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E.D. Hirsch is no right-winger

October 17, 2012

On Tuesday, the Guardian published an article about E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Curriculum. The article stated that after Hirsch published his work on the importance of knowledge in the curriculum, he ‘was greeted by the American right as a prophet and a saviour, and by the left as a scion of the empire of evil’. This is highly misleading. There were indeed elements of the left who saw Hirsch this way, but we should not assume that they were representative of the American left as a whole.

In actual fact, large sections of the American left have enthusiastically welcomed Hirsch’s work. Most strikingly, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), America’s second-largest teaching union, are four-square behind his ideas and his curriculum. The AFT are no right-wing front organisation. In fact, they have partnered with our own National Union of Teachers to share tactics on how to fight against free schools and charters. Only this June the deputy general secretary of the NUT, Kevin Courtney, praised the ‘valuable insight’ he’d gained from talking to AFT members in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But as well as opposing charter schools, the AFT have also spent a great deal of time and energy supporting Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. The President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, has frequently spoken of the benefits of the Core Knowledge curriculum. She wrote this blurb for Hirsch’s latest book: ‘now more than ever we need his lessons to become part of our common wisdom’. The secretary-treasurer of the AFT, Toni Cortese, is a trustee of the Common Core foundation, an organisation which supports knowledge-rich curricula. The AFT journal, American Educator, often publishes articles by Hirsch and other leading lights of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Diane Ravitch, who is perhaps the foremost critic of charter and free schools anywhere in the world, is a long-standing and vocal supporter of Core Knowledge. Indeed, she was the person who persuaded Hirsch to write Cultural Literacy. The liberal state of Massachussets adopted a Hirsch-inspired curriculum in the early 1990s (since when their standing on all national and international league tables has improved markedly). Hirsch himself is a Democrat, has described himself as a ‘quasi-socialist’ and has written of how his educational philosophy has been influenced by Gramsci.

Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has in fact gained support on the left, and indeed across the political spectrum, for a number of reasons. It is motivated by democratic and egalitarian impulses. It is inclusive and multicultural. And it has proved incredibly successful in a range of different schools, not just in raising absolute standards, but in eliminating the stubborn achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

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10 Comments
  1. missmcinerney permalink

    To understand why Hirsch’s Common Core is popular and useful in America one must understand that there is no national curriculum or even national compulsory examination in the US. This can sometimes be bizarre for people used to the British system to fully comprehend but essentially America has 14,000 school districts who basically run 14,000 different education systems in which the curriculum content (and also how one’s final results will be calculated) are decided by the views and prejudices of one’s teachers or the local school board. Naturally, this has led to all kinds of issues and many inequalities. Hirsch’s Common Core standards are therefore a solution to a very real problem for the US and most people recognise that, but there is a very long-standing love affair with localism in US education history and undoing that is going to be a little bloody.

  2. missmcinerney permalink

    I must caveat here – and this again shows the issue with writing anything about “America” – different States do have different rules on curriculum. Some will have well-enforced state standards, others do not, and how those standards are decided differs greatly. This is particularly problematic for people who live on the edges of a state (and state lines sometime run through the centre of large cities!).

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