Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

What Johnny Should Read

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Who is Max Planck? What does the phrase "fin de siecle" mean? A game of trivial pursuit, you ask? Hardly. According to E. D. Hirsch, these are terms that every literate American should know. Hirsch, an English professor at the University of Virginia, is author of the recent best seller, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

The policies Hirsch proposes in this book have generated considerable moral controversy. On one side of the debate are those who claim that Hirsch's proposals promise immense benefits for society and its members. On the other side stand critics who argue that whatever benefits there may be (itself a matter of debate) would be purchased at the price of injustice.

Hirsch's book grew out of his concern with the decline of literacy in America. Our schools, writes Hirsch, have produced a generation of "cultural illiterates." To press his point, he cites a recent study showing that half of the 17-year-olds in this country can't identify Stalin or Churchill, and three-fourths don't know that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.

According to Hirsch, real literacy depends on an "acquaintance with one's national culture" -- thus the term "cultural literacy." He likens cultural literacy to the kind of knowledge that allows a person to pick up a newspaper and comprehend what he or she is reading. It is that shared body of information about mainstream culture that every American must possess to communicate efficiently and participate effectively in society.

Hirsch blames the schools for the decline in cultural literacy. Schools have emphasized "skills" and "child centered experiences," without teaching content. As a result, students know how to sound out words and how to look up information, but can't tell you who Charles Dickens is. High schools have replaced Homer with homemaking, and Adam Smith with income management.

Our educational curricula must be radically redesigned, Hirsch claims, so that every child in every school is required to master a core body of facts and traditional lore about the mainstream national culture. George Washington, as well as Ulysses, is as necessary to literacy as the alphabet, and, like the alphabet, must be learned early on through memorization and the simple piling up of facts.

To guide American education toward his vision of the future, Hirsch presents a 63-page list of geographic names, historical events, famous people, scientific terms, and patriotic lore that he believes represent the contents of the national culture--what every literate American should know. If all Americans were required to learn this culture in school, Hirsch urges, the benefits for both the individual citizen and society as a whole would be great. Cultural literacy would provide people with the knowledge needed to deal with the changes so characteristic of our technological society and would make efficient nationwide communication possible. Cultural literacy would also enable individuals to participate more fully in public life.

Hirsch has attracted his fair share of critics. Some have claimed that his views of teaching and learning are faulty at best and fail to respect the moral dignity of students. 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. Literacy is not achieved by the simple piling on of facts. Children learn only when they can place facts and experiences in the context of their own lived experiences. In this sense, literacy is the product of school and home and living in society. It is also the product of the child's acting on these facts and experiences and learning to be reflective about them. Real literacy--the kind of literacy that enables people to participate fully in society--will not be achieved by treating children as mere receptacles for facts, but requires that children be encouraged to participate in the learning process and encouraged to develop their own capacities for critical and creative thinking.

Not only is the method Hirsch promotes suspect by critics, but also the content of the curriculum he prescribes. Among the concerns frequently voiced is: "Whose form of knowledge, culture, vision, history and authority will prevail as the national culture?" In other words, who will be asked to compile this list of core contents to be taught to every student across the nation? Will they, like Hirsch, be white, middle-class males? 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.

Moreover, critics maintain, the benefits of fitting everyone into a single culture are not as obvious as Hirsch maintains. Our schools should continue to reflect our dynamic, pluralistic culture. Rather than producing a homogeneous student body, schools should encourage cultural diversity because diversity is a fundamental source of creativity. And, unless we've reached utopia (which we have not), education should empower students to change and advance our culture, rather than lead them to passively accept the present one.

The issue of literacy is indeed a troubling one. Hirsch offers one possible way of viewing the issue and a means for addressing it. On the other hand, Hirsch's critics may be correct: by reducing literacy to the piling up of facts about the mainstream culture, Hirsch may be applying a deceptively easy and morally dangerous fix to serious problems in America today, blinding us to the real problems plaguing our classrooms, our families, and our communities.

For further reading:

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).

Robert Scholes, "Three Views of Education: Nostalgia, History and Voodoo," College English, Vol. 50 (March 1988), pp 323-338.

James R Squire, "Basic Skills Are Not Enough," Educational Leadership, Vol. 45 (December 1987/January 1988), pp. 76-77.

Stephen Tchudi, "Slogans Indeed: A Reply to Hirsch," Educational Leadership, Vol. 45 (December 1987/January 1988), pp. 72-74.

Featured Materials

Issues in Ethics - V. 1, N. 4 Summer 1988
issue abstract
Arrow What Johnny Should Read
ethical theory
Arrow Consistency in Ethics
ethical briefs
Arrow The Morality of Marketing the Marlboro Man
Arrow A Healthy Bottom Line: Profits or People?
issues in ethics tools
Arrow Homepage Arrow Subscribe