibb, for Gove, for those educationalists who cite him so often, what he says will make for decidedly uncomfortable reading.

The legacy of Cultural Literacy

Hirsch does not look 87 years old. He glides rather than strides, as those of later years tend to. But he’s not bent over, the lines of his face are impressions not furrows, his voice does not shake.

And his mind is sharp. He talks with the drawl of the American South (he was born in Tennessee in 1928) and every word is considered and weighed before it is voiced.

Hirsch’s celebrity came late in his career. Until the age of 59 he lived the life of a typical academic. He was a poetry professor at Yale, then a hermeneutics professor at the University of Virginia. He produced successful papers. He was happy.

But then he wrote Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know. After it was published in 1987, everything changed.

“I was appalled by the reaction,” he says. “I thought I would just write it out and go back to hermeneutics. But there was this fury from the education world.”

How Hirsch believed the reaction would be anything but furious is puzzling: the book attacked everything that many educators held dear. He rubbished the prevailing Dewey/Rousseau philosophy of education, writing that “left to itself, a child will not grow into a thriving creature; Tarzan is pure fantasy.” He said a child could not be taught general skills that they would be able to apply universally, as many believed.

Instead, he argued, skills were domain-specific and so had to be wedded to knowledge. “Facts and skills are inseparable,” he wrote. “Facts are essential components of the skills that a child entering a culture must have.”

And then he really riled educators. He argued that the failure of schools to teach facts systematically was preventing poor children from succeeding. To be able to succeed, he said, you had to be culturally literate: to have a shared language of reference points, be it Superman or Shakespeare. Children from literate homes started school with a secure foundation of this knowledge that enabled them to access “new” knowledge easily. Disadvantaged children had no such base, and if schools did not make up for this the child would fall further and further behind. Thus the poor got poorer and the rich got richer: educationally, developmentally and, ultimately, economically.

What exactly was this cultural knowledge? Hirsch made a list. Sourced from newspapers, books, magazines and groups of academics, it runs to about 5,000 items, from “1066” to “Zurich”.

“The phone rang straight away,” he recalls of the book’s publication. “I called someone back and it was a television station in Texas. They wanted to know whether the celebrities that were left off the list were pissed off with me.”

The reaction quickly became less trivial and more vicious, turning to the broader arguments. Heavyweight academics piled in with accusations of elitism, racism and anti-intellectualism, mainly focused on the content Hirsch prescribed. The science was argued over, the philosophy challenged. Hirsch found himself in the peculiar position of being top of the bestsellers’ list while becoming a pariah of the education establishment.

From the start, he lost control of the narrative, he explains today. The list, for example, was misconstrued (it was a reflection of what was known at that time, not what he thought should be known for all time). And some of his comments were taken too literally, such as his attacks on Dewey. “I am more aware of the potential misinterpretations now,” he says. “I am more wary.”

‘I’ve never met Gibb or Gove’

It must have been with some trepidation, then, that Hirsch boarded a flight to the UK to see what had been made of his ideas here. That said, all the omens seemed favourable.

Nick Gibb is a self-proclaimed Hirsch devotee. He talks of Post-it notes highlighting his favourite passages of Cultural Literacy. He cites the book relentlessly in rhapsodic terms. Gibb, surely, understands the real Hirsch.

Gove, meanwhile, is more measured in tone but no less ardent in his adoration (see panel, below). In a speech to the Social Market Foundation in 2013, for example, he mentioned Hirsch’s name 10 times.

And England’s reformed curriculum does appear to align with the common perception of Hirsch’s work. It is centred on core knowledge, taught sequentially. Gibb and Gove also seem to promote a pedagogy that has come to be understood as Hirschian: a devotion to traditional teaching methods and a disapproval of progressive techniques.

But did the two check in with Hirsch? Did they talk to the man behind the theory to ask if they were interpreting it correctly before using it as a proof of concept?

“I have never met Nick Gibb or Michael Gove before,” Hirsch says cheerily – not counting sharing the stage with Gibb at the Policy Exchange lecture. “I am blissfully ignorant of the details of what is going on here,” he admits.

Hirsch thinks he may have received an email from Gibb around 2005 but is hazy on details. (Hirsch and Gibb did meet privately after this interview for a brief chat.)

Given the importance that the government has placed on Hirsch’s work, the fact that no one from the Department for Education spoke to him during the development of England’s new curriculum is surprising to say the least. Equally oddly – considering the scale of the misappropriation of his work in the past – Hirsch’s ignorance of what Gibb and Gove have been up to doesn’t initially seem to bother him.

From Hirsch’s point of view, there are extenuating circumstances. For the past five years, he has been focused on caring for his ill wife and then grieving for her after her death. In comparison, what Gibb and Gove were up to across the Atlantic was not important.

Hirsch has also not had such positive attention before. “This level of enthusiasm by more than just a tiny handful of people is very recent,” he says.

Curriculum ‘priesthood’

Having been spurned so often by those in charge of education, Hirsch could be forgiven a little self-inflicted ignorance fuelled by the fear that if he looked too closely, what seemed to finally be an acceptance of his work might actually be anything but. He could be forgiven a little hope.

But now he is worried. He’s here in the UK, being courted by UK educationalists and government, being asked questions by journalists: he can’t ignore what’s happening any more. So he wants to know the truth. He wants to know exactly what Gibb is doing. And when the full details of how he is viewed in the UK – and how his ideas have been interpreted – are revealed, then he wants to talk.

“Universities should be in charge of curriculum, not governments,” he says, suddenly animated. “You need a kind of priesthood – a cross-party, cross-ideology priesthood – that is making decisions about education. The universities could fit that bill.”

He leans in. He has been misinterpreted on the age specifications of his work, too, he says. In Cultural Literacy, he repeatedly emphasises that his attention is on the primary age group. He does not endorse his work being used to justify a curriculum beyond that level.

“My focus is on 3-11 education,” Hirsch reiterates. “I am calling for a solid, well-rounded, common early curriculum.”

By well-rounded he means that art and drama are as crucial as anything “academic”. And for what it’s worth, he adds, the potential impact of the English Baccalaureate performance measure in England is pretty much the opposite of what he would recommend for secondary education.

“I am definitely not saying we should narrow the curriculum in secondary,” he says. “You get wonderful drama and wonderful music and learn through that.”

Hirsch is beginning to enjoy himself. He eases forward in his chair, elbows on the table: he is back in the seminar room picking apart an argument.

His views on skills have also been misunderstood, he continues. He’s not against skills: education just doesn’t understand them. “The picture has always been you learn your basic skills and then you go on to learn subject knowledge,” he says. “What is wrong with that picture is that skills aren’t defined in terms of content. Those skills need to be defined in terms of knowledge.”

And how might those skills and knowledge be taught? Hirsch has become associated with rote learning and being against group and project work. Indeed, in a collection of essays accompanying his Policy Exchange speech, Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in West London, says Hirsch makes clear that a “traditional teaching of knowledge”, not “progressive” methods, fosters a child’s self-esteem.

On the contrary, Hirsch says he has always been agnostic about pedagogy – in Cultural Literacy he simply calls for direct learning not to be dismissed as a tool of the trade.

“It would be astonishing to me if there are schools that are just pumping knowledge into kids by rote as if they were learning the Koran,” he adds. “The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of the children and they’re happy? Pedagogy is highly variable. It is very context-dependent.”

Progressive politics

If this comment seems the opposite to everything you thought Hirsch stood for, then he has one more surprise up his sleeve.

“I am left-wing politically,” he says. “[But] I have ended up being a poster boy for the Right and that is worrisome, because as long as the teachers are by and large left-leaning, then they are going to make the mistake of believing the [right-wing] distortions of what it means to have a common curriculum and common knowledge.”

He insists that these last two concerns are fundamentally left-wing: they are the vehicle of social justice. Yet because they have been adopted by the Right, the Left opposes them. So would he rather conservatives left him and his ideas alone? He smiles.

“What I need is a champion from the Left,” he says. “[Currently] people resist it politically, not because of what it is.”

Clearly, Hirsch feels the view the UK has of him – of what he stands for – is wrong, not just politically but in a number of other ways, too. Has it been a wilful misrepresentation? It’s a moot point. Yet although Gibb and Gove may have seen Hirsch as the inspiration rather than the template for their plans for education, through their own rhetoric and that of their supporters Hirsch has come to be seen as the man behind the whole thing.

Is it too late for a fundamental shift in the perception of Hirsch? At 87 years old, he’s still hopeful. He is still working – he’s writing a book at the moment. He is still trying to reclaim his narrative, his name, what he stands for. But push him on the point and he seems resigned to the possibility that it may be futile.

“It’s been like this since the start,” he shrugs. “What can I do?”

Michael Gove on E D Hirsch and the core knowledge curriculum

Former education secretary Michael Gove (above) cited Hirsch frequently during his overhaul of the English national curriculum. He namechecked the academic in speeches and referred to Hirschian ideas about curriculum and pedagogy.

For example, speaking at an event organised by thinktank Policy Exchange in 2013, Gove argued that Hirsch’s work proved the need for a core knowledge curriculum, adding: “In short, for too long – whether driven by a romantic, Rousseau-ian reluctance to crush a child’s delicate spirit, or a glib, Google-era insistence that knowledge is irrelevant in a world where ‘you can just look it up’ – the role of the teacher has been eroded.

“Which is why it is so encouraging that a growing number of teachers…are arguing for a restoration of knowledge and direct instruction…standing up for the importance of teaching.”

Gove was keen to promote rigorous, instructive learning and to avoid methods that assumed students had the “attention span of infants”.

But although Gove and his supporters may define their views as Hirschian, as this interview with Hirsch demonstrates, that is far from the case.

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