My former teacher E. D. Hirsch has been working for decades now to effect a transformation of American education. His career path has been a curious one. He began as a notable literary theorist whose book Validity in Interpretation articulated a strong defense of authorial intention as the proper standard of validity in interpreting literary texts. (The book has been much-loved by evangelical biblical scholars, many of whom seem not to have noticed that Hirsch’s arguments for authorial intention are purely pragmatic: he contends that literary scholars have a professional need for some standard of interpretative validity, so he just chooses authorial intent as the most effective option.)
But then, in the 1970s, Hirsch got interested in the teaching of English writing at the university level. Why do so many incoming college students write so poorly? And what can be done about it? These questions led him back a stage: What were these students taught in high school and before?
And that line of inquiry led Hirsch to the path he has been on ever since, and that he first pursued in his best-known book, Cultural Literacy: how to fix what’s broken in American education at the primary and secondary levels.
In a new article in City Journal, he makes a cogent case that educators need to give special and focused attention to increasing children’s vocabulary, because of the very strong correlation between an extensive vocabulary and academic and economic success later in life.
Because vocabulary is a plant of slow growth, no quick fix to American education is possible. That fact accounts for many of the disappointments of current education-reform movements. For example, the founders of the KIPP charter schools, which have greatly helped disadvantaged children, recently expressed concern that only 30 percent of their graduates had managed to stay in college and gain a degree. But note that KIPP schools typically start in fifth or sixth grade, and while KIPP’s annual reports show that their students achieve high scores in math, they score significantly lower in reading. I interpret those facts to signify that middle school is too late to rectify disadvantaged students’ deficits of vocabulary and knowledge. Word-learning is just too slow a process to close those initial gaps in time for college. The work of systematic knowledge- and word-building has to begin earlier.
I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically.
It’s hard to achieve politically in part because people like Hirsch get stigmatized by the educational establishment as “reactionaries” because they want to establish stronger and more consistent standards for achievement.
It’s worth remembering that Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy appeared in the same year as Allan Bloom’s incendiary Closing of the American Mind and that the two were frequently lumped together as “conservative” responses to educational chaos. Bloom was a conservative indeed, of a highbrow and elitist stripe, but Hirsch has always been a committed political liberal: he has consistently stated that he wants a stronger educational system in order to address inequality and give the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised a better chance to succeed in American society.
Hirsch’s preferred policies may be right or may be wrong — that’s a debate for another day — but to dismiss them because of some purported but fictional “conservatism” is to practice the kind of epistemic closure that paralyzes our society in those very arenas where we most need creative change. At the very least this article, like everything else Hirsch has written on education in the past twenty-five years, is very much worth reading in full and reflecting on at length.