Why Knowledge Matters

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Hirsch, a giant in the field of Ed reform, will be familiar to and adored by many reform-minded teachers. Sadly though, he remains unknown to a majority of people graduating out of teaching programs — at the expense of both teachers and students. Hirsch entered the public consciousness with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), a book which argued that our schools are doing a disservice to students by not teaching them basic knowledge that will enable them to thrive in society. 

While the success of Cultural Literacy may have given Hirsch a reputation as “the knowledge guy,” he is much more than that, having written books which tackle the philosophical roots of public education, the role of knowledge vs. skills in teaching and learning, the importance of quality reading instruction, communal schooling, and many other topics. Other key texts by Hirsch include The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), The Knowledge Deficit (2006), and his most recent, How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation (2020).

Why Knowledge Matters stands above the rest. It represents his most convincing argument for why our schools are failing, and why a knowledge-heavy approach to education is the fix they need. 

Hirsch’s inspiration for the book comes from data coming out of France after they transitioned their elementary schools from ones which focused on the transmission of important knowledge to the building of ill-defined skills. As he explains, the situation in France provides a near perfect “natural experiment” in what happens when schools abandon the task of teaching students concrete information which builds off previously taught information. 

As shown by reading scores and other metrics, the French elementary school system, for many years, had been incredibly effective in teaching its students. However, in 1989 the country passed a law — known as loi Jospin — which shifted their focus from knowledge-centric teaching to American style skills-centric teaching. By 2007, with enough time for these new methods to take hold, France saw a large decline in achievement and fairness measures. The shift to a skills-centric approach in France has been an abject failure.

So, what does this have to do with the American context? The reforms made to the French elementary school systems perfectly mirror the progressive methods of education widely used in America, particularly since the institution of Common Core initiatives. In the book, Hirsch details the philosophical roots of these methods, the subsequent effects, and how to reverse the trend. When taking into account that these changes are particularly harmful to the populations most in need of help, Hirsch’s book shows why shifting our schools’ curricula from a skills focus to a knowledge-based one is a civil rights issue. 

Hirsch takes us through the details of this natural experiment, connecting it to the American educational system, pinpointing exactly what the cause of these changes is, while showing the results through data, ultimately making a compelling argument in support of a return to knowledge-based teaching. It’s an impressive feat of argumentation.

Key Ideas

  • There are six common frustrations regarding education: “the over-testing of students, fadeout of preschool gains, the narrowing of elementary school curricula, low verbal skills of high-school graduates, lack of progress in closing achievement gaps between social groups, and tribulations of common core initiatives.”
  • These six frustrations stem from what Hirsch describes as the ‘Tyranny of Three Ideas:’ “early education should be appropriate to the child’s age and nature, as part of a natural development process; early education should be individualized as far as possible; the unifying aim of education is to develop critical thinking and other general skills.”
  • The ideas which will combat the tyranny of three ideas are also tripartite: “early education should be chiefly communal — focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions of the public sphere; every child in each locality should study basically the same early curriculum; the unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity: to import to every child the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society.”

Is it worth reading?

If you are familiar with Hirsch’s work, Why Knowledge Matters is still an enlightening read. If you are not, I’ll be so bold as to say you have to read this book. Speaking from personal experience, reading him can fundamentally shift the way you view education. If you came to be a teacher through the training offered by schools of education, you are likely trained in the exact methods cautioned against by Hirsch in this and his other works.

So many of the teachers I speak to describe their situation as one shot through with confusion and frustration because they are doing what they were trained to do but the students are not responding in the way they were led to believe they would. They internalize this failure and many give up.

What this book represents is the sea change American education is so sorely in need of. To read it is to have your eyes opened to the reality that it’s not necessarily bad teachers that lead to poor results, but the bad ideas they were taught in preparation for the classroom. I cannot recommend it enough.

James A. Furey
James A. Furey is a high-school English teacher from Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to Chalkboard Review and has been published in City Journal and National Review.