E. D. Hirsch

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E. D. Hirsch
E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange Education Lecture (3).jpg
Hirsch in 2015
Eric Donald Hirsch Jr.

(1928-03-22) March 22, 1928 (age 92)
Known forFounding the Core Knowledge Foundation
Mary Pope
m. 1958)
Academic background
Alma mater
InfluencesAntonio Gramsci
Academic work
  • Education
  • English
Notable works
  • Validity in Interpretation (1967)
  • Cultural Literacy (1987)
Notable ideasCultural literacy

Eric Donald Hirsch Jr.[a] (born 1928), usually cited as E. D. Hirsch, is an American educator and academic literary critic. He is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.[1] In the 1960s Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation made an important contribution to contemporary literary theory and established him as "the founder of contemporary intentionalism,"[2] defending the notion of objectivity in humanistic studies and distinguishing between the "meaning" of a text, which relates to understanding and does not change, and its "significance", which relates to explanation and changes over time. In popular culture Hirsch is best known for his work on cultural literacy,[3] 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",[4] 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.

Early life[edit]

Hirsch was born on March 22, 1928, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Critique of the education system[edit]

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

This is a sample passage on Romanticism 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 of prejudice and convention. Second, Romanticism concluded that a child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the adult nor a formless piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy – indeed holy – 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 school as a "Thoughtworld" that is 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.

In 2009, he published The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, 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 what Hirsch claims to be 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.

In 2016, he published "Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories", outlining the three major problems with education in the United States: the emphasis on teaching skills, such as critical thinking skills, rather than knowledge, individualism rather than communal learning, and developmentalism, that is, teaching children what is "appropriate" for their age.

Core Knowledge in the UK[edit]

In 2011 a British version of The Core Knowledge Sequence was published online[5] and the books began to be adapted for the UK, beginning with What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know.[6]

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."[7]

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.[8] The Foundation believes that the actual number is much higher, but only counts schools that submit a "profile form" to the Foundation annually.[8] 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.[9]

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.[7][10][11]



While the Core Knowledge Foundation in the US describes itself as non-partisan,[12] Hirsch himself is an avowed Democrat who has described himself as "practically a socialist"[10] and "a man of the Left, the Old Left".[13] 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."[14]

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.[13]

Proponents and critics[edit]

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.[15]

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".[16] In 2007, Gardner accused Hirsch of having "swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education."[17]

While acknowledging that criticism and debate "have been very good for business,"[14] 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."[10]

In reality, critics of Hirsch come from both progressive and conservative circles.[18] 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.[19]

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",[20][21] "right-leaning"[18][22] or "right-wing thinktank."[23]

Former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove publicly expressed his admiration for E. D. Hirsch as early as 2009,[24] and education watchers have suggested that the revised national curriculum first proposed by Gove in 2011 was heavily influenced by Hirsch.[24][25]

Influence in other countries[edit]


E. D. Hirsch was invited to Portugal in 2004 by the then minister of education David Justino [fr; pl; pt] and later participated at a conference organized by Nuno Crato. On the occasion, he was interviewed by various media. His points of view were part of the public educational debate developed for a few years after his visit. Later, his ideas were very influential, namely during the tenure of minister Nuno Crato (2011–2015) in which the curricula were reorganized and standards ("metas curriculares") were introduced. These standards explicitly highlight the essential knowledge students should master and were built in a progressive, systematic, and layered fashion inspired by Hirsch's ideas. Various analysts[26] attribute to these rigorous and demanding standards, among other factors, the notable 2015 improvement in Portuguese student results in PISA[27] and TIMSS[28] international studies.

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 the University of Virginia he was Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English Emeritus, in addition to Professor of Education and Humanities.[29]

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.


  • Wordsworth and Schelling (1960)
  • Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (1964)
  • Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1967) JSTOR j.ctt32bd9k
  • The Aims of Interpretation (1976)
  • The Philosophy of Composition (1977)
  • Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)
  • The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988)
  • The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them (1996)
  • The Validity of Allegory in Convegno internazionale sul tema ermeneutica e critica (1996)
  • The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil (2002)
  • The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006)
  • The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (2010)
  • Why Knowledge Matters (2016)


  • The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn
  • Critical Literacy by Eugene Provenzo Jr.
  • Literacies of Power by Donoldo Macedo.
  • Kaufer, David S. (Winter 1989). "Cultural Literacy: A Critique of Hirsch and an Alternative Theory". ADE Bulletin. Archived from the original on 2001-05-26. Retrieved 2006-09-21.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pronounced /hɜːrʃ/.


  1. ^ E.D. Hirsch Jr., Core Knowledge, retrieved February 2, 2015
  2. ^ Søren Harnow Klausen, "Levels of Literary Meaning," Philosophy and Literature, vol. 41, no. 1 (April 2017), p. 71).
  3. ^ E.D. Hirsch Jr., Encyclopædia Britannica, 9 March 2013, retrieved 2 February 2015
  4. ^ What Your __ Grader Needs to Know, Core Knowledge Foundation, retrieved February 6, 2015
  5. ^ The UK Core Knowledge Sequence
  6. ^ The official partnership in the UK
  7. ^ a b Stern, Sol (December 6, 2013), "The Redemption of E.D. Hirsch", City Journal
  8. ^ a b Learn About Core Knowledge Schools, Core Knowledge Foundation, retrieved February 3, 2015
  9. ^ Jacobson, Linda, Core Knowledge Schools, GreatSchools.org, retrieved February 3, 2015
  10. ^ a b c Tyre, Peg (September 2014), "'I've Been a Pariah for So Long'", Politico Magazine, retrieved February 2, 2015
  11. ^ Pondiscio, Robert (September 4, 2014), "Connecting the dots: E. D. Hirsch Jr., and Common Core", Common Core Watch Blog, retrieved February 7, 2015
  12. ^ Who We Are, Core Knowledge, retrieved February 2, 2015
  13. ^ a b Moore, Terrence O. (June 21, 2010), "The Making of an Educational Conservative", Claremont Review of Books, X (2)
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ 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)
  16. ^ Traub, James (May 9, 1999), "Beyond the Three R's: Howard Gardner defends his 'multiple intelligence' movement", The Times Magazine, retrieved February 2, 2015
  17. ^ Reviewing The Knowledge Deficit, Education Sector at American Institutes for Research, April 4, 2007, archived from the original on June 27, 2015, retrieved February 2, 2015
  18. ^ a b Ward, Helen (22 October 2010), "Controversial US 'core knowledge' textbooks brought to UK schools", TES Newspaper, retrieved 2 February 2015
  19. ^ Jason R. Edwards, "E.D. Hirsch Jr.: The Twentieth Century's Liberal Conservative Educator", The Center for Vision & Values (2009) online
  20. ^ "Gove allies say 'Sixties-mired' Ofsted should be scrapped". The Times. London. 24 January 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  21. ^ Philip Johnston (7 April 2014). "A close encounter with the property boom". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  22. ^ Curtis, Polly (17 November 2008), "Social learning schools threatened by Ofsted, critics say", The Guardian, retrieved 2 February 2015
  23. ^ Prynne, Miranda (26 January 2014), "Ofsted chief 'spitting blood' over right-wing attacks", The Telegraph
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Abrams, Fran (25 October 2012), "Cultural literacy: Michael Gove's school of hard facts", BBC News, retrieved 2 February 2015
  26. ^ ""What the world can learn from the latest PISA test results"". The Economist. 2016-12-10.
  27. ^ "PISA".
  28. ^ "Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study".
  29. ^ "Off the Shelf: E.D. Hirsch" (Press release). University of Virginia. November 3, 2009. Retrieved February 6, 2015.

External links[edit]