One of the most important books to come out in the 80s was “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” by E.D. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).
Hirsch was an English professor who believed that cultural literacy, “the grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their readers and listeners already have,” is a key factor in American education. To further quote from the front flap of the dust jacket:
The high school student who thinks that Leningrad is a city in Jamaica or that the Alamo is an epic poem attributed to Homer cannot really read. Nor can the college student who, on a general knowledge test, identifies Socrates as a Native American chief or the Great Gatsby as a magician.
You can laugh, but I’ll bet you these examples were taken from real life.
The book became a national bestseller and Hirsch went on to publish something called The Core Knowledge Series. The picture you see to the left is “What Your Second Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Second-Grade Education,” (Doubleday, 1991).
I picked up this nifty volume at one of my favorite thrift stores for a dime, which is a sad commentary on the value of such a book. I was amazed at the breadth of subject matter for the second grade. He covers language arts, geography, world and American civilization, fine arts, mathematics and natural sciences. This is second grade?
It should be.
This isn’t going to be a full review of the book or the series, though you can bet I’ll be coming back to this subject often. What I wanted to bring to your attention with this post, considering its proximity to Independence Day, was Hirsch’s introduction to the section on American Civilization. I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that some schools don’t begin a serious study of American history until the fifth grade. Then he goes on to point out that “our best schools have always started earlier. They have proved that children in early grades are fascinated by stories of the American past.”
So why aren’t the public schools teaching our children about our country’s history earlier? Have you checked into your 7 year-old child’s or grandchild’s education? We take for granted that our public schools are teaching the kids what they need.
Maybe we shouldn’t.