On Why ‘The Schools We Need’ Have Never Been Progressive

“Opening with the foreboding words, “Failed Theories, Famished Minds,” Hirsch explains, “What chiefly prompts the writing of this book is our national slowness . . . to cast aside [the] faulty theories that have led to the total absence of a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum, but are nonetheless presented . . . as remedies for the diseases they themselves have caused” (1996, p. 2).

The Schools We Need - ED Hirsch

According to Hirsch, the progressive educational theories that took shape at Teachers College during the first quarter of this century have held an intellectual and institutional monopoly on schools, especially since the 1950s. They are, he claims, responsible for the deteriorated condition of education. Hirsch aligns American progressive education with European Romanticism’s view of the child as a being whose development “should be encouraged to take its natural course.” Referring to this body of theory and practice as “Thoughtworld,” he contrasts this perspective with Enlightenment thinking that viewed a child as “a still to-be-formed creature whose instinctual impulses need less to be encouraged than to be molded to the ways of the society” (pp. 72–74).

Tracing the writings of canonized literary icons such as Friedrich Schelling and William Blake, as well as historic education scholars such as John Dewey, Hirsch outlines what he perceives as Romantic fallacies. These include, among others, naturalism, formalism, localism, professional separatism, and the repudiation of standardized tests. According to Hirsch, these have contributed to the emergence of a curriculum that lacks well-defined content and focuses instead upon the abstract tools and metacognitive strategies needed for future learning. As a result, he argues, social inequities have deepened as children who come to school lacking intellectual capital find an incoherent curriculum and process-oriented teaching unable to remedy their “deficits.” The new civil rights frontier, Hirsch proclaims, consists of assuring that the knowledge gaps of disadvantaged children are filled.

To guarantee what he perceives as educational justice, Hirsch makes a case for a core curriculum. Based on international comparisons of student test scores, Hirsch contends that systems with a national curriculum contribute to greater fairness, as evidenced by a normal distribution of test scores within such nations, and excellence, as demonstrated by their scores in comparison to other nations. To further support his position that a core curriculum is essential to fairness and excellence, Hirsch turns to “mainstream consensus research” in cognitive psychology and neurophysiology. Discussing the role of short- and long-term memory in learning, the function of schemas in prohibiting mental overload, and the importance of automation in facilitating effective thinking, Hirsch calls for a system to deliver predetermined, concrete, sequential, and relevant background knowledge to students and thereby infuse a form of capital that will have later trade value in the common culture and national marketplace. The ultimate promise of such an education, Hirsch claims, is not only the realization of an upwardly mobile underclass and greater social equality, but also the promotion of a shared public culture essential to stable and genuine democracy.

In deconstructing Hirsch’s assumption that progressivism monopolizes schools, it is important to avoid making the opposite claim that traditional philosophies and practices have absolute control over schools. Progressive struggles have had an impact on schools. Such gains, however, have not significantly transformed curricular content and pedagogical practice overall. For example, many multicultural reform efforts have concentrated on changing individual attitudes or the superficial insertion of cultural and historical information about oppressed groups into the already dominant organization of school knowledge. At the same time, critical forms of multiculturalism that critique the privileging of particular perspectives, engage in a more nuanced discussion of cultural relations and identities, and question the nature of power have yet to enter many schools (McCarthy, 1993).

These partial efforts to accommodate progressive demands may be explained by what Apple (1993) has called “the politics of cultural incorporation” — a politics in which the curriculum is “the product of often intense conflict, negotiations, and attempts at rebuilding hegemonic control by actually incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of the less powerful under the umbrella of the discourse of dominant groups” (p. 56). While schools have been responsive in particular ways to appeals for greater representation of marginalized knowledge, such inclusion has not significantly altered the status of canonized school knowledge. On the whole, traditional curricular and pedagogical forms remain intact, and progressive practices are more often the exception rather than the rule.”

“Progressivism runs directly counter to the main thrust of educational reform efforts in the United States in the early twenty-first century. Reform is moving towards establishing rigorous academic frameworks for the school curriculum, setting performance standards for students, and using high-stakes testing to motivate students to learn the curriculum and teachers to teach it. Education schools and their progressive ideals stands in strong opposition to all these reform efforts. In addition, reformers are seeking to reduce regulation of access to teaching, by supporting alternative modes of teacher preparation, while ed schools strongly defend their role as the gatekeepers to the profession. To today’s reformers, therefore, with their strong orientation toward standards and deregulation, ed schools look less like the solution than the problem.

But these reformers should not be so worried…this form of progressivism has had an enormous impact on educational rhetoric but very little impact on educational practice. This conclusion was reached by historians of pedagogy, such as Larry Cuban and Arthur Zilversmit, and contemporary scholars of teaching practice, such as John I. Goodlad and David K. Cohen. Instruction in American schools is overwhelmingly teacher-centred; classroom management is the teacher’s top priority; traditional school subjects dominate the curriculum; textbooks and teacher talk are the primary means of delivering this curriculum; learning consists of recalling what texts and teachers say; and standardized tests measure how much of this students have learned. What signs exist of student-centred instruction and discovery learning tend to superficial or short-lived. Educators talk progressive, but they do no teach that way. In short, traditional methods of teaching and learning are in control of American education. The pedagogical progressives lost.”

“In the end, Hirsch provides no concrete evidence to support the claim that a progressive monopoly exists. Perhaps what is most important, though, is not the presence or absence of evidence, but why Hirsch and others on the New Right perceive a progressive monopoly and how this shapes their agenda. Why has the impact of demands for representation tended to be exaggerated in the minds of neoconservatives? One possibility is that fear of subverted power and undermined cultural authority distorts neoconservative interpretations of schooling.”

Excerpts taken from ‘The Ed School’s Romance with Progressivism’ By David Labaree, Stanford University. 2003. BROOKINGS PAPERS ON EDUCATION POLICY & ‘Essay Review. Questioning Core Assumptions: A Critical Reading of and Response to E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them’. KRISTEN L. BURAS, University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. By E. D. Hirsch, Jr. New York: Doubleday, 1996. 317 pp. $24.95. Harvard Educational Review. Volume 69 Number 1 Spring 1999.

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