The Philosophical Tug of War in K-12 Education – 1988 to Present

E.D. Hirsch. Image: BARBARA KELLEY Wall Street Journal

by James C. Sherlock

Others in this space and I have been asking readers to confront what we oppose: critical theory in education, a Marxist-based philosophy that in its execution is designed to tear down the American culture and start over. We see that philosophy today personified in critical race theory and state-directed intrusions in its favor.

To try to provide historical perspective to some of those discussions, I will offer a brief survey of proponents of a more constructive path for K-12 education, directed specifically to improve the performance of poor minority children.  

The ones I have selected feature the work of, Richard Rorty,  E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Naomi Schaefer Riley. Drs. Rorty and Hirsch were professors at the University of Virginia. 

Dr. Hirsch and Ms. Riley are not exactly what you expect.    

Richard Rorty

With a Ph.D. from Yale, Dr. Rorty taught philosophy at Princeton for 20 years, humanities at Virginia for 16 years and comparative literature at Stanford for seven until his retirement. He has passed away. Politically, he was a centrist classical liberal who called out members of the academy both left and right for what he thought was shoddy scholarship and overreaching conclusions.

E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Eric Donald Hirsch Jr., 91, is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is best known for his work on cultural literacy. Hirsch himself is an avowed Democrat who has described himself as “practically a socialist.” He resides in Charlottesville.

To improve the chances of America’s poorer children, he has advocated expanded access to preschool, and his cultural literacy work was foundational to the Common Core state learning standards developed by the National Governors Association in 2009.  

Forty-one states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have adopted the Common Core State Standards Hirsch advocated. Virginia has not.

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley has a distinguished career in journalism. She is also a syndicated columnist, lecturer, non-fiction writer, editor, and blogger for The New York Post and other news outlets. She graduated from Harvard College in 1998, magna cum laude.

It is especially distinguished for her firing by the Chronicle of Higher Education blog. She made a post in 2011 entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”  

The sequence of events that followed is now familiar. Huge firestorm on the left; initial support by the editor; denunciation of the editor; and firing of Ms. Riley.  

Ms. Riley is also the mother of three children whose father, Jason Riley, an author, pundit and member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board is black. Her commentary, “My Kids and Their Elite Education in Racism,” is informed by their experiences raising mixed-race children.

“Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; April 12, 1988; Updated Edition (October 3, 2002)

This book was a cultural phenomenon and sold over a million copies. It drove a nationwide debate on our educational standards. Cultural literacy refers to the concept that citizens in a democracy should possess a common body of knowledge that allows them to communicate effectively, govern themselves, and share in their society’s rewards.  

Progressives had dominated educational theory and practice for decades when this book came out, but had been unable to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. From a review:

“Hirsch opposed the long-accepted view of educator John Dewey, who argued for a child-centered pedagogy that stressed experiential learning. Rather, Hirsch maintained that early education should focus on content and that all students, not just a bright few, could achieve cultural literacy.” 

It challenged the progressive grip on education.

Critical theorists today as then are directly and unalterably opposed to the entire approach and certainly the optimistic outcomes sought by Dr. Hirsch.

“The Unpatriotic Academy” 

By Richard Rorty, New York Times, Feb. 13, 1994. Excerpts:

Most of us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious — if tarnished — national traditions.

Many of the exceptions to this rule are found in colleges and universities, in the academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had left a more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one. But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.

But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.

“The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children”

by E. D.  Hirsch Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.  

The Harvard Educational Review, not expected to be a fan of Hirsch’s positions, reviewed this work quite positively.

Although his recommendation that schools should explicitly impart that body of knowledge led some educators to write him off as a conservative champion of Western civilization and the “Dead White Males,”  … His most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, extends his previous argument by identifying the problem with U.S. education and exploring the three kinds of knowledge students need to read effectively — knowledge of language conventions, vocabulary knowledge, and domain-specific background knowledge. It also offers recommendations about the efficient allocation of instructional time, the kinds of tests needed to ensure content mastery, and the content standards we need as a nation.

The Knowledge Deficit asserts that the problem with U.S. education is not inadequate teachers; rather, it is a set of misguided ideas in which teachers have been taught to believe. 

  • The first of these ideas is naturalism, or the notion that learning should proceed from experience rather than formal education, which Hirsch traces back to the Romantic notion of civilization as a corrupting influence. 
  • The second is formalism, or the notion that schools should attempt to inculcate generalizable skills, such as inferring and information-gathering, rather than bodies of content knowledge. 
  • The third is demographic determinism, or the idea that teaching alone cannot overcome the achievement differences that result from socioeconomic inequality.

The Knowledge Deficit should be required reading for public school reformers. Hirsch’s call for a greater emphasis on history, science, and the arts offers a long-overdue antidote to these subjects’ increasing marginalization in public education. By advocating a content-rich national curriculum, he calls boldly for the kind of sweeping reform that might genuinely promote equity in our nation’s schools.

“My Kids and Their Elite Education in Racism”

?How Rye Country Day School reflects the madness of our times”

September 2020 , Commentary magazine, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. 

Her compelling article offers us a glimpse by a mother of mixed-race children into the very real and negative repercussions of a single-minded focus on race in K-12 education. She recounts the experiences of her own children.    

Some of you will perhaps take the position that such things can never happen in Virginia schools. Every evidence from the wider national experience is that you are incorrect.

“Bad Teaching Is Tearing America Apart”

by Naomi Schaefer Riley, Sept. 11, 2020.  

The subtitle of this article writes: “Education’s dumbing down frays the bonds of citizenship and is hardest on the poor, says E.D. Hirsch, the man who wrote the book on cultural literacy.”  

Bad Teaching Is Tearing America Apart is Ms. Riley’s interview with Dr. Hirsch.  It starts:

If you have school-age children, the pandemic-induced move to online classes may give you an unusual window into their education. E.D. Hirsch expects you’ll be surprised by “how little whole-class instruction is going on,” how little knowledge is communicated, and how there is “no coherence” from day to day, let alone from year to year.

The current fashion is for teachers to be a “guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,” he says, quoting the latest pedagogical slogan, which means that teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students but to “facilitate” learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity. Everything Mr. Hirsch knows about how children learn tells him that’s the wrong approach. “If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you have to have whole-class instruction,” in which a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum.


He cites both history and neuroscience in explaining how education went wrong. It began in the 1940s, when “schools unbolted the desks and kids were no longer facing the teacher.” Instead children were divided into small groups and instructed to complete worksheets independently with occasional input from teachers. “That was also when our verbal test scores went down and the relative ranking of our elementary schools declined on a national level.” On the International Adult Literacy Survey, Americans went from being No. 1 for children who were educated in the 1950s to fifth for those in the ’70s and 14th in the ’90s. And things have only gotten worse. Between 2002 and 2015, American schoolchildren went from a ranking of 15th to 24th in reading on the Program for International Student Assessment.

The problem runs deeper than the style of instruction, Mr. Hirsch says. It’s the concept at its root — “child-centered classrooms,” the notion that “education is partly a matter of drawing out a child’s inborn nature.” Mr. Hirsch says emphatically that a child’s mind is “a blank slate.” On this point he agrees with John Locke and disagrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought children need to develop according to their nature. Both philosophers make the “Cultural Literacy” list, but “Locke has to make a comeback” among educators, Mr. Hirsch says. “The culture is up for grabs, and elementary schools are the culture makers.

It is indeed.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

25 responses to “The Philosophical Tug of War in K-12 Education – 1988 to Present

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Education is perhaps a mere reflection of our own modern culture. A culture that has changed with a creeping malaise. I don’t know if can be institutionally reformed now. Modern culture will have to run it’s current course until a paradigm shift occurs such as the Depression/WW2 or the 1960s. Maybe then a change can take place. Until then the best reform efforts are likely to achieve success in non institutional settings. I don’t see any other way. Hirsch is right. Educators must impart a body of knowledge, show students how to think/manipulate that body of knowledge, and then permit the freedom for students to make independent judgements on the validity and usefulness of the wisdom acquired.

    • I think there are about 37 developed countries in the world. Are we the only one with these kinds of problems or this kind of thing going on in K-12 education worldwide?

      • We are the only one about to be rent asunder by the unpeaceful transfer of power. That weren’t learnt in any critical theory class.

      • Great Britain has bought more completely into Common Core than we have. I haven’t studied other developed nations.

        • E. D. Hirsch’s powerful 2016 book “The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children,” explains in great and convincing detail how France’s very fine world class K -12 educational system collapsed insofar as its student achievement after the French government’s education establishment dismantled their highly successful century old core education system in the late 1980s, and replaced it with the American progressive system orginally promoted by John Dewey. As a result French student achievement scores plunged and have yet to recover. And, soon after that, starting in the 1990s, a number of other European nations also switched from their traditional core curriculum to progressive educational systems, and their students achievement scores also plunged for the same reason.

          Meanwhile other nations, such as Japan, who have maintained their core curriculum continue to lead the world in student achievement.

          In short, read E. D. Hirsch’s powerful 2016 book “The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children,” to learn what is now, and has been killing America’s ability to properly educate its children in K – 12 for past six decades.

  2. What I’ve read is that our “best” kids are every bit as good or better than the other OECD countries but what drags us down is our overall results which are affected by larger numbers of lower performing economically disadvantaged.

    For instance – the top 10 schools in Fairfax for 6th grade SOL reading:

    Forestville Elementary 100
    Fox Mill Elementary 100
    West Springfield Elementary 100
    Waynewood Elementary 97.87
    Willow Springs Elementary 97.31
    Sangster Elementary 97.28
    Haycock Elementary 97.14
    Poplar Tree Elementary 96.77
    Colvin Run Elementary 96.58
    Mosby Woods Elementary 96.47
    Wolftrap Elementary 96.43

    they gotta be doing something right

    but then look at the bottom 10:

    Herndon Elementary 63.85
    Crestwood Elementary 63.1
    Timber Lane Elementary 62.34
    Groveton Elementary 59.78
    Hutchison Elementary 58.65
    Woodley Hills Elementary 58.06
    Mount Eagle Elementary 55.36
    Mount Vernon Woods Elementary 55
    Dogwood Elementary 54.95
    Woodburn Elementary 53.85

    It’s inexplicablel to me how this can be and if one only wants to look at these scores, they might well conclude that Fairfax Public Schools are a failure.

    I don’t know how they teach realtive to how the folks highlighted in this blog post think it should be done – but I’m also wondering if Fairfax has curriculum standards for subjects like reading such that it is taught pretty much the same way throughout the school system or not…

    It’s just hard to understand how there is such huge disparities in reading scores in the same school system…

    Their schools with top scores are probably among the top schools in Virginia, US, and likely would rank high on the OECD PISA ranking.

    But their lower scores would drag them down in the rankings significantly.

    • Baconator with extra cheese

      Well that’s an easy fix with equity. Get a spreadsheet and enter addresses along with test scores. Calculate an average of about maybe 78 based on those scores and reassign the kids to schools to meet that average district wide. Problem solved, now all the schools kind of suck, but no one school can be called out for overly sucking. Do that every year and you have “equity”
      But there is your problem. “Equity” for equity’s sake usually ends on the lower side of the scale.
      The average IQs on normal distribution bell curves are probably at 98-100 where true success in STEM/ Law/ Accounting/ even some technical trades with our technology more than likely requires IQs greater than 110-120… at a minimum. You can’t force a lot if equity in an arena that requires high to exceptional intelligence, say spproximately 15-20% of the population has the brains to highly accomplish.
      When we have to convert all our buildings over from gas/ oil to electric we’re going to find that there just aren’t enough smart people to fill the electrician shoes we’ll need. Too many smart kids have decided to become highly educated baristas instead of tradesmen.

      • so an IQ problem where lower IQ folks have clustered in some zip codes?

        This general idea has been plowed in the past on BR and included discussions about Charles Murray and his book The Bell Curve.

        ” The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”

        here’s a pretty interesting question and answer with Murray and AEI 6 years ago on the 20th anniversay of The Bell Curve:

        If Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein are correct, the reason why the US does poorly againt OECD countries, neither equity nor bad teaching models is the problem. Instead, our policies incentivize single low income woemen to have kids.

        I don’t know if this could be proven on a zip-code basis (maybe already has?).

        • Baconator with extra cheese

          Its more of a case of highly sucessful people clustering togther and all the rest are out of that cluster. And we all know highly successful people usually invest in their children either with supports ($) or time (teaching, museums, art). Typically the highly sucesssful has more resources…. time or $$$. Also those children are raised in an atmosphere that academic success is a source of pride and wealth in some cases.
          In my case my mother was smart, but poor white trash. She never had the opprotunity to go to college, but decided her children would. She taught me to read at 4 and took me to the library every Saturday… and I consumed books. Granted I had the advantage of a relatively high IQ (past Mensa member) but she fed me the idea that academics would be ny ticket. It’s not just IQ, the IQ has be pointed in the right direction too. I could have easily used that for bad.

          • Of course an obvious question is if your mother was a single mother like a lot of others, how did she succeed and so many of the others failing ?

            Was she the exception and most are not so fortunate?

            Can other kids have essentially surrogates (good tachers) to tutor and guide them to learn to read and learn?

    • They’re right, Larry, the K-12 system has definitely been failing white kids with this newfangled stuff, but college still sorts it out somwhat…

  3. interesting website…….. I suspect a connection.. of sorts..

  4. “But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.”

    Well put, Mr. Hirsch.

  5. As with most issues, there needs to be a middle ground. I tend to agree that there should be a basic body of knowledge (history, literature, science, philosophy) taught to students as part of their culture. At the same time, students should be introduced to other cultures and be taught how to explore. A good teacher needs to be a sage and a facilitator (not easy to do).

    It is interesting that James Sherlock has chosen to promote Hirsch. The Common Core that Hirsch was so involved in developing was savaged by the right. See this critique from Freedom Works.

    Most of this opposition probably stemmed from the perception that the Common Core had been developed by the Obama administration when, in fact, it grow out of consortium of state education officials. The opposition even appeared in the Virginia General Assembly. The 2015 Session passed two bills (HB 1752 and SB 724, both from Loudoun legislators, Mr. Whitehead) prohibiting the Board of Education from adopting the Common Core. The bills were vetoed by Gov. McAuliffe. The House voted to overturn the veto, but there were not enough votes in the Senate to do so. In 2016, Del. LaRock tried again, but the bill that was passed was vetoed again and that time, there were not enough votes in the House to overturn the veto.

    • I too caught the reference to Common Core and the fact that Sherlock, who does seem to be Conservative was not in opposition to it.

      That surprised me.

    • I am a class warrior, not a race warrior. If the solution is race based rather than class based, I will never support it. In that direction lies unending racial strife and more racism, not less. Putting a black homeless drug addict in the same category as the Obama’s also suffers from making no sense.

      With that caveat, in education as in healthcare, I apply a first test to any idea for change:

      – Is it likely to improve the lives of the poor or is it not?

      Said another way:

      – Does it raise up poor people to meet a norm or lower the norm to meet poor people?

      If the answer is the former, I am interested, and depending on the details, I am likely for it. If the answer is the latter, I will never support it.

      I could not care less where such ideas originate.

      • In other words, the reasons why they are poor and responses does not matter whether by systemic discrimation against their family ancestors or not?

      • In concept, I agree with you. However, the reality in the United States (and probably in other countries) has not been that simple and straightforward. To a large extent, race and class overlap. Most poor people are in a minority race and, vice versa, most people in a minority racial group are in the poor class.

        To complicate the matter even more, poor folks of different races don’t always support, or agree with, each other. The white upper class has been adept at exploiting the racial prejudices of poor whites, thereby diminishing support for policies that would be of benefit to the poor generally. (See: Byrd Machine in Virginia) Obama was certainly a member of the upper middle class, but a lot of the opposition to him (and support for him) was based on his race.

        Finally, the experiences and needs of poor people and their kids from different backgrounds, including race, shape their cultures, how they view the world, and how they best learn in school. The children of the coal fields of Southwest Virginia, of single-parent families in the housing projects of Richmond, or of two-parent immigrant families from Vietnam will all approach school differently and have different needs.

        I see what is happening now in this country as a classic reaction (overreaction) to repressive policies in the past.

    • If I remember right, Larock and Dick Black argued that Common Core was a lowest common denominator and that the VA SOLS held a more rigorous standard. Dick Black is long gone now. Despised in Loudoun and LaRock is among the party out of power. Probably will be out of office on the next go around.

      I agree with the critics of Common Core. The essential body of knowledge should be determined at the local/state level. A national standard would water down the red eye gravy that is already very thin. Not even gravy now more like soup.

      Hircsh asserts the importance of the body of knowledge and how that knowledge must be transferred and some how stick to the cholesterol found in the brain. The business of teachers passing out busy work, group work, projects, low bar assessments, and feel good work serves the interests of no one.

      • I always thought about Common Core as a common standard like the SAT and other standardized measures.

        That made a lot of sense in an economy where people move to different states and in especially so in the case of military.

        It did not need to lower standards. Virginia could have done both with the SOLs sitting on top of CC.

        Any kid who had military parents can tell you what school was like when they moved. It was pretty much chaos with some subjects repeated while others got completely skipped…

      • Here is how LaRock explained his opposition to Common Core–give parents, teachers, and local officials more control over our schools by cutting red tape and over-regulation from Washington, D.C. and Richmond.

        There is nothing about the Common Core being the lowest common denominator and SOL being more rigorous. In fact, one could infer from this position that localities should be able to adopt standards lower than the Common Core or SOL.

        • You are right Mr. Dick. I still think that both are doomed in the long term. Both fail because they do not provide a clear and marked rehabilitative/remedial path to improving failing schools. 2 plus decades of Virginia SOLs prove this to be true.

  6. Pingback: Implement “Joyful Learning” in Virginia’s poorest performing elementary schools | Bacon's Rebellion

Leave a Reply