Sunday, February 26, 2006
The Core Knowledge Foundation held its annual conference in San Antonio this week, and a highlight was the release of founder E. D. Hirsch’s new book, “The Knowledge Deficit” (Houghton Mifflin). The book nicely encapsulates the rationale for the core knowledge curriculum, especially in the area of reading skills. The premise is that reading comprehension depends not only on vocabulary and on reading aptitude, but on background knowledge as well, and there is a sizable research literature in reading and psychology to back it up. Most of the reading instruction that takes place in schools as students gear up for the tests takes a piece of prose and asks students the standard questions: “What is the author’s intention? What is the central idea of the passage? What persuasive strategies are employed?” The problem with this instruction, Hirsch maintains, is that it develops abstract aptitudes but ignores the background knowledge that is key to comprehending most texts. In sum, most of the passages that students read do not express all the content that is necessary for the passage to be comprehended fully. This applies not only to overt allusions and citations, but to larger contexts that “familiarize,” so to speak, the content to the reader. Without the background knowledge at hand, readers struggle to assimilate the text, to gauge its assertions, its unspoken contraries, etc. With every passage requiring a different background knowledge, there is no way to prepare for the test except to spend classroom hours imparting to students core knowledge.
The implications for this premise are broad, and they have been pursued with extraordinary success in the 500 or so Core Knowledge schools across the country. One of them is to dim the enthusiasm for abstract cognitive skills such as “critical thinking.” The research Hirsch cites in earlier books finds that the critical thinking applicable to one issue/situation is quite different from the critical thinking applied to another. Successful analysis requires a fair degree of “domain knowledge,” and domain knowledges don’t transfer. Critical thinking in chess is different from critical thinking in literary analysis. Take away the domain knowledge and critical thinking is a case of trying to understand a problem without knowing anything about it.
Another important implication affects classroom aims. As Hirsch put it, “If you want to prepare students for the test, give them a good education"--that is, more facts and figures, more events and personages, more history, civics, and science.
Another announcement: National Review is assembling a new blog about academia, and it would be interesting to see some liberal/left countercommentary appear on its pages.
I hope John Derbyshire is involved, is all I can say. Also, let me recommend Scott McLemee on Jonah Goldberg’s reading habits.
All of three of those questions are essentially unanswerable, the first one famously so. So why should we lie to children?
I don’t recall if Hirsch’s previous work on cultural literacy has pursued domain specificity, but I think it’s sensible. All thinking worth the name is “critical thinking,” certainly, but education has to defend against errors of prejudice and reasoning, no trivial pursuits, they.
I hope you’ll post a link to the National Review blog when it goes live. Call me crazy, but I’m optimistic about it. I think that if academics make a serious effort to engage with each other, especially if we actually talk about exactly what we do in the classroom, we’ll find out how overblown the charges of indoctrination are.
I think it’s a case of just not reading enough. I used to just sit down and read the Britannica when I was a kid and I acquired a lot of knowledge. What the school offers can only be a fraction of what you really need to know. You do need to be totally absorbed in quite a few different subjects to gain enough knowledge in enough “domains” so your critical thinking skill will be worth a damn.
It is a little like learning to play and instrument--but only practicing a few hours a month. Or learning to read poetry but only reading two three poems instead of thousands. Or playing half dozen games of chess and then taking a test on chess. You’ve got to have build up enough critical mass just to develop the skills.
Clancy, you want indoctrination? Just browse through the six extant Teaching Carnivals, a virtual “Who’s Who” of radical subversives.