San Francisco — `I AM,'' E.D. Hirsch says with a half-wince, ``the `Mr. Gradgrind' of education.'' Dr. Hirsch, author of a provocative new book on education titled ``Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know'' (Houghton Mifflin, Boston), is referring to the heartless schoolmaster in Charles Dickens's novel ``Hard Times,'' a man whose sole purpose in life was to drown the inspiration of London's lower working class children in a sea of grim facts.
``What I want is, Facts,'' says Gradgrind in the first sentence of the novel: ``Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.''
Hirsch's wince is understandable. What he and his ideas represent is a fundamental shift in American schooling.
He believes that the effort since the ideas of John Dewey in the 1920s to make schooling more relevant to children's immediate lives, and to emphasize learning process over academic content, has gone too far.
Children today don't have enough basic background knowledge, Hirsch says. He wants more facts taught.
``Reading is a constructive act,'' Hirsch says during an early morning conversation on a sunny park bench in San Francisco's Union Square. ``What you bring to the text is all important in understanding it.''
Contrary to popular belief, Hirsch says, very young children love learning facts. It's only when they get older that facts are resisted.
``For young kids, facts are more important than learning to think for themselves. Kids first need a basis for thought. Walk into language arts classes across the US as I've been doing, and you find kids staring at the walls. They're bored, disconnected, confused - even though they can pronounce the words. Meanwhile, middle-class kids understand more of what they are reading, because it's reinforced at home.''
In Dickens's ``Hard Times,'' Gradgrind ground up faith, hope, and charity ``in his dusty little mills.'' The mechanized schools, like the factories, were set up to stifle individual achievement, and thus preserve the social order.
But today it is too little knowledge - not too much - that blocks upward academic mobility, says Hirsch. His solution is to impart a common core of ideas and terms based on ``American literate culture'' - something that has already made him controversial in education circles. (See sidebar below.)
Yet Hirsch's basic theme has been sounded with regularity by many of the nation's educational luminaries from both the right and left. Included are Pat Graham, dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education; Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation; Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his premier undersecretary, Chester Finn Jr.; Columbia University education historian Diane Ravitch; Bill Honig, California superintendent of education; and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. (Hirsch has been an editorial consultant both for Mr. Honig and Mr. Shanker.)
Hirsch himself is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He made his reputation in the 1960s as a literary theorist specializing in the German phenomenologists. In the 1970s, Hirsch moved from theoretical work to take up the teaching of writing. It was in ``mucking around'' with the problems of sentence construction and linguistics that Hirsch began to develop his ideas about the need for a common literate culture. He began to believe that the first five years of schooling were the most important. He was especially aghast at the lack of traditional writing in modern readers.
The lack of content in schools goes back to the turn of the century, says Hirsch. Control of the curricula was wrested from professors and given to education specialists knowledgeable mainly in method and pedagogy.
According to Hirsch, this brought about ``an elaborate tracking system that fragmented the curricula - where different kids learned different materials. Some learned Dick and Jane - others, Shakespeare - which actually furthered social class differences in opposition to the democratic ideals the progressive educators had hoped for.''
Hirsch is especially opposed to the notion that only up-to-date materials are appropriate for children to learn from. ``It's crazy to believe that a child fresh out of the cradle is going to be any more familiar with modern literature than with ancient,'' he says. ``In fact, the Canadian educator Kieran Egan is writing a very important book right now suggesting that old myths, stories, legends, and parables are much more the sorts of things that children take to and read anyway.''
A good many educators are worried that the ``common culture'' movement Hirsch argues for is nothing more than a conservative ideological tool - a way to promote white, Anglo-Saxon values.
Hirsch calls this concern ``premature ideology.'' Liberals in education make a premature association, he says, between political conservatism and cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatists might be politically liberal, he says. But culturally they want to preserve the literate terms of the debate.
``Liberals want society to change fast,'' Hirsch says. ``Cultural conservatives like myself think that if you want society to work, you have to change slowly, because the change has to be intergenerational. Everybody has to understand.''
Others, like Harriet Tyson-Bernstein of the Rand Corporation, wish Hirsch's list were ``longer, broader, and a little flakier.''
Hirsch agrees there is room to expand. But he sticks to a traditional base. ``Literate culture is traditional at its core. Its periphery changes - Woody Allen is part of it now - but the center remains.''