Scholar urges school reforms to heighten `cultural literacy'. Dr. Hirsch says teaching `skills' lessens imparting of knowledge
San Francisco — American schools will never help students become truly literate or capable of deep analytical thinking until they begin systematically to teach a body of information and ideas common to all Americans, a prominent scholar says. The dominant belief in schooling today - that reading or thinking must be taught as ``skills'' separate from content and background knowledge - has been the ``great hidden problem in American education'' over the past few decades, says E.D. Hirsch Jr. in a long-awaited book. He says the belief is the biggest reason for low student test scores and the lack of progress among disadvantaged students.
Dr. Hirsch's book, ``Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,'' will be released here today at a conference of several hundred education writers.
Hirsch, a University of Virginia professor of English whose thinking has become increasingly influential among the nation's top educators, says, ``The dominant educational ideas of the past four or five decades are wrong and pernicious ideas, no matter how well intentioned they may have been in their origins.''
He called for a masssive reform of school books that would introduce all students ``early on'' to a traditional base of ``literate culture'' - basic information that lies above everyday levels of knowledge, but below specialized levels.
Hirsch's work is an attempt to address recent findings showing that two-thirds of American 17-year-olds do not know the Civil War occurred between 1850 and 1900. Half cannot identify Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin. In one test, students thought Toronto was an Italian city and the Alamo a Greek epic poem.
``We cannot assume that young people today know things that were known in the past by almost every literate person in the culture,'' Hirsch writes.
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett says Hirsch's work ``could change what goes on in our nation's classrooms.''
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, ``There has been no book more important for the formulation of curriculum policy.''
Hirsch and colleagues have developed a list of several thousand names, terms, phrases, and ideas they say students must know to read with meaning. The terms range from abominable snowman, Acropolis, and Albuquerque to Zeitgeist, zero-sum, and Zurich.
In San Francisco, Hirsch released results from a test on the list given to 600 lawyers. Their average score was 92 percent, an indication the test is a reliable literacy measure, he says.
Today Hirsch will also release a list titled, ``What Every American Doesn't Need to Know.'' It was 270 names, concepts, and ideas taken from three 500-page readers widely used in 6th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade classes. Yet only about 60 items qualified as part of the common or ``public culture'' Hirsch advocates. Shakespeare, for example, was not included.
``It's not hard to see why students aren't culturally literate,'' Hirsch told the Monitor. ``The essential information isn't available to them in school.''
Hirsch does not advocate a back-to-basics core curriculum. But curriculums must find inventive ways to cover specific content, he says. It is not just facts that deaden the minds of students, he says, it is incoherence.
Hirsch rejects the commonly held notion that the decline of cultural literacy is due mainly to television, family structures, or other ``inexorable social forces.'' Rather, he says, the cause is such educational practices as teaching reading as a mechanical process of decoding words.
Hirsch says these educational approaches are the most destructive to disadvantaged students, who are less likely to pick up ``literate culture'' outside of schools. Further, teaching about ``American national culture'' does not mean minorities cannot learn about their own backgrounds, he notes.
But ``Martin Luther King's dream depends on mature cultural literacy,'' Hirsch said in an interview.
Such a position opens Hirsch to attack both from those who want a particular culture stressed and from those who want all cultures stressed more. But he says children should first be able to understand American national culture.
In a world of more technologically complex methods of communication, says Hirsch, ``The literate language is more, not less, central than it was in the days before television and the silicon chip.''