Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


E.D. Hirsch, Jr. publishes Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

This year, E. D. Hirsch, Jr.  published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know , a book that soon would become a best-seller and a manifesto for the 'core knowledge' movement in school curriculum (also known as 'back to basics'). In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch identified 5,000 names, dates, essential facts and concepts that an educated person should know, in fields as diverse as science, culture, religion, and art history.

According to Hirsch, the main goal of education is acculturation, that is, the transmission of specific information shared by the adults of a particular society to the next generation. He argues that having familiarity with this information is a prerequisite for full citizenship. In his own words, "... literate culture has become the common currency for social and economic exchange in our democracy, and is the only available ticket to full citizenship.... Membership is automatic if one learns the background information and the linguistic conventions that are needed to read, write, and speak effectively." Moreover, he claims, "cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children."

Some critics claim that Hirsch's approach is misguided, for it assumes that the accumulation of a large set of specific, fixed facts necessarily leads to create better citizens, help the disadvantaged, and promote all other "fundamental" improvements to the education system. Furthermore, his critics argue that he overemphasizes the potential of accumulation of information. From their perspective, promulgating fixed contents in the school curricula is not the main way to organize educational programs in modern societies, because the knowledge base is changing constantly (hence 'learning to learn' is more important than assimilating facts) and because the development of critical, creative minds require active learning strategies rather than transmission of information.

Advocates of core knowledge counter argue that is an admirable aim but a misleading slogan, because if learning is to proceed on any principle besides random chance, schools need to follow a carefully sequenced body of knowledge. For Hirsch and his followers, the most powerful tool for later learning is not an abstract set of procedures (such as "problem solving") but a broad base of knowledge in many fields. In relation to the argument that "knowledge is changing", the 'core knowledge' approach admits that it is only partially true and misleading, because it usually ends up with the conclusion that "knowledge is changing so fast that we can't keep up with it" or that "what we learn today will be obsolete tomorrow. For Hirsch and the core knowledge proponents, the basic principles of science and constitutional government, the important events of world history, the essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression are part of a solid core that does not change rapidly, but instead forms the basis for true lifelong learning.

While critics of Hirsch's model argue that is is based on rote memorization of facts which do little to shape critical minds, its defenders claim that the acquisition of core knowledge is not only done through memorization, but also through active learning strategies such as dramatizations, research projects, writing workshops, collaborative learning groups and the like. For them, a good command of factual knowledge is a necessary condition to develop a critical capacity. Otherwise, instead of critical analysis, students develop just an uninformed opinion.


The arguments in favor of core knowledge were extracted from:

The arguments against core knowledge were extracted from:  

Additional arguments for and against are also available on those sites.       

Prepared by DS

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Last updated on September 08, 2002.