Encountering cultural literacy
It took me much longer to get round to reading E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987) than it should have done, considering its seminal status in curricular thought. I was reluctant at first because of Hirsch’s less than positive reputation within the teaching profession (e.g. Sloan, 2017) and I think there was part of me which did not want to find out whether I agreed with him. I felt pretty confident that I understood Hirsch’s main arguments, having read what others had written about them, but this is never a sensible position to take, and reading the book in the end proved to be an interesting and useful experience. This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of Hirsch, but an attempt to reconcile his views with my existing ideas about curriculum, with particular reference to my own subject, which is history.
For the benefit of anyone who is unfamiliar with Hirsch, I will attempt a brief summary as objectively as I can (skip this paragraph if you have read the book). He is a specialist in English who pursued a distinguished career in American universities, writing for a popular, as well as an academic, audience. His use of the term ‘cultural literacy’ refers to ‘the network of information that all competent readers possess’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.2). He has grave concerns that standards in this field are declining amongst his fellow Americans, and he lays much of the blame for this at the door of schools, which are ‘dominated by the content-neutral ideas of Rousseau and Dewey’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.19) and have consequently ‘failed to fulfil their fundamental acculturative responsibility’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.18). His remedy is for schools to teach explicitly ‘the information, attitudes and assumptions that literate Americans share’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.127) and to support teachers in this goal, he provides the most famous (and controversial) aspect of his book, which is a detailed list of ‘what literate Americans know’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.146), comprising over 60 pages of names, events, concepts and aphorisms including, purely from the letter Q, quasars, Quisling, quixotic and quod erat demonstrandum.
There is a huge amount which I agree with in Hirsch. I fully support his call for schools to pay much more attention to what they teach than they have tended to do in the recent past, to expose young people to knowledge which takes them beyond their everyday experience and to select content on the basis of more than merely its perceived utility in the job market. I have read enough cognitive science to appreciate the necessity of a secure and accessible store of knowledge in long-term memory in the development of reading and in order to support critical thinking, and regard Hirsch’s emphasis on the schema (1987, pp.51-69) as entirely unsurprising and uncontroversial.
But there are things which make me uneasy about Hirsch’s argument. For example, his historical account of the development of national cultures in general, and the American one in particular, seems to lack rigorous justification (Hirsch, 1987, pp.82-93), while his assertion that a single, national, literate culture can be objectively itemised with relative ease (Hirsch, 1987, pp.134-139) is something which I think would benefit from more forensic investigation. But while these issues may be up for debate, the really nagging question in my mind, which was implicit before reading the book, and in plain view after doing so, is about how to safeguard the truth if we accept a Hirschian framework for curriculum planning.
Is national culture truthful?
I am not for one moment suggesting that Hirsch himself does not care about the truth, or that his supporters advocate lying to the children we teach, but I do think we face a possible conflict if we accept ‘national literate culture’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.18) as authoritative when we decide what should be on the curriculum. To put the issue bluntly, what if something is important in national culture but untrue? Of course, truth can be a slippery concept, but to avoid a philosophical diversion for which I am ill-qualified, I am thinking of a claim which is not supported by the best standards of scholarship in the field in question.
In case I should be accused of scaremongering about an issue unlikely to actually arise, a couple of examples from my own subject should make it clear that this problem is only too real. There are few historical narratives which loom larger in our own national culture than Britain’s role in World War Two. When the conflict is mentioned, like millions of my compatriots, I cannot help but instinctively think of brave young men rushing to their Spitfires and Hurricanes, uniformed women doing their bit by pushing markers around maps with rods, defiant cockneys remaining bloody-minded in the face of death raining from the sky, crossword-solving geniuses working miracles in huts to prove that brains beat brawn, and seasick soldiers reversing William the Conqueror’s centuries-old journey to splash through the surf and restore liberty to occupied Europe. Of course, these events did happen, so they are not falsehoods, but no serious historian would suggest that they add up to a balanced account of the war. Nonetheless, the prevalence of this version of events may be responsible for the tendency of British people to give a significantly higher rating to their own country’s contribution to the defeat of Germany than other nationalities do (Jordan, 2015). Again, to say it is false to claim that Britain played the largest role would be to misunderstand historical argument, but it is debatable at the very least. In the light of this, should the Hirschian curriculum planner be guided by the narrative which is undoubtedly part of the national culture, or by a more balanced, rigorous analysis of the war?
Arguably a more serious example arises in the cases of slavery and imperialism. The official, Home Office-endorsed handbook for the purpose of preparing prospective British citizens to sit the ‘Life in the UK Test’, is presumably designed to encapsulate British literate culture, and certainly claims to provide the reader with ‘a broad general knowledge of the culture, laws and history of the UK’ (TSO, 2013, p.7). It includes, as one would expect in such a work, accounts of Britain’s role in the slave trade and of the British Empire and decolonisation. However, 181 historians have gone further than merely claiming that it presents a skewed interpretation, and have denounced the handbook as ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’ (Historical Association, 2020) in its treatment of these issues. The handbook is not designed for use in schools, but it illustrates the problem with which I am concerned. I am not accusing the author(s) of the handbook of being deliberately untruthful about the past, but I do think that misrepresentation of these themes is a likely outcome when British culture is seen as the ultimate arbiter of what should be taught. This is not because I think culture in Britain is intrinsically more nationalistic than culture anywhere else, but simply because accuracy and rigour are not part of a national culture’s job description. I claim that this example is more serious than my previous one about the Second World War for two reasons: firstly that outright falsehood is a graver allegation than mere bias, and secondly because recent events have amply demonstrated that the meaning which British people make of their slave-trading and colonial past has significant repercussions for contemporary society.
A truthful curriculum?
I hope that my examples have demonstrated that there is a legitimate concern about the truthfulness of a curriculum which draws its inspiration from national culture. It is not that I think being true is enough on its own to qualify knowledge for a place on the curriculum, but I do think that we should rule out teaching untruths. Am I being naïve, however, to expect any curriculum to be truthful, as opposed to merely a representation of the preferences and prejudices of its creators? I do not think so, and I certainly hope not. I am not denying the social origins of knowledge, but I am persuaded by the argument that knowledge is ‘not only social but also real… in the sense of possessing properties, powers and tendencies that have effects’ (Maton, 2014, pp.9-10). One of the implications of this is that some knowledge is of greater value than other knowledge in making meaning of the world, rather than just being successful in it. As such, our work in planning the curriculum deserves to be taken seriously enough to try to identify the most valuable knowledge and to transmit it accurately.
Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young and Lambert, 2014, pp.72-78) represents this line of thinking, and he provides a mechanism designed to safeguard the truthfulness of the curriculum in the form of the alignment of school subjects with academic disciplines, as the fields where the most reliable knowledge available is produced (Young and Lambert, 2014, pp.65-66). There is much that Young leaves open to question and dispute about this process, such as the definition of a discipline, the means by which recontextualisation occurs and whether his model works equally well for all subjects. However, in spite of the problems, it reassures me that what I regard as perhaps the most fundamental issue in educating young people is taken into consideration by Young, and I remember feeling instinctively drawn towards his ideas when I first read about them. I had a much more ambivalent reaction towards Hirsch’s proposals, and I think my concern about truthfulness is the main reason why this was the case. For me, if a curriculum is anything it is a voyage undertaken by inexperienced truth seekers, guided by those who have spent longer on the quest and developed much more familiarity with the waters and lands encountered, but who have not completed their own voyage. Truth can be troublesome and iconoclastic, frequently does not conform to expectations, refuses to respect national or any other orthodoxies, and whose clarion call has the power to bring our preconceptions crashing down like the walls of Jericho. It’s what I go to school for.
Extensive and intensive curricula
To the best of my recollection, Hirsch does not address explicitly how he would safeguard the truthfulness of a curriculum based on national culture in Cultural Literacy, although he might elsewhere in books which I have not read. He does, however, hint at one possibility. He puts forward the idea of the curriculum ‘as consisting of two complementary parts, which might be called the extensive curriculum and the intensive curriculum’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.127). The extensive curriculum consists of ‘traditional literate knowledge, the information, attitudes and assumptions that literate Americans share’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.127) and it is this part of the curriculum to which he devotes almost all of his attention. He envisages the intensive curriculum going into more depth in subjects selected by a (presumably older) student for further study and developing ‘a fully developed understanding of a subject, making one’s knowledge of it integrated and coherent’ (Hirsch, 1987, p.128). He does not go into detail about how content might be determined for the latter part of a student’s education, but I would imagine it would draw its inspiration from academic disciplines in a similar way to the process Young describes, addressing the degree to which we can be certain of what is taught, and involving a thorough initiation into the means by which claims are established and challenged within the field. This would resolve my concerns about truthfulness for the subjects studied as part of the intensive curriculum.
The problem remains, however, for the extensive curriculum, which Hirsch regards as the entitlement of every student across all fields of study. One response with superficial appeal would be to draw a distinction between the earlier years of education (approximating to primary schooling in a British context, perhaps with an element of Key Stage 3) and those which come later. Hirsch is clearly most concerned about the former, and it could be suggested that they are the proper territory for the extensive curriculum, which should give students a common framework of knowledge but not burden them with unnecessary uncertainty over how we know and even whether we know for sure. All the disciplinary nuance and uncertainty can be safely left until later, by which time it is to be hoped that the young person will be sufficiently intellectually mature to cope with the increased demands.
To illustrate the inadequacy of this solution, I will return to my own subject. I would contend that it simply is not possible to separate history into extensive and intensive branches of the curriculum. To teach history in any meaningful way involves disciplinary knowledge, by which I mean ‘that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth’ (Counsell, 2018). Of course, this must be appropriately tailored to the age of the students being taught, but I cannot claim to be teaching history if I simply isolate certain information about the past, based on national culture, and ring-fence it as inert material which students simply need to know, with no consideration given to the status of that knowledge, the questions it is designed to answer and the distinction between what we are certain of and what is open to dispute. To take a common example from primary history, if students are to learn about Britain under the Roman Empire, a selection of material might well be made to answer the question of why the Romans brought Britain under their rule. The enquiry and the content have been chosen and a range of answers are valid, whether or not the teacher makes this clear to the students, and to give the impression that these things are revealed and indisputable truths is to fail to do justice to history. As part of the enquiry, students might well look at ancient Roman descriptions of Britain, and once again it would be dishonest to deny the difficulty of reconstructing the mental world of people who lived many centuries ago based on fragmentary evidence from a tiny segment of society. To be open about these things and to support students in taking the first steps of a wonderful journey under the skin of history is a hallmark of the authentic teaching of the subject, as opposed to transmitting approved facts about the past, and our adherence to them with any age group is part of our duty to teach truthfully.
As an aside, it will be obvious to any reader that I think and write as a history teacher. What is less clear to me is whether the curriculum can be truthful in the same way at an early stage in maths and the sciences. I know that it is necessary to teach a lot of simplifications in these subjects in order to lay the building blocks for later study, at which point things turn out to be not quite what they seemed. Whether these simplifications count as truthful or not would be a matter for subject specialists rather than for me, but I think I can satisfy myself that any divergences from a completely accurate account take place in the interests of developing the best possible understanding of the subject, and therefore in the service of an ultimately truthful curriculum. Perhaps my reasoning on this point is no better than sophistry, but whether this is the case or not, I am confident that few people would dispute my argument that national culture does not provide a valid reason to teach incorrect maths or science.
Incorporating cultural literacy
To return to my thread, truthfulness is both possible and non-negotiable at all stages of the history curriculum, and in other subjects too if my argument above is sound. However, I do accept Hirsch’s contention that a common framework of meaning is important if we are to develop literate citizens, and that it makes sense to base this on the culture of the country in which the education is taking place and of which its recipients are likely to become citizens. I am instinctively suspicious of conformity as an educational aim, so this is a position which has not come naturally to me, but I think we owe it to our students, not least because they need to have a good knowledge of national literate culture in order to be able to critique it intelligently. I do not think it needs to conflict with education for individual flourishing and fulfilment. As Robinson (2018) argues, ‘we find out who we are and what our passions might be in dialogue with the wider society in which we find ourselves.’ There is nothing necessarily stifling or restrictive about providing our students with knowledge of society’s shared cultural landmarks.
So can I reconcile my acceptance of Hirsch’s central argument with my unwillingness to compromise on the truthfulness of the curriculum? I think I can, and I would pick out three strands of my attempt to do so, which I set out below.
1: Truthfulness comes first.
In the event of a conflict between national culture and a truthful approach to educating students, like those I have outlined above, there is no doubt in my mind that the claims of truthfulness should trump the claims of acculturation. Even for the sake of social cohesion, I would not feel comfortable teaching students untruths, and I think a conscious decision to do so would put us on a very slippery slope and undermine the integrity of the education we are trying to provide. I doubt that many people would disagree with me about this in principle, but turning it into practice is far more challenging. For the most reliable guide to truthfulness, I would look, as Young does, to the academic disciplines and the consensus of most experts in the relevant field, with immersion for students in disciplinary knowledge and a healthy dose of honesty on our part when certainty simply does not exist. I realise that this process will work better in some cases than in others and requires much more detailed attention, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
2: National culture is not enough.
I accept Hirsch’s argument that national literate culture is necessary for the education of the citizens of tomorrow, but I do not think it is sufficient. We have a responsibility to teach the whole truth (as far as we can) as well as nothing but the truth. In history we have suffered for years from very narrow curricula, focussed mostly on Britain (or even England), with the only gestures to anything else being some forays into areas like the crusades, imperialism, the world wars and 20th century dictatorships, viewed to a large extent through a British lens. Such a curriculum does not reflect the vibrancy of the historical discipline or even adequately represent Britain’s own past and status as part of an inter-connected world. As I acknowledge above, Hirsch (1987, p.127) accepts that education needs to go beyond merely national culture, but I have explained my dissatisfaction with his argument that this element of education can be safely left until certain subjects are selected in the later years of compulsory schooling. Even as a history specialist, I am painfully aware of the yawning gaps in my own knowledge of the past, such as most Chinese history, and these gaps must be far greater for a young person who discontinues the subject at the end of Key Stage 3. For me, a curriculum which has the breadth and rigour to communicate history truthfully must introduce students to the wider world beyond British culture, and should do so from the outset. The major challenge in enacting this vision is time, especially in a subject like history, which is likely to suffer in comparison with English, maths and science when it comes to timetabling priorities. I am heartened, however, by a growing awareness of the need for a representative curriculum within much of the history teaching community’s recent discourse.
3: A curriculum is much more than items on a list.
It is important to note, but not always recognised, that Hirsch was not attempting to write a curriculum. He is explicit about this, arguing that a collection of content should be curated centrally (i.e. his list), but that it should be a local responsibility to carry out the considerable task of developing so that it can be taught in schools (Hirsch, 1987, p.139). To me, this point is crucial: Hirsch was identifying things which he thought all young people should learn about, but not exactly what they should learn about them. This distinction has a particular importance for history, with its strong tradition of enquiry and disciplinary knowledge, meaning that the same bit of substantive knowledge can look very different from one curriculum to another. To illustrate with an example, Magna Carta is one of many historical items on Hirsch’s list, and a useful one for my purposes, since it would almost certainly also appear on an equivalent British list. He says nothing about what students should learn about Magna Carta, although it seems reasonable to assume that it would include a basic knowledge of what it was and when it was introduced. We are not told whether young people should learn about the struggle which led to its introduction, its impact on the English medieval monarchy and other systems of government, the way it has been regarded within the Whig tradition of British history, or perhaps the language of the document itself and what it reveals about medieval understandings of kingship and governance. History teachers will recognise that each of these suggestions could form valid enquiries, focussing on causation, consequence, interpretations and historical perspective respectively. Each option would be a respectable choice for a department wishing to teach history truthfully in line with disciplinary traditions, with the decision probably depending to a large extent on the rest of the curriculum. This is where Hirsch’s list only provides a starting point and an obsession with the items on it can become a distracting side-show. They are merely a truckload of bricks, which the discerning curriculum planner needs to incorporate into a grand design, supplement with other materials, cement together in thoughtful ways and build into a functioning and hopefully beautiful edifice. The end result should be a rigorous, coherent and representative curriculum, which enables students to take up their role as informed citizens and initiates them into the traditions of history’s (or any other subject’s) quest for truth. These two aims are inseparable in my view, since truth-seeking is one of the most important responsibilities of a citizen.
In conclusion, therefore, I think I can have my truthful cake and eat my cultural literacy, or something like that. I don’t think doing so is easy, but it is certainly enjoyable and I like to think it is quite important too.
Counsell, C., (2018). Taking Curriculum Seriously. Impact. 4, pp.6-9. Also available from: https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/.
Hirsch, E.D., (1987). Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books.
Historical Association, (2020). Historians call for a review of Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test [online]. Historical Association [accessed 11 August 2020]. Available from: https://historyjournal.org.uk/2020/07/21/historians-call-for-a-review-of-home-office-citizenship-and-settlement-test/.
Jordan, W., (2015). People in Britain and the US disagree on who did more to beat the Nazis [online]. YouGov [accessed 11 August 2020]. Available from: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2015/05/01/Britain-America-disagree-who-did-more-beat-nazis.
Maton, K., (2014). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a Realist Sociology of Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Robinson, M., (2018). Curriculum: An offer of what the best might be. Impact. 4, pp.13-15. Also available from: https://impact.chartered.college/article/curriculum-an-offer-of-what-the-best-might-be/.
Sloan, G., (2017). Curriculum: The influence of E.D. Hirsch [online]. SecEd [accessed 11 August 2020]. Available from: https://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/curriculum-the-influence-of-ed-hirsch/.
TSO, (2013). Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. Norwich: TSO.
Young, M., and Lambert, D., (2014). Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Image found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ksagphotos/49984347227 and labelled as available for noncommercial reuse.