Bob Shepherd writes here about E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s work, and how it was wrongly appropriated by conservatives in their fight for the canon of “great white men.”

I first met Don Hirsch in 1983 at a conference where we both spoke. We became good friends. We even served on the Koret Task Force together at the Hoover Institution, which we both quit, perhaps for different reasons or maybe for the same reason. While there, we had a public debate with Paul Peterson and Caroline Hoxby. The topic was: Curriculum and instruction are more important than markets and choice. We argued for the proposition, and they argued against. Given that we were at the Hoover Institution, the audience favored the negative. Of course.

Bob Shepherd writes:

There was a lot of willful (e.g., intentional) misreading of Hirsch’s work, which wasn’t helped by the fact that his work was embraced by far-right conservatives who thought that he was all about defending the canon of work by dead white men against multiculturalism. And, unfortunately, his Core Knowledge Foundation had a brief flirtation with Common [sic] Core [sic] advocates, which Hirsch later renounced as a mistake.

So, here, a brief tutorial on his major ideas:

Hirsch first made his name as a proponent of a particular approach to literary interpretation, or hermeneutics. He was a champion of the traditional notion that the meaning of a literary work lies in the intention of the author and that the practice of interpretation is about recovering that intention, which requires not only close reading but also familiarity with the author’s life, the social and historical context of the work, and the literary genres and tropes employed in the work. Well, this poem was written by a courtier, sick of court intrigue, who longed for a simpler, more noble, more real, more honest life and adopted the pastoral mode as an expression of these longings.

In other words, his was a defense of a traditional view of interpretation that required considerable knowledge of the text in context.

Then, Hirsch became interested in freshman composition (which is interesting because, by that time, he was a well-placed public intellectual, and those freshman comp classes are usually foisted off on people low on the academic totem pole). He soon realized that people who don’t read well can’t write well, and this led him to think carefully about the problems he was seeing in his comp students’ ability to read. He soon realized that a major problem, overlooked by “reading specialists,” was that poor readers didn’t have the background knowledge that the writer had assumed they would have.

This important insight led him to formulate a theory that a culture is bound together by inherited, shared, common knowledge. The members of this Amazonian tribe have a shared knowledge of the uses, medicinal and otherwise, of hundreds and hundreds of indigenous plants. People in the English-speaking West are bound together by shared knowledge of things like Mother Goose Rhymes (“Simple Simon said to the pieman”), the Bible, a few plays by Shakespeare, and so on. So (and again, this is rare among English professors) Hirsch set out to conduct studies of what educated people in the United States know. He chose as his representative group lawyers because they were an easily identifiable group of educated professionals. On the basis of those studies, he came up with a list of stuff that educated people in the U.S. know. This list became the core of his best-selling book Cultural Literacy.

Unfortunately, this book hit at the very time that multiculturalism was making great headway in U.S. education, and Hirsch was perceived by many to be a reactionary figure in opposition to that movement. This bothered him a lot because politically, Hirsch was always a liberal.

Here’s what Hirsch was definitely right about: knowledge is an essential component of reading ability. Any approach to ELA that discounts knowledge, that considers the field to be all about the teaching of abstract skills, is doomed to failure because writing and reading and public speaking are extremely dependent upon both descriptive knowledge (knowledge of what) and concrete procedural knowledge (knowledge of how).

It’s possible, of course, both to embrace multiculturalism AND Hirsch’s core ideas. You want to understand Emerson and the Transcendentalists? Well, then, you better understand the Hindu Upanishads, that great spring from which Emerson drank.