Progressive Education Hurts Poor Kids: E.D. Hirsch’s “Wealth of Words”

Progressive Education hurts poor kids.  For those familiar with E.D. Hirsch’s work over the past twenty-five years, that argument won’t sound new.

In a recent piece in the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Professor Hirsch lays out his case for why progressive attitudes and policy toward vocabulary education inflicts the most damage on those it claims to help: students from families with fewer resources.

Hirsch, a literary critic and scholar, first came to fame with his 1987 book Cultural Literacy.  The book and Hirsch shared a public career somewhat similar to Allan Bloom and his Closing of the American Mind.  Though both authors identified as politically and culturally liberal, their books became favorites of cultural conservatives.  Like Bloom, Hirsch claimed that American education had “progressed” in woefully misguided directions.

In brief, Hirsch argued that every American ought to master a certain core of cultural knowledge.  Critics charged Hirsch of elitism and even bigotry.  Insisting on an exclusive body of important cultural knowledge, critics insisted, blocked out too many vital cultural voices, voices that had not made the canon but that represented authentic elements of the real American experience.

In Hirsch’s new essay, “A Wealth of Words,” he argues that the best way to improve life chances for all Americans is to insist on a rigorous and systematic curriculum of vocabulary improvement.  In a nutshell, here is the argument:

1.) College degrees represent the best single path to economic well-being.

2.) The verbal section of the SAT college-entrance exam is largely a vocabulary test.

3.) Therefore, to bring people out of poverty, we need to improve vocabulary education.

Most interesting to ILYBYGTH readers will be Hirsch’s idiosyncratic combination of an attack on “progressive education” with a progressive-sounding prescription for improved schooling.

Like nearly every conservative educational activist of the past fifty years, Hirsch takes progressive education to task for dumbing-down American education.  As I’ve argued in an essay in Teachers College Record, a variety of leading conservative educational activists—with very different ideas about education—all agreed that America’s educational system had been hijacked by progressivism.

In Hirsch’s telling, this progressive coup took place roughly one hundred years ago.  This “well-meant but inadequate” progressivism, according to Hirsch, included the following poison pills:

“optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience.” 

Once these “progressive educational theories” took over school publishing and teaching, vocabulary education suffered bitterly, Hirsch argues.  In response, Hirsch calls for “an intellectual revolution . . . to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s.”  Most important, Hirsch believes, is the need to overcome the notion that schools should not teach factual knowledge.  For a century, the “progressive” notion that school should teach students how to learn, instead of mere facts, has come to dominate education policy.  That, Hirsch believes, is a terrible mistake.

For those familiar with the twentieth-century development of conservative educational activism, it is easy to see how Hirsch could have become a favorite of conservatives.  Educational conservatism has largely centered itself on the notion that schools must remain true to their traditional purpose; schools must dedicate themselves to transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next.

However, a closer read of Hirsch’s prescriptions might give some conservatives pause.  True enough, Hirsch calls for a renewed focus on teaching children a rich vocabulary.  He insists that an emphasis on “literacy” rather than good “literature” hurts the life chances of those students who need schooling the most.

But Hirsch also calls for a profound investment in government-run and tax-funded preschooling.  He cites French studies of intensive instruction for students as young as two.  Such intense schooling, Hirsch claims, will allow students from lower-income homes to match the educational opportunities of those from more affluent ones.  Furthermore, Hirsch dismisses the notion that improved vocabulary instruction will come from more time spent with word drill.  Instead, Hirsch advocates “domain immersion,” in which students learn vocabulary as part of an immersion in interesting and important reading.

Thus, in his goal and his method, Hirsch still sounds provocatively “progressive.”  Yet even in his outlet, the conservative City Journal, we can see that Hirsch still finds his most eager audience among conservatives.  In the end, this might come as no surprise.  No critic of progressivism is more appealing than one who comes from the progressive camp itself.  In education as anywhere, a whistle-blower can claim a certain credibility others cannot.

In his recent essay, Hirsch continues his long career as progressive education’s leading whistle-blower.  The best way, Hirsch insists, to determine whether any education policy will help poor kids is simple.  We do not need elaborate justifications of “pedagogies of the oppressed” or “dreamkeeping” teaching strategies.  All we need do, Hirsch argues, is ask one simple question: “Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders?”

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  1. Anonymous

     /  April 7, 2014

    Stuffing kids with vocabulary words isn’t going to help them unless they read for enjoyment, which is the only way a person learns how to write skillful, enjoyable writing.

    I come from (recently graduated) a high school with very high poverty levels. If you’d ever gone to school with poor kids, you’d understand that traditional education hurts them as much or more than progressive education. They come to school and from the very beginning, through no fault of their own, they aren’t as familiar or skilled at the material as the wealthier students, who have already encountered it in their homes. There’s high pressure to meet state standards (notice the lower-class kids have to meet the same standards as the higher-class kids, so they’re constantly having to play catch up), and then kids are divided into reading and math classes by skill level. All the kids know which classes are the “smart” and “dumb” classes, because we’re told our test scores constantly. So, the feelings of failure, not to mention how boring the classes are (a problem for students of all socio-economic levels) often causes them to misbehave and be punished frequently. They aren’t enjoying school, and they aren’t retaining the information that they supposedly need. Many end up dropping out, and the ones who do pull through are so burnt out by all the crap that they wouldn’t even consider college. There are some students who benefit from education and pull out of the slumps, but they generally come from families with very supportive parents, and thus would probably have benefited from a progressive school just as well. Progressive education produces free thinkers, the type of people who actually advance our society. If you want our schools to be more like in China, all you’ll produce is a bunch of depressed human calculators.

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