How much must we know to be smart?

More than most US kids are being taught today, says E.D. Hirsch.

Reading is about much more than simply sounding out words. At its core, it is about comprehending. And too many of our young readers lack that ability.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., in his new book, The Knowledge Deficit, argues that without a better understanding of the "taken-for-granted knowledge" we're all assumed to share, children will never become great readers or truly literate Americans. He's especially concerned about children from poor families who may not be exposed to rich language or this shared knowledge at home. "It is not mainly comprehension strategies that young children lack in comprehending texts but knowledge – knowledge of formal language conventions and knowledge of the world," says Hirsch.

The prevailing trend in education is to provide children with the skills to read – or solve problems or think critically – assuming that the acquisition of information will follow. It's an approach Hirsch believes is misguided, dating back to the 19th-century Romantic notion that learning is a natural process. He counters that there's nothing natural about reading, writing, or arithmetic, and believes "the shared content we need for communication and solidarity with the nation as a whole" must be explicitly imparted.

This idea is not a new one. Those familiar with Hirsch's 1987 bestseller may recognize his latest work as a sort of "Cultural Literacy" repackaged for the No Child Left Behind generation. (That book included 5,000 essential facts from "absolute zero" to "Zeitgeist." "Test your cultural literacy," the back cover teases. "Can you put the following in context?")

Even rehashed and bound in a fairly dense read, Hirsch's idea is as compelling now as it was then. In an era of globalization with fewer common denominators and increasingly fractured interests, there's something quaint yet appealing about the notion of anything shared. It's hard not to be charmed by the suggestion that something as simple as "a common base of allusion" will help "encourage national solidarity and community."

Hirsch settles on reading as the key to bridging the "knowledge deficit" between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and between US students and the students from other countries who consistently outperform them. This deficit roughly translates to the "achievement gap" between black and white, poor and rich children, which the No Child Left Behind law was devised to address.

Using the lead paragraph from a recent New York Times book review, Hirsch shows how lost a reader is without "background knowledge." After a detailed account he concludes that the "knowledge domains" needed to understand this single paragraph include history, geography, astronomy, natural history, general history, and science.

Like most other educators, Hirsch supports the aim of NCLB. But he worries that schools, in an effort to improve reading scores, have stripped away history, science, and art – precisely the varieties of Hirschian knowledge essential for reading comprehension. Today, Hirsch's "Core Knowledge" curriculum, filled with those subjects and more, is in place in hundreds of schools.

The best argument he makes for a common curriculum is mobility. Our most impoverished students move most frequently. Certainly a common curriculum would ease their transition from school to school.

In many ways, the idea of "Core Knowledge" parallels the great books tradition, still in place in a small number of universities. They both have their supporters, but each has been assaulted for being elitist and Western-centric.

As someone not terribly adroit with facts, it was hard not to bristle a bit at so prescriptive and fact-laden an approach to learning, even for youngsters.

I once lamented to a friend how little I seemed to have retained through four years of college (and high school and elementary school). He assured me that my familiarity, fuzzy though it may be, with all I've learned is a base to which I can return. It's precisely the gossamer type of knowledge I imagine would so disappoint Hirsch – more "knowing how" than "knowing what." But it's helped compensate for my terrible "storage" and recall.

By no means am I the demographic that "The Knowledge Deficit" is most concerned with. Yet it's hard not to feel that the most useful thing I know is how to fill in blanks as they come up – and they do, frequently.

Teresa Méndez is a Monitor staff writer.

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