E. D. Hirsch

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Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr.
E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange Education Lecture (3).jpg
Hirsch in 2015
Born (1928-03-22) March 22, 1928 (age 88)
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Literary critic, educator, and writer

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. (/hɜːrʃ/; born March 22, 1928) is an American educator and academic literary critic. He is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.[1] He is best known for writing Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987),[2] and is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Beginning in 1990s, Hirsch began publishing books in the Core Knowledge Grader Series which the Foundation describes as "an engaging, illustrated guide to the essential knowledge outlined in the Core Knowledge Sequence" [3] including information and activities for teachers, parents and children, as well as suggestions for related readings and resources. There are currently eight books in print, beginning with What Your Preschooler Needs to Know and ending with What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The books have been particularly popular with parents who homeschool, as well as parents whose children attend Core Knowledge schools, and have been revised and updated over the years.

Ed critique[edit]

In 1996, HirschThe Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that Romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are not only the cause of America's lackluster educational performance, but also a cause of widening inequalities in and race. Hirsch portrays American educational theory as one which attempts to give students intellectual tools such as "critical thinking skills", but which denigrates teaching any actual content, labeling it "mere rote learning". Hirsch states that it is this which has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.

A sample passage on Romantic, from The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them:

Romanticism believed that human nature is innately good, and should therefore be encouraged to take its natural course, unspoiled by the artificial imposition prejudice and convention. Second, Romanticism concluded that a child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the adult nor a form piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to develop and run their course.

The Schools We Need included sharp criticism of American schools of education. Hirsch described the contemporary ed. school as a "Thoughtworld," hostile to research-based findings and dissenting ideas.

Recent works[edit]

In 2006 Hirsch published, The Knowledge Deficit, in which he continued the argument made in Cultural Literacy. Disappointing results on reading tests, Hirsch argued, can be traced back to a knowledge deficit that keeps students from making sense of what they read.

His most recent book is The Making of Americans; Democracy and Our Schools (2009), in which he makes the case that the true mission of the schools is to prepare citizens for participation in our democracy by embracing a common-core, knowledge-rich curriculum as opposed to the current content-free approach. He laments 60 years without a curriculum in US schools because of the anti-curriculum approach championed by John Dewey and other Progressives.

Core Knowledge in the UK[edit]

In 2011 a British version of The Core Knowledge Sequence was published online[4] and the books began to be adapted for the UK, beginning with What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know.[5]

Influence in US education[edit]

While Hirsch's views continue to provoke debate and controversy, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on education reform, wrote in 2013 that Hirsch was "the most important education reformer of the past half-century."[6]

Core Knowledge schools in the US[edit]

The Core Knowledge Foundation reports that there were 1,260 schools in the US (across 46 states and District of Columbia) using all or part of the Core Knowledge Sequence.[7] The Foundation believes that the actual number is much higher, but only counts schools that submit a "profile form" to the Foundation annually.[7] The profile of Core Knowledge Schools in the US is diverse—including public, charter, private and parochial schools in urban, suburban and rural locations.

Independent nonprofit GreatSchools.org reports that more than 400 of these schools are preschools.[8]

Common Core standards in the US[edit]

While he was not directly involved in developing the Common Core State Standards adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, many education watchers credit E.D. Hirsch as having provided the "intellectual foundation" for the initiative.[6][9][10]



While the Core Knowledge Foundation in the US describes itself as non-partisan,[11] Hirsch himself is an avowed Democrat who has described himself as "practically a socialist"[9] and "a man of the Left, the Old Left".[12] Over the years, he has expressed deep sympathy for underprivileged minority youths and has stated that he specifically designed a curriculum to "place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights."[13]

In The Making of Americans (2010), Hirsch explained his position as both a "political liberal" and "an educational conservative":

I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an educational conservative.... Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.[12]

Proponents and critics[edit]

Ironically, since "Cultural Literacy" was first published in The American Scholar in 1983, Hirsch has often been embraced by political conservatives and attacked by liberals and progressives. William Bennett, a prominent conservative who served as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later US Secretary of Education, was an early proponent of Hirsch's views.[14]

Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, has been a long-time critic of Hirsch. Gardner described one of his own books, The Disciplined Mind (1999), as part of a "sustained dialectic" with E.D. Hirsch, and criticized Hirsch's curriculum as "at best superficial and at worst anti-intellectual".[15] In 2007, Gardner accused Hirsch of having "swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education."[16]

While acknowledging that criticism and debate "have been very good for business,"[13] Hirsch has openly expressed his frustration with ongoing accusations of intellectual elitism and racism. Regarding the frequent comparisons of Hirsch's Cultural Literacy to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind which was published around the same time, Hirsch has stated: "That was just bad luck...Allan Bloom really was an elitist."[9]

In reality, critics of Hirsch come from both progressive and conservative circles.[17] As Jason R. Edwards explains:

Opponents from the political left generally accuse Hirsch of elitism. Worse yet in their minds, Hirsch's assertion might lead to a rejection of toleration, pluralism, and relativism. On the political right, Hirsch has been assailed as totalitarian, for his idea lends itself to turning over curriculum selection to federal authorities and thereby eliminating the time-honored American tradition of locally controlled schools.[18]

Influence in the UK[edit]

In the UK, the Core Knowledge books are published by Civitas, which is widely characterised in the national news media as a "right-of-centre",[19][20] "right-leaning"[17][21] or "right-wing thinktank."[22]

Former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove publicly expressed his admiration for E.D. Hirsch as early as 2009,[23] and education watchers have suggested that the revised national curriculum first proposed by Gove in 2011 was heavily influenced by E.D. Hirsch.[23][24]

Fellowships, awards and memberships[edit]

Hirsch has been awarded several fellowships and honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship (1955), the Morse Fellowship (1960), the Guggenheim Fellowship (1964), the Explicator Prize (1965), the NEA Fellowship (1970), the NEH Senior Fellowship (1971-71), the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities Fellowship (1973), the Princeton University Fellowship in the Humanities (1977), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship at Stanford University (1980–81).

At University of Virginia he was Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English Emeritus, in addition to Professor of Education and Humanities.[25]

He has received honorary degrees from Rhodes College and Williams College.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.




  1. ^ E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  2. ^ E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Encyclopædia Britannica, 9 March 2013, retrieved 2 February 2015 
  3. ^ What Your __ Grader Needs to Know, Core Knowledge Foundation, retrieved February 6, 2015 
  4. ^ The UK Core Knowledge Sequence
  5. ^ The official partnership in the UK
  6. ^ a b Stern, Sol (December 6, 2013), "The Redemption of E.D. Hirsch", City Journal 
  7. ^ a b Learn About Core Knowledge Schools, Core Knowledge Foundation, retrieved February 3, 2015 
  8. ^ Jacobson, Linda, Core Knowledge Schools, GreatSchools.org, retrieved February 3, 2015 
  9. ^ a b c Tyre, Peg (September 2014), "'I've Been a Pariah for So Long'", Politico Magazine, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  10. ^ Pondiscio, Robert (September 4, 2014), "Connecting the dots: E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Common Core", Common Core Watch Blog, retrieved February 7, 2015 
  11. ^ Who We Are, Core Knowledge, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  12. ^ a b Moore, Terrence O. (June 21, 2010), "The Making of an Educational Conservative", Claremont Review of Books, X (2) 
  13. ^ a b Bowler, Mike (December 28, 1999), "Knowledge, front and center - Curriculum: An English professor's vision has produced educated children -- and an education controversy lasting two decades", The Baltimore Sun, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  14. ^ Stern, Sol (Autumn 2009), "E.D. Hirsch's Curriculum for Democracy: A content-rich pedagogy makes better citizens and smarter kids", City Journal, 19 (4) 
  15. ^ Traub, James (May 9, 1999), "Beyond the Three R's: Howard Gardner defends his 'multiple intelligence' movement", The Times Magazine, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  16. ^ Reviewing The Knowledge Deficit, Education Sector at American Institutes for Research, April 4, 2007, retrieved February 2, 2015 
  17. ^ a b Ward, Helen (22 October 2010), "Controversial US 'core knowledge' textbooks brought to UK schools", TES Newspaper, retrieved 2 February 2015 
  18. ^ Dr. Jason R. Edwards, "E.D. Hirsch Jr.: The Twentieth Century's Liberal Conservative Educator," The Center for Vision & Values (2009) online
  19. ^ "Gove allies say 'Sixties-mired' Ofsted should be scrapped". The Times. London. 24 January 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2014. 
  20. ^ Philip Johnston (7 April 2014). "A close encounter with the property boom". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 13 April 2014. 
  21. ^ Curtis, Polly (17 November 2008), "Social learning schools threatened by Ofsted, critics say", The Guardian, retrieved 2 February 2015 
  22. ^ Prynne, Miranda (26 January 2014), "Ofsted chief 'spitting blood' over right-wing attacks", The Telegraph 
  23. ^ a b Abrams, Fran (15 October 2012), "US idea of 'cultural literacy' and key facts a child should know arrives in UK", The Guardian, retrieved 2 February 2015 
  24. ^ Abrams, Fran (25 October 2012), "Cultural literacy: Michael Gove's school of hard facts", BBC News, retrieved 2 February 2015 
  25. ^ "Off the Shelf: E.D. Hirsch" (Press release). University of Virginia. November 3, 2009. Retrieved February 6, 2015. 

External links[edit]