Most parents and taxpayers don't know it, but most schools don't know what they're teaching.
I can't count the number of times I have been talking to a public school teacher and they will say to me, “Well, I've got to go now and do my lesson planning.”
“Lesson planning?” I will say. “Why do you have to do lesson planning? Haven't they been teaching [insert name of subject here] for, oh, I don't know, a couple of hundred years now? Does the school not have a lesson plan to give you? Why are you having to reinvent the wheel every week? Why are you, a teacher, having to engage in curriculum development when there is a whole bureaucracy in any school district that calls itself the ‘Curriculum Development’ department that is supposed to being doing the very thing their name suggests?”
Of course, the poor teacher I'm talking to is thinking that it would be easier to do his lesson planing than to have to answer all of these questions.
Hirsch became famous in the late 1980s for his bestselling book, Cultural Literacy. He has made a career out of promoting the idea that in order to successfully educate children, they need to be taught a set of basic, shared cultural knowledge, and in order to teach it schools need to have a coherent curriculum that emphasizes it. The content he champions is largely the traditional content of Western culture that all American schools once taught as a matter of course.
It's not rocket science.
Hirsch has rearticulated this message in his new book Why Knowledge Matters, from which the Atlantic article was taken.
Schools have a number problems, he admits, one of which is the low quality of teachers. This is the default excuse of most modern education reformers for failing schools: It's the fault of teachers. But, as Hirsch points out, even good teachers will be hampered if their school has an inadequate curriculum. “The real problem,” he says, “is not teacher quality, but idea quality”:
“The difficulty lies not with the inherent abilities of teachers but with the theories that have watered down their training and created an intellectually chaotic school environment. The complaint that teachers do not know their subject matter would change almost overnight with a more specific curriculum with less evasion about what the subject matter of that curriculum ought to be.”
I would go further and say that the bottom line problem with today's schools is not only that they don't have a coherent curriculum, but that they really don't have a curriculum at all. It is redundant to say that a curriculum is coherent, since coherence is already a part of the very word, which one dictionary defines as “an integrated course of studies.” Coherence (i.e., integration) is part of what a curriculum is, and if it doesn't have it, then it isn't a curriculum.
The curriculum is the very soul of the school. Without it, our education institutions lose their purpose and usefulness. What we have seen over the last fifty to a hundred years is the zombification of our education system. Absent a coherent curriculum, our schools lurch aimlessly around the cultural landscape causing destruction.
Culturally speaking, many of our schools have become the Walking Educational Dead, driving more and more people into private and home schools, and, lacking those, into charter schools.
Hirsch has long contended that a parent ought to be able to walk into a school and ask, say, what his fifth grader will learn that year, and get a meaningful answer.
Whether Hirsch's new call for educational common sense will get through is yet to be seen. I'm not holding my breath.