It’s the time of the year when children’s smiles begin to look a little pinched. You can feel it when you walk through any school-supplies store. While the colored pencils and lunchboxes on display evoke memories of “the good times,” they also spark memories of all that filler work, the spelling and grammar exercises, multiplication tables and the dates of the Revolutionary War.
It’s also the time when parents think about what their children will study. We used to know the subjects assigned to the various grades, but common core subjects with common values were abandoned long ago, replaced by progressive theories and the dumbing down of actual information. The emphasis was on methodology and social-activist doctrine, even in the lower grades. We continue to suffer for it.
America has never had an official national curriculum, but as education critic E.D. Hirsch Jr. observes in his newest book, “The Making of Americans,” “a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks [ensured] that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths, and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans.” No more. A hodgepodge curriculum and splintered knowledge mark a decline in academic achievement as compared to other countries.
Hence, a reform movement is burgeoning in reaction to many of the changes of the past half-century. Although results are mixed, some are promising and deserve attention. New York City, with a million students in 1,700 schools, for example, became a focus for reform, with instructive lessons for the rest of the country.
After a child-centered focus was described as letting each child find his natural path for reading, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor at the time, Joel Klein, looked at the dismal reading scores of children in the lower grades and reread Mr. Hirsch’s criticism and creative ideas. In 2008, they tested the scholar’s early-childhood-literacy program in the real-life laboratory of 10 elementary schools.
Mr. Hirsch had said that higher reading levels could be achieved when an emphasis was put on the content of old-fashioned subjects such as history, geography and science as much as the mechanics of learning. It was something like rediscovering the wheel, but the wheel was soon rolled up the hill, getting positive results along the way.
After a year, schools with the new curriculum achieved reading scores five times greater than schools with the old curriculum. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute writes in City magazine that after three years, the results continue to be encouraging. It was time for other schools to take a look. The Hirsch diagnosis could be summed up with a paraphrase of a familiar political campaign slogan: “It’s the curriculum, stupid.” Mr. Hirsch emphasizes that specific shared-content knowledge for each grade should be required. He thinks the reform should start in the lower grades and work its way up.
Education reform is as complex as health care reform, but it’s not exactly a dominantissue for current political campaigns. Despite the good intentions of No Child Left Behind, legislation written in the George W. Bush administration, teachers who “taught to the test” narrowed the scope of study. The latest trend is “digital learning,” through which children work at their own pace on computers. It has technological value for the 21st century, but its emphasis on isolated computer teaching gives short shrift to the common cultural knowledge that once was the baseline for educating a child.
I find few high school seniors today who have read the old staples, such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or the essays of Emerson, such as “Self Reliance.” They’re unlikely to understand the metaphorical use of an “albatross” around the neck for terms like the deficit, or even the idea of Social Security. When a politician’s change of opinion is called a “flip-flop,” few will understand Emerson’s aphorism that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
It’s been almost 30 years since Mr. Hirsch wrote the best-selling book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” emphasizing the importance of the study of common documents, literary, historical and scientific, that cut across generations, ethnic groups, the privileged and the poor. It was written before the spread of the Internet, Facebook and Google, and the fragmentation of information only makes such core knowledge more crucial.
We risk becoming like those exiled adults in “Fahrenheit 451,” the science-fiction novel by Ray Bradbury describing how a few people memorized the great books for safekeeping in a world that burns books. We don’t burn books, but neither do we concern ourselves with the knowledge we hold in common. That’s too bad. You might say it’s another albatross we must bear. (Say what?)
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.