The Knowledge Gap:
The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It
by natalie wexler
avery, 336 pages, $27
E. D. Hirsch Jr., distinguished scholar of comparative literature, is the most important advocate for K–12 education reform of the past seventy-five years. Natalie Wexler’s recent book The Knowledge Gap is a helpful examination of Hirsch’s critical analyses and intellectual framework, as well as the elementary school curriculum that he designed—Core Knowledge.
One of Hirsch’s key focal points is the vapid, supposedly “developmentally appropriate” fictions that dominate language arts curricula in elementary schools—mind-numbingly banal stories with single-syllable vocabularies and large pictures. These silly literary fictions and fantasies have helped “dumb down” a hundred years of American students by eliminating or forbidding any substantial reading of expository prose about history and science in the first eight grades. A poignant narrative well worth reading is Harold Henderson’s Let’s Kill Dick and Jane, which details a noble but ultimately losing fight waged by a family firm from 1962 to 1996 against the big textbook publishers.
After a teaching career of fifty years, I agree with Hirsch that the primary problem in American public education is not the high schools, but the poorly organized, ineffective elementary school curricula, including the idiotic books of childish fiction. As Wexler writes, the governing “approach to reading instruction . . . leaves . . . many students unprepared to tackle high-school-level work.” Pity the poor high school teachers.
A hundred years ago John Dewey and his lieutenants from Columbia Teachers College, especially William H. Kilpatrick, started dismantling academic “subjects” in favor of “the project method.” They also worked to redefine history as “social studies,” a degenerative development that has continued without cease in our K–12 schools, leading to ludicrous presentism. Dewey and the progressives also attacked traditional language classes—especially phonics but also Latin—opening the way for “naturalistic” literacy instruction that has proved to be ineffective. Yet it should be obvious that students must “learn to read” well early on so as to “read to learn” for high school and college and the rest of their lives. And what they read early on is important.
The “progressive” educational assault on traditional American education had another source, which might be called “soft utopianism.” Twenty-five years ago Hirsch was already writing powerfully—in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them—about this romantic-progressive “soft utopianism” and how it conflicted with what is wisest and best in the thinking, writings, and achievements of the founding fathers and their early republic. Yet he also knew—as himself a repentant progressive “mugged by reality”—that in the nineteenth century the republican educational legacy was already under intellectual assault by Rousseau’s American disciples Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s egalitarian naturalism was one of Dewey’s greatest inspirations by the early twentieth century.
The progressives particularly dislike history, and our current “Great Awakening” indicates this. A few years ago, the former superintendent of the school system of one of our most “liberal” states said to me in private conversation that “the progressives hate history and won’t tolerate it in the curriculum.” They hate it because any thinking about history requires ethical assumptions and qualitative judgments: What in the past is worth studying? How do we structure our narratives? How do we fairly evaluate historical personalities and events? Which ones were virtuous and beneficial? These and related questions require some standard of justice and the idea that most individuals—in the past and present—have some degree of free will and some disposition to ethics: the “self-evident truths” of our founding document, and of civilization itself.
In her book, Wexler includes the Core Knowledge elementary unit on Andrew Jackson, which presents his ambiguity as a historical figure. Though it acknowledges Jackson’s bravery at the Battle of New Orleans, the Core Knowledge text also comments on Jackson’s expulsion of the Cherokees from their legally-held lands: “The Trail of Tears and other forced movements of Native Americans are some of the saddest events in the history of the United States, but that is why we need to remember them. It’s important to remember the sadder parts of history to prevent them from happening again.” This nuanced lesson is probably too traditional, too dangerously like the Sunday School teacher, to please the impatient progressives.
Yet in 2022 the progressive denial of history has another source, which makes it particularly vehement. The course of world history since 1914 has not confirmed the optimistic “soft utopianism” of Dewey and his generations of followers in schools of education, teachers’ colleges, state departments of education, and teachers’ unions. Dewey’s former student and defender Sidney Hook came to describe world history since 1914 in theological phrasing as “the second Fall of Man.” (Perhaps, after all, as The New England Primer put it in 1690, “In Adam’s Fall, / We sinnéd all.”)
Caliban does not want to see himself in the unflattering mirror of history since 1914, with its somber implications about human nature. “On the most recent nationwide test of [American] eighth-graders,” given in 2014, Wexler tells us, “only 18 percent scored proficient or above in US history.” (Don’t even think about what they know of modern world history.) Wexler claims that many elementary teachers tell her that “history is ‘developmentally inappropriate’ for the early grades.” The progressive “social studies” invites ideological, ahistorical fads, such as sexual indoctrination in “gender fluidity” and militant opposition to parental rights.
Yet our “billionaire boys’ club” of educational philanthropists has done nothing for sensible attempts to increase actual knowledge in elementary school programs. Wexler’s accounts of the grant efforts—projects, recipients, and effects—of Gates and Zuckerberg is a study in futility, in culpable ignorance and arrogant delusions of omnicompetence. The contrast with the expertise, modesty, and dogged devotion of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation is extraordinary—what Alexander Pope called “the difference between solid worth and empty show.” Hirsch’s efforts have helped form a “saving remnant” of good sense and effectiveness that has benefited tens of thousands of students.
Wexler’s book examines the effectiveness of the Core Knowledge curriculum and its emphasis on phonics and knowledge-building in one elementary school. She tells of a second-grade teacher who “values what the [Core Knowledge] curriculum has done” for her students in a charter school, but feels “it isn’t her natural teaching style,” and moves on to an elite private school. But after a few months at the private school, the teacher is “surprised to discover she misses the structure and coherence of Core Knowledge. At her new school, she tells me, not much thought is given to ensuring that the curriculum builds across grade levels, or even within grades.” Social studies units are haphazard, and aim at no purposeful cumulation of knowledge. Looking back at the Core Knowledge school, the teacher tells Wexler she is astonished at “how much history I learned” in teaching it. Docendo discimus: by teaching, we learn.
One of the promoters of Wexler’s book is John White, former state superintendent of education in Louisiana, one of the states that has taken the Core Knowledge approach seriously for the formation of its own state standards. White insists that state reading tests should be on particular books and facts that students have studied in school; this should be a fundamental practice but is rarely upheld in state standards.
The occasional good news that Wexler reports, inspired by the success of Hirsch’s curriculum, is not necessarily the main pattern. Many powerful people remain hostile to Hirsch and consider him “a political reactionary.” Real reform ebbs and flows, with serious setbacks (for example, the fate of the excellent Massachusetts MCAS standards when Democrats took back the governorship; the elimination by Congressional Democrats of the Reading First program, “the most effective federal program in history,” according to the Alabama superintendent of education).
E. D. Hirsch, now over ninety years old, prudently eschews “culture war” controversies as much as possible, though few living scholars are as qualified to comment on them as he is. His aims are the practical improvement of American schooling and a more competent citizenry. Hirsch is an old-fashioned liberal who became, through disillusioning experience, a neo-conservative. During Hirsch’s life, however, the intellectual traffic has been going in the other direction.
Philosophy, so often confident in the nineteenth century of replacing theology and religious belief as the central foundation of the university, intellectual life, and civic culture, has signally failed to do so, collapsing into nominalism, sterile academicism, or radical skepticism. Meanwhile “literature”—in the Anglo-American world the prime candidate to replace theology and philosophy—has been overwhelmed by Nietzschean and French radical relativism: “deconstruction” is at an infinite remove from Matthew Arnold’s conservative humanism and F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling’s earnest, eloquent moralism. Literature’s ethical influence has disappeared in a wilderness of radical voices and visions.
Philosophy and “fictions” have failed in the culture at large. We are left with one indispensable intellectual-moral reality to save our culture as any kind of civilization: history itself. However suffused with epistemological doubts some of our historians may be, the normal human being, citizen, and moral agent needs to know what has actually happened in world history since 1776, and especially since 1914. And however contested and complex, such knowledge of history must begin in elementary school. If you spare the truth, you spoil the child.
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