Where is E.D. Hirsch?

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Why don’t you know who E.D. Hirsch is? He’s the Thomas Sowell of education but might as well be a ghost. The education field – of which he is the most important figure – has no clue who he is. Imagine that the Beatles happened but no one knew their name. He could have changed schools for the better just like the Beatles revolutionized music, but no one listened to him because no one was allowed to listen to him.

It should come to little surprise that his seminal work has been dismissed and hidden from teacher candidates and parents. “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them” is not a title that lends itself to teachers, administrators, and lawmakers. Everyone is bickering over critical race theory, but pedagogy just doesn’t get news hits or social media likes — which is a problem because that’s really all that matters. 

Ironically, a humanities dropout can try to inculcate a radical viewpoint, but if the teacher can’t teach or if the student can’t learn because the student was previously taught by teachers that cannot teach, then it’s a moot point. It’s hard to brainwash when you can’t do anything with brains to begin with

Hirsch is a liberal and borderline socialist, far from a radical right-winger. He identifies as politically liberal and educationally conservative. This designation comes from communist and prisoner to the Italian fascists, Antonio Gramsci. In 1932, the liberal philosopher predicted that tying liberal politics together with liberal views on education would result in more inequality. There is an inverse relationship, and a true liberal should seek conervative education policies that have proven to lift lower classes up and create equality. Gramsci knew then – and has been proven right over the last 100 years – that the romantic, naturalistic approach to education did not work, and that a progressive education creates inequality.

The world ignored the communist rotting in an Italian jail (except for Pete Buttigieg’s dad, eminent Gramsci scholar) because he was just some commie halfway across the world talking about an education system that did not yet exist. Who would listen to him? E.D. Hirsch listened and studied the data. Hirsch was not a communist and the system existed during his time, but he received the same treatment.

Hirsch is just a simple man with a simple idea that is anathema to the establishment. He dared stand out of the crowd 40 years ago and walk against the wind, and he was resolutely ignored. Time has proven him right.  More and more data builds and his case strengthens, so the only option for the educational progressives is to pretend he does not exist. Rather than admit they’re wrong, they just memoryhole the whole thing. It never happened. E.D. Hirsch never happened.

ALRIGHT WE GET IT. TELL US THESE DANGEROUS IDEAS HIRSCH ESPOUSED. 

Take just one example: rote memorization works. Wait, what? That’s it? “Of course it works,” you say. We memorize times tables, rewrite definitions, and write words repetitively. LeBron James has probably taken 10 million free throws. How many times does the first chair flutist run through the scales? The Beatles spent years in clubs in Hamburg, Germany playing the same songs all night, every night before ever recording one original song. 

If you’ve ever wondered why our education system is in such poor shape, it’s because simple ideas like this — that used to be widely accepted — have been labeled poisonous. The old ways are outdated, the argument runs. Even so, our brains are the same.  

Take another example: hands-on, creative learning does not work. That is a broad statement and broad statements are easy to dismantle and dismiss, but they serve a point. They’re loud and Hirsch’s ideas need their volume increased. Deep down educators from K to 12 know what really works. They know what is efficient and effective, though they don’t like to say it out loud. No one wants to admit that they’re job is rote memorization and repetition. We admire Phil Jackson for winning NBA titles while writing books about feelings, ignoring the millions of defensive drills that his team ran in practice.

Another hill that Hirsch has died on is his common core knowledge curriculum. This is not common core, although his ideas deeply influenced the failed educational reform known as common core. His plan is relatively simple. Most children that fall behind lack background knowledge, and the children that get ahead, have a well rounded foundation because they received this knowledge at home. The disparity in common knowledge creates communication gaps – you can’t talk to each other if there is little to talk about. The knowledge gap widens the communication gap which then makes education more difficult. It’s not rocket science. This is how cultures and nations form and strengthen — around shared common knowledge, whether it be religious, principled, or factual. It’s the root of our nation and we’ve uprooted this core concept. Whether nefariously or naively ignorant, it happened.

The books are out there. Anyone can read them. There is too much to summarize here, but they are airtight cases. The education system can be reformed, but the Kraken must be awoken. Hirsch’s ideas must be unleashed, but no one is running to the book shelf. Thomas Sowell had an amazing career, but it reached unimaginable heights via YouTube. The same can happen for Hirsch. Unfortunately, Hirsch is well into his 90s, and it’s too late for him to promote his ideas on YouTube talk shows, but someone else can. If one educator dares to read his forbidden books and record their own YouTube videos based on his methods, a sea change could occur 

Pearce Dietrich
Pearce Dietrich is a former Title I School Teacher/Administrator. His online social studies curriculum and other content can be found at his blog theconstrainedvision.com