E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, and
the Possibility of a Common Culture
by Thomas R. McCambridge
In this paper I will argue that E.D. Hirsch's call for a national school curriculum of "cultural literacy" is most basically an attempt to artificially recreate the common culture of the late 19th Century, as a means of encouraging present-day economic success, and as such is flawed in five ways: 1) it presupposes an ability to accurately define the artifacts of that culture; 2) it ignores the powerful and compelling social, psychological, and political reasons why that culture ceased to exist; 3) it incorrectly assumes that the artifacts of that culture can be imposed successfully on students who belong to a very different culture, and imposed in a way that will provide the same kind of meaning they had for students of the last century; 4) it ignores the fact that culture is an organic phenomenon and cannot be easily imposed; and 5) it reveals an instrumentalist view of both education and culture, one which tends to see both cultural artifacts and people as tools to be manipulated for utilitarian ends. I contend that for all these reasons "cultural literacy" is not a proper means of school reform and conclude with a brief suggestion for a more radical approach to contemporary school problems.
Introduction: Ever since its publication in 1987, in the midst of a vast barrage of school reform literature, E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Hirsch, 1987) has engendered a firestorm of criticism, especially from those in favor of "multi-cultural" education, local control of curriculum, and differentiated curricula. (e.g., Harper, 1990; Aronowitz and Giroux, 1987; McLaren, 1988; Giroux, 1981) Even many of those in favor of using schooling as a way of passing along what they saw as the best of Western civilization had reservations
about list-making and what list-making seemed to imply for instruction: teacher-centered classrooms, rote learning, memorization of meaningless data, etc. (Tarter and Christenbury, 1989; Smith, Dydo, and Costello, 1990; Newmann, 1988; Estes, Gutman, and Harrison, 1988)
On one level all these critiques are both accurate and pertinent. What Hirsch is suggesting is that there should be a common curriculum, taught to all students. This would by definition exclude other curricula, be elitist in that it purports to represent the most important, and required of all. It would also demand working from a list, although Hirsch argues that this can be done without its becoming rote learning. On the other side of the argument, those who support Hirsch's call for a national system of schooling based on "cultural literacy" contend that such a program woulddefine a common curriculum that would help individuals and the nation "thrive in the modern world" and would establish the foundation for a common culture in a society that is badly fragmented. In this paper I will argue that Hirsch's critics have missed some important points; that his supporters are, for the most part, mistaken, disingenuous, and sometimes even self-serving; and that "cultural literacy" is a misguided approach to school reform.
My argument will proceed in four stages. I will begin by reviewing Hirsch's definition of "cultural literacy" and his arguments for it as the basis for a national school curriculum. I will then examine the intellectual, social, and political background of Hirsch's suggestions, particularly as seen in the larger and long-term curriculum debate over common vs. differentiated curricula.
Once having placed the "cultural literacy" argument in the historical context of the common curriculum movement, it will be easier to understand the essentially instrumentalist purposes of Hirsch's version of a common curriculum: 1) the dissemination of information and understanding about what Hirsch calls the "mainstream" culture; and 2) the use of that information and understanding by students to progress in the world. This is an approach to schooling
that is meant entirely to train --- not educate --- students, an approach which places it in a particular stream of the common curriculum tradition.
And fourth, I will demonstrate that because "cultural literacy" is also self-consciously attempting to prepare students to succeed in the modern world, a world of rationality, progress, science and technology, representative government, and individuality, it is drastically at odds with the attitude of contemporary students who live in a post-modern world, a world of spontaneity, fluidity, lack of defining principle, and, more than anything else, irony.
Because it is so opposed to the dominant culture which actually exists among school children, "cultural literacy" is not a program capable of helping to create (or reconstitute) a common culture.
The "Cultural Literacy" Argument: Hirsch's argument, simply put, is that "literacy is far more than a skill and that it requires large amounts of specific information....(a) network of information that all competent readers possess." (Hirsch, 1987, p. 2) This network of information Hirsch calls "cultural literacy," the function of which "is to foster effective nationwide communications," (Hirsch, 1987, p. 2) a system of communication that he contends has been disintegrating over the recent past: "In the mid 1980s American business leaders have become alarmed by the lack of communication skills in the young people they employ." (Hirsch, 1987, p. 5)
The lack of wide-ranging background information
among young men and women now in their
twenties and thirties is an important cause of the
illiteracy that large corporations are finding in
their middle-level executives....My point is....that middle-level executives no longer share background
knowledge is a chief cause of their inability to communicate effectively. (Hirsch, 1987, pp. 9-10)
Hirsch argues that this decline in literacy, which is due to a decline in shared knowledge, is dangerous for the nation politically, socially, and economically and should, therefore, be reversed.
The concepts of nationality, industrial capitalism, and modernity are central to Hirsch's argument:
The formation of the modern nation makes possible
complex communication on a large scale, which
makes possible, in turn, the specializations of
modern industrial society. To meet the needs of
the wider economy, the modern industrial nation
requires widespread literacy. At the heart of modern
nationhood is the teaching of literacy and a common
culture through a national system of education.
(Hirsch, 1987, p. 73)
In this argument, Hirsch draws heavily on Ernest Gellner, whose work he quotes to explain the modern devotion to education:
The employability, dignity, security, and self-
respect of individuals, typically, and for the
majority of men now hinges on their education.....
(italics in original) A man's education is by far
his most precious investment, and in effect
confers his identity on him. Modern man is
not loyal to a monarch, or a land, or a faith,
whatever he may say, but to a culture....(This)
school-transmitted culture, not a folk-transmitted
one, alone confers usability and dignity and
self-respect on industrial man. (Gellner, 1983, p. 36)
Gellner's contentions that there is a modern culture and that this culture is "school-transmitted" are essential to Hirsch's argument in that he rests his program on the assumed efficacy of the schools in transmitting a culture, he assumes that the culture is still a modern culture, and that, therefore, all we need to do is to direct the schools back to the right direction and all will be well again. Hirsch's use of Gellner also implies his support for the modern, industrial view of where "identity, dignity, security, and self-respect" come from --- from one's function in the industrial society. At no
point does Hirsch ever demur from this element of the argument, by saying, for example, that although this may be the modern, industrial way of looking at things, he certainly doesn't believe it. In fact, this seems to be an essential part of Hirsch's argument for reforming the schools in a way that will better prepare people to function in a way that will earn them "security and self-respect." At no point is there a contention that there is something inherently worthwhile in the
individual human being and that education, and the larger society, should work to encourage and reflect that worthiness. The worth of the human individual is based on how well he functions in society, a profoundly modern view.
In this regard, Hirsch would have been well-served to refer to the critique of modernism from both Left and Right, and to respond to it in some significant way. Critics of modernism from the Left, as early as Karl Marx in the 1840's, have condemned modernism as inhumane and utilitarian, as using human labor as something analogous to mechanical labor,
as alienating Man from his labor. (Marx, 1844) Critics from the political and cultural Right have condemned modernism for the same general reason, its inhumanity, differing from critics of the Left in the definition of what is human and what is humane. (Chesterton, 1908; 1925; Ellul, 1964; Barrett, 1978) Max Weber's analysis of the conceptual configuration of modern life and the bourgeois capitalism that drives it emphasizes the importance of the "rational organization of formally free labour," at the expense of such notions as loyalty, tradition, love, or ideological
conflict. (Weber, 1905, 1921, 1958) The absence of such a response to the powerful critique of both Left and Right over the last century-and-a-half calls into question the basis of Hirsch's support of "modern culture." It can be argued that all education is necessarily and inevitably normative in its nature. If so, Hirsch should have engaged in some defense of "modern culture," rather than merely accepting it as that-which-is and preaching a vision of schooling as acculturation into modernism.
The Debate Over Common vs. Differentiated Curricula: It is helpful to understand E.D. Hirsch's suggestion that the curriculum be restructured in a way that would promote "cultural literacy" as a development in an on-going battle over control of the curriculum in American secondary schools, a battle that has been going on for more than one hundred years. Despite the great complexity of this debate over the years, it is possible to abstract two basic positions: 1) there should be the same curriculum for all students in secondary school; and 2) there should be differentiated curricula based on ability, preference, and social need. The beginnings of this debate can be traced to the
1880's and should be seen as a consequence of revolutionary social changes in the cities of the United States.
American cities experienced tremendous increases in population in the period after 1865, and this larger urban population created a larger and much more diverse school-age population. This created particular difficulties with regard to students of secondary school age. As David Tyack points out, "there was a vast influx into urban schools of youth who previously might have gone to work or roamed the streets, pushed into the classroom by child labor laws and compulsory attendance...." (Tyack, 1974, p. 185) In 1900, the mean age for leaving school in states which had
such laws was fourteen years and five months; by the 1920's it had reached a mean of sixteen years and three months.
Given these significant changes in the high-school population, it began to become clear that the "old academic curriculum could no longer be administered to....millions in the same proportion as it had been to 359,000 pupils of 1890." (Hofstadter, 1963, pp. 332, 342)
The "old academic curriculum" in secondary schools of the early- and mid-19th Century had been exclusively college preparatory; that is, the classical liberal arts course of study taught almost entirely to White males from prosperous backgrounds who were on their way to college. By the 1880's, the question facing school people, academics, politicians, and the business interests was what should be taught to a new and very different high school population.
The first national, coherent, and inclusive response came from the so-called Committee of Ten in 1893, sponsored by the National Education Association and made up primarily of university professors, college presidents, and private secondary school headmasters. There were two principles that informed their recommendations: "that the high school should above all discipline and develop the minds of its pupils through the study of academic subject
matter....(and) that the same education which was good preparation for college was good preparation for life." (Hofstadter, 1963, p. 347)
The document issued by the Committee of Ten noted that "only an insignificant percentage" of those graduating from high school went on to college and that, therefore, the main purpose of high school was "to prepare for the duties of life." The emphasis of this document was on intellectual training, not a surprise since the committee's chairman was Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and a champion of the mental discipline school. The committee's belief was that school subjects were for "training the powers of observation, memory, expression, and reasoning," through a systematic and uniform immersion in a common curriculum.
Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary
school should be taught in the same way and to the
same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it,
no matter what the probable destination of the pupil
may be or at what point his education is to cease.
(U.S. Bureau of Education, 1893, p. 17)
There were four different "tracks" available to students but all included study in the five major academic areas --- English, foreign language, history, mathematics, and science, which were to be "taught consecutively and thoroughly".
All the tracks were, in our term, college preparatory. But the Committee of Ten was not attempting to "fit" students for college, as they would later be accused of. Rather, they were motivated by a belief that the best education was the proper education for all.
The Committee of Ten was reflecting an Enlightenment conception of education, that all were educable and that the development of "personal culture" and of a clarity of thinking would lead to a successful life defined by the individual and, consequently, to a successful society made up of enlightened, clear-thinking people devoted to the ideals of democracy as instilled in them through the study of the liberal arts.
Because I will later contrast the purposes of the Committee of Ten with those of other supporters of a common curriculum, it may be helpful to pause here to discuss the purposes --- both explicit and implicit --- of the Committee of Ten. The idea of a liberal arts education has historically been that an immersion of an individual's intellect into the academic disciplines (the arts) would liberate that person, from ignorance, intolerance, prejudice, and illogic. It would also provide that individual with a more subtle and complex understanding of himself, of human nature, and of how the world works. This greater understanding would then, it was assumed, allow and encourage that individual to think, feel, and behave in the world in a way that was as close to fully human as possible. A liberal arts education is, in short, the intellectual training of free men and women with their freedom as its goal. (Hirst, 1965)
The purpose of the Committee of Ten was to institutionalize the idea of a liberal arts education by defining that curriculum as the standard curriculum for all high schools. This had been the curriculum of the American academy, the secondary school attended by those students on their way to college. Now that the student population of secondary schools had changed radically in size and character, the Committee of Ten was contending that the curriculum of the academy should be the curriculum for all high school students.
Was their purpose in this attempt instrumentalist; that is, was their purpose best described as an attempt to use education as a way to achieve a goal besides education? The goal of the Committee of Ten was certainly the cultivation of the individual, and it was their belief that such cultivation would lead to a much improved society. They also believed that such cultivation could be enjoyed by everyone in the society, that no one had to be condemned to a life of mindless toil or unreflective thought just because of race or class, a radically democratic point of view. But does
this use of education make the liberal arts curriculum they recommended instrumentalist, or can it be said that what they recommended was an endorsement of education for its own sake?
John Henry Cardinal Newman, writing in the middle of the last century, put the argument for a liberal education in this way:
This process of training, by which the intellect,
instead of being formed or sacrificed to some
particular or accidental purpose, some specific
trade or profession, or study or science, is
disciplined for its own sake, for the perception
of its own proper object, and for its own highest
culture, is called Liberal Education; and though
there is no one in whom it is carried as far as
is conceivable, or whose intellect would be a
pattern of what intellects should be made, yet
there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea
of what real training is, and at least look towards
it, and make its true scope and result, not something
else, his standard of excellence. (Newman,1852)
This is to talk about education as something that exists for its own sake and not something that is to prepare people for a particular function or to indoctrinate them with particular political positions or to better adjust them to life. If we are to contend that any purpose of education makes education instrumentalist, then the liberal arts curriculum recommended by the Committee of Ten is instrumentalist. But I would contend that this is not a helpful way to look at the question. The goal of the liberal arts curriculum is the liberation of the individual through a disciplined training of the
intellect; once that individual is liberated, anything can happen. This would be especially true in an open society like the American one, and even more true if all school children --- regardless of race or class --- were immersed in that training. To think of such a process as instrumentalist is to miss the important point that the liberal arts curriculum aims at freeing people to choose, not at convincing them to do or be anything in particular. And this was the purpose of the
curriculum favored by the Committee of Ten in 1893.
In the period 1893-1918, attitudes regarding the purposes of secondary education were shifting in significant ways. By 1908, the N.E.A. had already adopted a resolution urging that high schools "be adapted to the general needs, both intellectual and industrial, of their students. (National Education Association, 1908, p. 39) Where the Committee of Ten had argued that a liberal education was proper for all high school students, whether or not they were going on to college, the N.E.A. resolution of 1908 implied the need for differentiated curricula based on the
"needs" of students, and went so far as to suggest that the curricula of colleges and universities should be adapted to those same needs.
In 1911, the N.E.A. formed the Committee of Nine on the Articulation of High School and College. The Committee of Nine said that the task of the high school was "to lay the foundations of good citizenship and to help in the wise choice of a vocation." (National Education Association, 1911, p. 559-561.) Where the 1908 resolution had gently admonished the colleges and universities to become differentiated and help students find their niche in the system, the Committee of Nine roundly condemned higher education for providing a model of education to the high
schools that was
responsible for leading tens of thousands of boys
and girls away from the pursuits for which they
are adapted and in which they are needed, to
other pursuits for which they are not adapted
and in which they are not needed. By means of
exclusively bookish curricula false ideals of
culture are developed. (National Education
Association, 1911, p. 560)
Not incidentally, the Committee of Nine was dominated by public school people, was
chaired by a teacher at the Manual Training High School of Brooklyn, and included school
superintendents, commissioners, and principals, as well as a professor of education, a
membership very much unlike that of the Committee of Ten.
In 1918, the N.E.A.'s Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education published the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. One can see from the history of American secondary education in this century that this document was very influential in defining the role of the high school. The movements in American secondary education since the 1880's --- differentiation in structure and differentiation in curriculum in order to meet the needs of a mass urban society and the particular needs of individual children within that society --- became codified in the
Cardinal Principles. As Lawrence Cremin described it, "The Commission....proposed a common core....(but also) urged a much expanded differentiation of curricula.... an enlarged choice of subjects....an increased flexibility in academic requirements....and an extensive program of guidance and counseling heavily dependent upon testing."
(Cremin, 1988, p. 243)
The commission offered seven main objectives for education: 1.
Health 2. Command of fundamental processes 3. Worthy home-membership 4. Vocation 5.
Citizenship 6. Worthy use of leisure 7. Ethical character. (U.S. Bureau of Education,
1918, p. 7) The commission thought so little of the academy's liberal arts curriculum that
the original draft of the report failed to include 'command of the fundamental processes',
its only reference to intellectual development.
A review of the major objectives recommended by the Commission reveals two underlying and
unspoken purposes of schooling: 1) support of the present economic system through differentiated preparation for vocations, and 2) training in American middle-class culture, including "health, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character." The schools were to produce graduates of whom any self-respecting mainstream Protestant congregation could be proud.
The Cardinal Principles was not just a rejection of the idea of a common curriculum, it was a rejection of the idea of a liberal arts education. Where the Committee of Ten had believed that an education could be freeing for all, the Cardinal Principles called for a "school-as-a-mechanism-to-adjust-the-individual-to-society." (Ravitch, 1983, p.
52) It is with the Cardinal Principles that the turn is clearly made toward a differentiated curriculum and aninstrumentalist view of curriculum. Where the idea of a common curriculum had earlier been identified with the idea of the liberal arts curriculum (that is, with a curriculum that supports education for its own sake), later in the 20th Century the idea of a common curriculum will be appropriated for instrumentalist purposes.
The argument over whether the common curriculum or the differentiated curriculum would dominate public secondary education has continued in various forms since the 1880's, with the ideals of the differentiated curriculum institutionalized in the public school system and the ideals of a common curriculum providing the medium for criticism of those systems; (Adler and Mayer, 1958; Bestor, 1953; Hutchins, 1936; Ravitch and Finn, 1987, e.g.) and with a coincident drift away from the liberal arts curriculum per se. It is important to understand this background when
discussing E.D. Hirsch because he calls upon much of the material of the liberal arts curriculum and definitely calls for a common curriculum. Hirsch's curriculum proposal is that we take the material of the liberal arts curriculum (in his case, that material is broadly defined) and use it for instrumentalist purposes. His reference to the stuff of the liberal arts curriculum could lead one to think that he is somehow in line with the Committee of Ten; but his blatant instrumentalism in wanting to use schooling to achieve certain social and economic purposes is reminiscent of the Cardinal Principles.
This paradox came about because over the
course of the 20th Century the common curriculum position moved away from the principles
of the Committee of Ten and developed its own set of instrumentalist rationales.
Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins, especially during their time together at the University of Chicago during the 1930's and 1940's, fought hard for the liberal arts as studies that would touch the human intellect and human heart in ways that were enriching; the longer and harder they fought, the more idiosyncratic and antiquated they seemed, as the social and political context continued to shift away from anything that would support their point of view.
By the 1950's, the ground had clearly shifted. Arthur Bestor and his colleagues who in the 1950's would battle against "life adjustment training" cared about the "development of personal culture" but cared even more about a particular kind of socialization through an old-fashioned course of study. For Bestor, there were interactive links among personal development, the improvement of society, and upward economic mobility: "The American public school system, like
the nation itself, is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Public education is an effort to carry that principle upward into the most complex and exalted realms of human life, those of the mind and the spirit." (Bestor, 1953, p. 31)
But more revealing of the evolution of
attitudes about a common curriculum were Bestor's colleagues who, more often than not, saw
the curriculum as the vehicle for the imbuing of certain social and political attitudes.
They claimed that he Progressives generally and the "life adjustment" proponents
in particular were pushing for a curriculum that encouraged emotivism, subjectivism, and a
kind of existential determination of public and private morals. In this way, Bestor and
his colleagues saw the traditional course of study less as an intrinsically valuable
activity than as a way
to fend off creeping socialism, individual indolence, and a breakdown of American homogeneity. The liberal arts curriculum had been appropriated for purposes outside itself. (Bell, 1949; Smith, 1949; Lynd, 1953; Fuller, 1951; Caswell, 1952; Allen, 1955; Woodring, 1953; Hutchins, 1953)
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 put the last nail in the coffin of a curriculum with intrinsic importance. Sputnik had made it look like the Soviets had achieved a superior level of technological expertise, and the fault was the schools'. As a result, the national energy regarding education shifted away from both the "soft" progressivism of "life-adjustment" and the emphasis on academics of Bestor and his fellows, and toward a "hard" progressivism: "extension of schooling at all levels, the expansion and differentiation of curricula, the individualization of school
programs, and....the use of schools as instruments for solving various social and political problems of the larger society." (Cremin, 1988, pp. 241-242).
By the time that James B. Conant published The American High School Today: A First Report to Interested Citizens (Conant, 1959), the explicit goals of the national curriculum were instrumentalist through and through. In Conant's view, a nationally defined curriculum was necessary, not to improve the individual but to improve the nation's level of competitiveness, especially in the fields of science and technology. By this time, the extrinsic goals
of education were not only explicit but also widely held to be the only valid goals of public schooling.
Although Conant's proposals had little in common with the liberal arts curriculum proposed by the Committee of Ten, he did push for a nationally standardized curriculum, and his contention that there should be a decidedly instrumentalist end to schooling tipped the scales in a decisive way. After the early 1960's, even the proponents of a common curriculum were arguing for it because of its practical applications in economic and military ways, and because of its benefits to the nation. The "individual" whose "personal culture" the Committee of Ten had imagined
being "developed" by a liberal arts education had virtually disappeared; what mattered now was not the cultivation of the individual, wherever that might lead, but the shaping of the individual to suit the purposes of the society, which purposes would inevitably be defined by that society's most powerful institutions --- government and big business. (Spring, 1989)
The two poles of conflict by the early 1960's were imposition of subject matter on the one hand (Bestor, 1953; Conant, 1959) and a study of the "structure of the disciplines" on the other (Bruner, 1962; Peters, 1970, 1965), with its emphasis on the internal configurations of each of the fields of academic study. Somehow the debate had been bifurcated into either/or positions that liberal education, properly understood, had always considered to be both/and elements of an education. A curriculum based on a "structure of the disciplines" approach could not, by definition, have prescribed content as a part of the curriculum, so the common curriculum position was left to those
who were emphasizing the imposition of chosen subject matter on students. But since these apologists for a common curriculum had no transcendental argument for such a program, they had turned almost exclusively to a utilitarian argument for the learning of subject matter: it would make the owner of such knowledge more capable of earning a living, and a populous of such informed people would make the nation superior both economically and militarily. (Spring, 1989)
By the 1980's, apologists for a common curriculum were heavily dependent on extrinsic goals and predicted practical benefits to bolster their arguments. The most influential documents regarding school reform were explicitly and unashamedly instrumentalist. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1982) is by no means unique in this regard; it is just the most obvious and most talked about example. During the 1980's, there was a coincident renewal of interest in the development of a common
curriculum, but for a wide variety of reasons, only one of which was the contention that the study of the liberal arts would have a beneficial effect on the student as a human being. The majority of the reasons given in support of the creation of a common curriculum were, in one way or another, instrumentalist. In The Paideia Proposal, for example, Mortimer Adler lists five reasons why there must be "an educationally classless society," only the last of which is not clearly instrumentalist: "for the proper working of our political institutions, for the efficiency of our industries and
businesses, for the salvation of our economy, for the vitality of our culture, and for the ultimate good of our citizens as individuals." (Adler, 1982, p. 4) In The Shopping Mall High School (Powell, Farrar, and Cohen, 1985), the argument is made that a curriculum full of inconsistencies and anomalies inhibits the effective transmission of useful knowledge; a matter of utility.
It is in the context of this shift in the rationale for a common curriculum from the cultivation of the individual for his or her own purposes to a shaping of the individual to meet the needs of the society that we need to understand E.D. Hirsch; for, when one examines Hirsch's arguments for "cultural literacy," it is clear that it is an instrumentalist version of common curriculum.
"Cultural literacy" is an exemplar of a century-long tradition of support for a common curriculum as the guarantor of democratic principles; in Horace Mann's phrase, "the gateway to equality". In the sense that everyone should have the stuff of cultural literacy, Hirsch is pushing for a democratic reform and is reminiscent of the Committee of Ten and its descendants who contended, in one version or another, that "the best education for the best is the best education for all." But every call for a common curriculum has had within it a set of assumptions about what that
curriculum ought to include and why, and an examination of Hirsch's arguments in support of "cultural literacy" reveal significant movement away from the epistemological principles of the late-19th Century.
"Cultural Literacy" as Instrumentalism: Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, E.D. Hirsch did not suddenly appear from nowhere in 1987. Professor Hirsch is a major figure in literary criticism and it is important to examine his theories briefly if we are to understand the thinking behind his call for a "cultural literacy" curriculum.
In his two major works (Hirsch, 1967 and 1976), Hirsch argues that the meaning of a work of literature is discernible; that the significance of that meaning is determinable; that the intention of the author is understandable; and that it is that intention which is the only criterion by which the meaning of a work can be established. This emphasis on
intention places Hirsch at odds with the New Critics who preceded him, those critics who contended that the author's intention --- if discernible at all --- was separate from the work itself, that the literary work had an ontological status of its own, and that to confuse the work and its origins was fallacious. (Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946; Ransom, 1938;
Hirsch's emphases on intentionality and the
possibility of interpretation also place him at odds with those critics who contend that
neither the work's meaning nor the author's intention are determinable. To these critics,
the deconstructionists, Jacques Derrida foremost among them, the goal is to "look
inside one text for another, dissolve one text into another, or build one text into
another....(this minimizes) the authority of the cultural producer....(who) merely creates
raw materials....leaving it open to consumers to recombine those elements in any way they
wish. The effect is to break (deconstruct) the power of the author to impose
meanings...." (Harvey, 1989, p. 51; Foster, 1983)
Hirsch's emphasis on the intention of the author places him outside both these traditions and is key to understanding his call for "cultural literacy." Hirsch contends that contemporary definitions of curriculum are influenced most strongly by a tradition of epistemological thought represented best by Rousseau and Dewey (Hirsch, 1987, pp. xiv-xv), and that, as a result, those curricula are excessively child-centered, developmental, and content neutral. What is considered to be important in this process, Hirsch contends, is the interior, subjective, psychological response of the
individual child, not the transmission of particular content for particular purposes. This emphasis on the primacy of the emotional and psychological responses of the receiver in the educational process is what Hirsch considers to be basically wrong for it leads (Hirsch would say "has led") to an intense fragmentation of cultural entities and a breakdown of the possibility of communication. Such a breakdown would, of course, be disastrous for the social, economic, and political functioning of any culture. Or, to turn it the other way, content is important because it provides
a common vocabulary which allows communication which supports the social, economic, and political functions of the culture. To create and teach a curriculum in which content is considered relatively unimportant, secondary to the psychological process of the student, and in a more-or-less constant state of flux would lead to a situation in which
people could not talk to one another in ways that were much beyond the superficial and the formulaic.
But what is the specific importance of the content of the curriculum? How are we to determine what content is to be included? Here, too, we can look to Hirsch's theory of literary criticism for a helpful analogy. For Hirsch, the meaning of a piece of literature lies not in the radically subjective response of the reader, but in the (subjective) intention of the author, an example of hermeneutic psychologism. For Hirsch, the key question to ask in the process of explication and interpretation is, "What did the author say? What was the author's intention?"
It makes perfect sense, then, that Hirsch would find an entire curriculum based on what he sees as nothing more than the response of the receiver to be unacceptable. The ontology and epistemology from which he proceeds are radically different from those which would defend such a curriculum. The point here, of course, is not whether Hirsch's contention that the curriculum is seriously fragmented, and is so because of the influence of Rousseau and
Dewey, is correct or not; the point is that, given Hirsch's perception that the curriculum is fragmented, and purposely so, he would argue that the curriculum should have an intention, and that that intention should be that of the "author" of the curriculum.
But what should that intention be? For Hirsch, the question cannot ever be the Platonic one, "What makes a good education?" In fact, he makes sure to distance himself from Plato: "....the narrowly specified curriculum of Plato is (not) adequate....Plato too confidently assumed that philosophy could devise the one best culture." (Hirsch, 1987, xvi)
If there is not to be a definition of what education should be, then what basis is there for defining a common curriculum? As with understanding a work of literature, the answer has to do with intentionality. In Hirsch's view, there should be an intention on the part of those responsible for defining the curriculum. This is the basic premise from which he proceeds; the greatest part of Cultural Literacy (Hirsch, 1987) is devoted to an argument in support of
creating a particular intention. (In understanding Hirsch's critics, therefore, it is important to note that there are two groups: the first argues that there should not be the kind of curricular intention that Hirsch argues for; the second argues over what that intention should be.) For Hirsch, the basic premise is a given: a good curriculum must have a clear intention from which all decisions about content and instructional method proceed.
But if the Platonic approach is too narrow, not adequate, and too confident "that philosophy could devise the best culture," then how is the intention of the curriculum to be defined? Hirsch's answer to this question is instrumentalist: the content of the curriculum is to be chosen because of its extrinsic worth.
For Hirsch, the "basic goal of education in a human community is acculturation." He refers to this as "an anthropological theory of education" which "accepts....the relativity of human cultures." (Hirsch, 1987, xvi) For Hirsch, then, the goal of schooling is to bring students into the culture which is, as it is. It is here, of course, that many of Hirsch's critics jump in to contend that there is no single culture into which young people can be acculturated, that this is now such a culturally diverse nation that it is absurd to talk about "a" culture.
Hirsch argues that there is not a dominant culture but a "common" or "mainstream" culture, and that it is "modern." (Hirsch, pp. 10-11, 21, 103, 106) He does not in any way contend that this "mainstream" culture is inherently better; nor does he contend that the sub-cultures should be ignored or obliterated. What he does contend is that only by participating in this modern culture can an individual hope to "thrive in the modern world." This is his cultural relativism applied: the question is not whether one culture is better than another, or whether one culture or another "deserves" to survive or be influential; the only question is what cultural elements are going to be included in the
dynamic, fluid culture of modern life. Hirsch quotes Harvard historian Orlando Patterson:
Industrialized civilization (imposes) a growing cultural
and structural complexity which requires persons to have a
broad....and deep understanding of mainstream culture, which
no longer has much to do with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,
but with the imperatives of industrial civilization....To assume
that this wider culture is static is an error; in fact it is not. It's
not a WASP culture; it doesn't belong to any group. It is
essentially and constantly changing, and it is open....the
accurate metaphor or model for this wider literacy is not
domination, but dialectic; each group participates and
contributes, transforms and is transformed, as much as any
other group....(Patterson, 1980, in Hirsch, 1987, p. 10)
On this view, there is no best culture or right culture, but only a dynamic interchange of cultures in response to the demands of an economic system and the social realities that economic system engenders. To argue for the primacy ofany particular ethnic culture is, in this model, foolish; no culture has a legitimate right to think of itself as superior to anyother. Nor, it is important to understand, does any culture have a right to argue for its ensured preservation; cultural
dynamism implicitly denies such a claim.
What Hirsch is arguing for is strictly a practical matter. To succeed in the modern world, Hirsch argues, one must be conversant with modern culture. The goal of the school in a democracy is to provide all citizens with the knowledge necessary to "thrive"; therefore, the goal of the school in a modern democracy is to provide all citizens with a knowledge of modern culture.
To argue about whether there is such a "mainstream" culture is, I believe, to miss the point. What Hirsch is contending is that there is no inherent worth to any culture, that modern life is at it is and that there are no value-judgments to be made about it, and that the purpose of schooling is to prepare people to participate successfully in it.
From there on it is easy to argue that there is certain cultural "stuff" that one needs to have to accomplish that goal. This is analogous to Hirsch's positions on "objectivity" and "value free" interpretation in Validity and Interpretation. (Hirsch, 1967)
The real point about "cultural literacy," then, is that it is a program which is explicitly and energetically instrumentalist, and that its goal is the preparation of people to function successfully in modern life. On this view, modern life is defined primarily by an economic system ("industrial civilization"), and whether one functions successfully in modern life is the test; that is, one's success as a person will be determined by one's relative success within the economic system. The goal of schooling is to provide the necessary materials with which to ensure this success; that is,
the role of the school is prepare students for the system in which they live.
E. D. Hirsch is indeed suggesting a common
curriculum; in this way he is in line with the Committee of Ten of 1893. But there is a
profound difference between what the Committee of Ten recommended and what E.D. Hirsch is
recommending, and an even greater difference in their reasons. Where the Committee of Ten
believed that the study of the five major areas of knowledge would improve "personal
culture" and that a society made up of such individuals
would necessarily be a better one, the "cultural literacy" approach argues that the acquisition of a particular kind of knowledge will simply improve one's chances in the world.
"Cultural Literacy" and Postmodernism: E.D Hirsch has argued in several different forums that the acquisition of the intellectual artifacts of modern culture can improve the chances of individuals and of the nation to "thrive in the modern world." Although Hirsch himself has not claimed that a curriculum based on "cultural literacy" could create or reconstitute a common culture, some of his supporters have and, more to the point, it is a claim easily inferred from his
argument for the teaching of a particular culture. Certainly, the argument goes, if this (more or less) national curriculum were aimed at student acquisition of these specific cultural artifacts, then eventually there would be a common culture, the elements of which would have been disseminated through the schools. While Hirsch has been careful not to distract himself or his audience from the stated pragmatic goals of "cultural literacy," his supporters who hope for the recreation
of a common culture in a world so obviously without one have logically pushed Hirsch's argument to a reasonable conclusion: that the systematic imposition of both knowledge and understanding with regard to a particular set of cultural artifacts will eventually create a common culture based on the meaning inherent in those artifacts. In the case of "cultural literacy," the goal of the curriculum is the ability to function successfully in a particular economic system and in the society engendered by that economic system. What Hirsch is arguing is that is both possible and good to pick a set
of cultural artifacts, impose them on students, and have it result in certain predicted effects.
A school curriculum, as Hirsch envisions it, would be motivated by extrinsic goods; i.e., "the ability to thrive in the modern world." But cultural artifacts are not chosen, but created; they come not from a rational decision to move the society in one direction or another, the way a board of directors would rationalize the management of a corporation, but from the deepest feelings and beliefs of the people in the society; they exist not to facilitate any particular program but to express through ritual, ceremony, and art the communal sense of reality. The stuff of culture exists for intrinsic purposes, not to serve some other set of goals; it exists for its own sake, for its own reasons, and
people participate in it for their own reasons, reasons which come out of their own deepest understanding --- conscious and unconscious --- of what it means to be human and in a particular culture. What Hirsch is suggesting is quintessentially modern: rationalize the curriculum by defining it according to what needs to be accomplished by the society. This is a good example of modern, corporate thinking; Max Weber would recognize it instantly. And Hirsch is in good company; much of the school reform thinking of the 1980's said essentially the same thing.
But Hirsch's suggestion, in line with Ernest Gellner, is also a suggestion to rationalize the culture by attempting to define it through the schools, and this simply cannot be done. Hirsch has taken something more-or-less self evident --- that the function of the school is acculturation --- and turned it into a nearly utopian contention that it is possible to use the schools, not to maintain a culture, but to impose one. The extrinsic goals of Hirsch's program cannot be supported by something which exists for its own sake, in its own way, and because of its intrinsic value. Something
which exists only because of its intrinsic worth simply cannot be reined in, defined according to need, and then used to suit the purposes of the moment, the way a rock'n'roll song can be used in a Reebok commercial.
But why, one might ask, is there any need to talk at all about what cultural elements are going to be taught in the schools? Why has the question come up? Haven't schools always more or less reflected the culture as it is? The answer to this last question is, Yes, schools do reflect the larger culture and currently they are reflecting a culture that Hirsch and his fellows do not find attractive. What Hirsch is suggesting is that we teach the artifacts of another culture in the schools in order to re-define the schools and, ultimately, to re-define the larger culture. This is impossible for
many reasons, not the least of which is that it depends on an epistemology which Frances Fitzgerald refers to as the "monkey-see-monkey-do" version of child psychology, a belief that students "will see only what they are told to see in school" and that they will then act on that as they have been told to.
....all education ought to consist solely of instruction in, or
examples of, how adults think children ought to live. Children
should be shown only correct behavior --- even if this means
concealing much of the world from them and lying about
much of the rest of it. The argument is founded on a firm
belief in the efficacy of "behavior modification." Thus, it is....
an argument that ("behavior modification") should be done,
and done correctly. (Fitzgerald, 1979, pp. 204-205)
Such an epistemology is clearly defective. Children are free agents in many regards, and they bring with them to all the activities of schooling a wide array of opinions, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs, most of which have evolved out of the experiences they have had outside of school. To imagine, as Hirsch does, that an artificially designed curriculum could successfully be imposed on a generation of school children is to deny the reality of the participation of young people in their own vital, dynamic, and self-reflective culture.
Which gets us to the conflict between the culture as it is and the culture Hirsch is wishing for. Hirsch is explicit about the "modern" character of his curriculum; the culture he contends is already common is a "modern" culture; and he is using the term "modern" in a precise and academic way, to refer to a particular set of political, social, and economic phenomena that distinguish modern societies from non-modern societies: liberal politics, rule of law, rationalization of the economy, individualism, innovation, social and economic mobility, etc. When Hirsch is criticized
for being too "Western" or "Euro-centric" or wanting to impose the cultural stuff of Western civilization, it is really his pro-modernism which is being attacked.
The point I wish to make is not that Hirsch's defense of modernism and its Western cultural artifacts is a good thing, or not. My point is that Hirsch's plan is not only instrumentalist, it is also arbitrary, because contemporary American culture, if it can be defined at all, is no longer modern, but post-modern. One author's schematic presentation of some of the differences between modernism and postmodernism helps to illuminate the differences
(Hassan, 1985, pp. 123-124):
interpretation/reading against interpretation/misreading
narrative/grande histoireantinarrative/petite histoire
It goes without saying that school-age
children are not thinking about or discussing the facets of postmodern culture in terms
such as these. But it is also true that school-age children are nearly constant consumers
of the media of contemporary culture: television, popular music, and movies. Postmodern
culture is the soup they swim in, to the point where it might be true that they could no
more describe the tenets of their culture than a tuna could describe "wet." To
envision the imposition of the cultural artifacts of modernism of these citizens of
postmodern times is, to put it mildly, unrealistic.
One commentator on Hirsch, referring specifically to the humanities piece of Western culture, summed up the last 125 years in the following way:
Matthew Arnold tried to make great literature substitute
for a Christianity that had lost its compelling imaginative
force. A generation later, New Humanists were bemoaning
and Modernists celebrating the collapse of the authority
of great literature as well as religion. Since Europe's
suicide in the 1914-1918 Civil War, no appeal to the
marvels of Western culture has been without its large
share of hypocrisy or nostalgia or selfish interest. The
Holocaust compelled honest humanists like George
Steiner to question publicly whether barbarism was
not a logical and inevitable outcome of Western
culture. For most of a century, canonical high culture
has been a live, compelling force for only a tiny
minority of Americans, most of whom made a living
by professing it in one way or another. A sort of
ceremonial exposure to the humanities remains a
part of the national rite of passage in the schools,
largely out of habit and because there was nothing
to replace them. (Hoetker, 1989, p. 322)
This description of what has happened to "high culture" can serve as metaphor for much of the rest of "modern" culture. Part of what Hirsch and others are contending is that this happened due to a failure of will on the part of academe. I would suggest that there is something else at work, something less institutional and more organic, something that has called the most basic premises of "modern" Western culture into question. The same kind of inertia that Hoetker describes with regard to the study of the humanities exists in many of our public and private institutions;
we keep doing the same things, but we're no longer sure why we do them. What Hirsch is suggesting in Cultural Literacy is that we can ignore this huge shift in cultural reality and, through a general act of will, through a rationalization of schools as the primary source of acculturation, assure economic success and restore the good old days of high modernism. This is, at best, wishful thinking; more significantly, it ignores the realities of contemporary culture, most of which are terrifying and which require courageous and clear thinking from people in academics,
politics, institutional religion, and other areas of public life. To suggest that a re-dedication to modernism will make things right is to drastically miss the point.
Conclusion: What I have attempted to demonstrate is that the "cultural literacy" approach is an instrumentalist approach to common-curriculum-building, the goal of which is successful functioning in the material world; that Hirsch's critical devotion to intentionality supports his instrumentalism; and that the intention of imposing the cultural artifacts of modernism on the students of a post-modern culture is arbitrary and impossible.
E.D. Hirsch has tapped into something very powerful in the American psyche with his suggestions for reform of the curriculum through a program of "cultural literacy." Despite opposition from critics on various fronts, and despite various conceptual inconsistencies, Hirsch is an industry. But this response to Hirsch is, I believe, grounded in two things that have little to do with education: nostalgia for a more understandable past and a desire for anything that will
impose order on a progressively more chaotic world. For while Hirsch and like-minded reformers attract attention and support, post-modern culture goes on as if they weren't even there.
Four or five years ago, I walked into a classroom to teach a group of high school seniors. I wrote the following list of terms on the board: atheistic, materialistic, cynical, nihilistic, skeptical, and pessimistic.
I then asked them how they would feel if I called them "a bunch of atheistic, materialistic, cynical, nihilistic, skeptical pessimists"? They all said, with more than a touch of hurt feelings, that they wouldn't like it, it would be "mean." Then I defined the terms for them, being very careful to make the definitions neutral and straightforward, not loaded or skewed: "An atheist is one who believes that there is no God. A materialist is one who believes that there is only
matter, not spirit. A cynic is one who believes that you can determine the cost of anything, but that nothing has any inherent value." And so on.
Possessed of these definitions, they all readily and happily agreed that those terms did indeed describe them.
While these students came from a fairly thin economic slice of American society, in other ways they were representative of a wide variety of types: male and female, very bright to not so bright, thoughtful students to carefree ne'er-do-wells, and a typical Los Angeles diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds. What they shared was a postmodern sensibility, a sensibility that is almost entirely cynical, a sensibility that supports and resonates with "The Simpsons," "Married With Children," "In Living Color," "Saturday Night Live," and the films of the Coen brothers.
And not too far under the surface lies a sense of despair. Real school reform must address that despair, not attempt to impose a set of curricular imperatives that had some genuine connection to popular culture in another day, but not in this one. And real school reform must be a part of a larger effort on behalf of the entire society to define what it is that is common and meaningful, not a manipulative attempt to convince children to attempt to replicate a culture that is
gone, and for purposes that have no intrinsic value to the people involved.
 For a helpful one-volume discussion of this debate, see Herbert Kliebard The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 New York: Routledge (1986)
 See especially Robert M. Hutchins No Friendly Voice Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1936)
 See, for example, "Crisis In Education," Life (March, 1958)
 For an earlier view of "curriculum making" based on the needs of adult life, see Franklin Bobbitt, How To Make a Curriculum Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1924), as well as the studies on which it was based in "Curriculum Re-Examination in Los Angeles," High School Research
Bulletin of the Los Angeles City Schools, Volume II, No. 9 (February 5, 1923), 1; and Franklin Bobbitt, "Continuation of Curriculum Work", High School Research Bulletin of the Los Angeles City Schools, Volume II, No. 13, (April 9, 1923), 1-4.
 The playwright Arthur Miller, in a review in the October, 1991 issue of Premiere, wrote about the Coen brothers' film "Barton Fink" as "....interesting as social commentary, perhaps not entirely intended. It is a reminder that we live with the shards of art forms as exhausted as our
worldwide social aspirations, any semblance of inherited moral worlds having exploded....Artistically, it belongs to a genre of mere chaos....but
it cannot be easily dismissed, since it might reflect the stage at which we have truly arrived --- whether in our rise or our decline."