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How To Educate A Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation Paperback – 8 September 2020
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About the Author
- Publisher : JOHN CATT EDUCATIONAL LTD (8 September 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 198 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1913622045
- ISBN-13 : 978-1913622046
- Dimensions : 20.9 x 1.5 x 14.7 cm
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Lists of books on education reform yield dozens whose titles end up with: And What You Can Do About It. The earliest such book is Why Johnny Can’t Read — And What you Can Do About It by Rudolph Flesch, 65 years ago. Many an intrepid author has devoted tons of time and energy offering analyses and solutions to education problems. But, as with Flesch, the difficulties remain to this day.
Now we have an eminent educator, E D Hirsch, openly asserting that he will no longer be “polite” but will be plain-spoken with his concerns and his recommendations. Hirsch is an educator with many best-sellers on education topics who, at 92 years of age, has not given up hope that schools can be greatly improved and become a unifying force in divisive times.
This book, How To Educate A Citizen, is absolutely clear about education failures and fiascos. Hirsch fearlessly names such programs and approaches as whole-language, discovery learning, constructivism and inquiry-based teaching. He doesn’t hesitate to illustrate the harm done.
To get a good feel for the book just read these 9 pages — 133-41. Here we read about the French experience, which brilliantly illustrates the crux of the problem — misguided Romanticism! For the sake of “liberating” students from a fixed curriculum France adopted Americanized constructivist methods. After 1989, international education scores for France dropped by 80% in two decades. On top of averages dropping, the gaps between the rich and poor widened — a disaster for a nation proudly claiming egalitarianism in its school system.
Hirsch says: “It is a paradox that the intellectual Left in both France and the United States has instigated educational ‘reforms’ that penalize the poor and favor the rich . . . [this] is a stunning sociological and moral indictment of our persisting in an incorrect educational theory.”
Hirsch’s main claim to fame is his promoting core knowledge, the recurring theme in most of his previous books. He says teachers in schools should use “instructivist” methods and content-based materials. Schools succeed that follow this approach. He is adamantly opposed to the approaches taught at many teacher-training facilities, which are “constructivist”, basically having teachers guide student discoveries as they go along. Then classroom teachers, unfortunately, says Hirsch, have a hard time seeing the error of their ways, having been “explicitly indoctrinated in a false religion”.
In my opinion, this is one book that should help anyone who is outraged enough to want to do something about the dismal state of public education. Whether you are a parent, school board member, educator or politician, or simply an irate taxpayer fed up with stories about squandered education dollars — you could easily use this book as a ready reference, with choice quotes, to pursue a mission to improve education. The contradictions we outsiders see and lament are lucidly described by one who has been in the education trenches for many decades and whose insights can be, with any luck, harnessed for effective improvements.
This all seems to be commonsensical and it is, but progressive education thought that something else was commonsensical—the notion that children should control the class curriculum rather than their teachers and that if they 'naturally' studied whatever interested them they would learn far more than if they had a prescribed curriculum. This is nonsense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that students cannot really know what interests them unless they already know something about the subject. A college-level analogy would be to offer a course in the Malaysian novel and let the students (who couldn't find Malaysia on a map) choose the novels they wished to read.
The so-called child-centered classroom is the brainchild of John Dewey, a well-meaning but both feckless and influential 'educator'. Dewey was what Hirsch calls a romantic, believing in 'nature' as a guiding inspiration for childrens' education. Progressive education is long gone as a formal notion, institution and operative principle but our colleges of education have never been able to let go of its failed maxims and the 'child-centered classroom' is still the omnipresent reality in American education. This, Hirsch argues (and demonstrates) is what has placed us 24th in educational achievement across the industrialized globe. "Our research," the ed schools say, "tells us otherwise," but their research is bunk and it is long past time that we either force them to have a confrontation with reality or go out of business.
Hirsch argues the case in several, compelling ways. He demonstrates the plummeting numbers in educational achievement which correlate with the installation of Deweyan ideology. He examines the content-based curricula of the countries which eclipse us (Singapore rules in this regard). He demonstrates the fact that underfunded schools in radically-poor areas like the South Bronx which use content-based, common curricula show dramatic success in their students' experience. Most interesting, he looks at the issue both epistemologically and biologically, demonstrating that Locke's notion of a blank slate correlates with what we now know of the nature of the neocortex and its fascinating 'rosehip' neurons which distinguish the human learning process from the learning process of other creatures. One compelling example: when spiders are born they can immediately begin to spin webs. When humans are born they are incapable of doing anything but laying on their backs and crying for adult help. It is time for the adults to help the children when they get to school and not assume that the children can chart their own course. Believing that they can do so is putting us at 24th place in the world.
Some other neat passages: an extended, convincing argument that there really is no such thing as a 'general skill'. Pole vaulters are great athletes but they are not, automatically, great goalies or wide receivers. Another neat reference—a youtube educational propaganda film from 1936 with progressive educators bloviating about their salvific system with happy students pursuing projects in the classroom rather than learning things systematically.
There are several objections to Hirsch's program: it can be politicized (with crazy ideologues choosing the curricular content) and the old ways are monotonous ('grill and drill'). Actually, Hirsch argues, really learning something is exciting and gives students a sense of accomplishment. More important, it leads to higher knowledge which can save their intellectual lives. Which is better, memorizing multiplication tables or asking a student what he would like 2+2 to equal? As to the politics, Hirsch's putatively conservative program comes from a classic liberal, one who dedicates this book to his late friend (of all people), Richard Rorty. This is not about politics; it is about our children and grandchildren and when they will be given a productive system of education that can both enrich and facilitate successful lives.
Finally, he argues (delightfully) that we should inculcate patriotism in the classroom (arguing for its benefits based on the thought of such disparate figures as Durkheim and Abraham Lincoln).
Bottom line: another very important and very readable book on a subject that is central to our success as a society.
Minor complaint: $23.01 is a little pricey for a slightly over 200 pp. book (but if its arguments would be adopted the results would be priceless).
Hirsch’s title brings to mind Jean Jacque Rousseau’s statement that “In a republic you must choose between making [an individual] or a citizen; you cannot make both at once.” Without mentioning Rousseau, Hirsch precedes to argue that educating the citizen is the primary objective of formal education. A citizen possesses a learned set of national cultural identifiers, which comes from a common knowledge-centered curriculum. Antithetically, his examples of educating the individual are taken from what he calls “child-centered” schools and classroom environments, which are much more prevalent than “knowledge-centered” classrooms in the complex landscape of American elementary education. This model of child-centered education does not convey Rousseau’s holistic approach to educating the individual. Rather, the child-centered model of education that Hirsch describes is closer to narcissistic individualism, where “common” knowledge is fracture into individualistic units and individualistic “truths.” There is no need to demonstrate how prevalent narcissistic individualism has become in American society, proving Hirsch’s point. Rather, Hirsch brings this to light with less theoretical posturing and a more concrete examination than is present in his previous works.
But focusing only on educating the citizen of a republic can take on many different forms, from the DPRK to modern western democracies. In this sense, it becomes relevant, in a democratic-republic, to both educate the mind with a common curriculum – a common base of knowledge that is shared and thus serves to unify the nation – while at the same time nurturing the soul of the individual child, because that also nurtures the unifying soul of the nation.
The characteristic of narcissistic individualism is exactly what Aristotle decried as the degeneration of a democratic society, where more emphasis is placed on individual liberty than on individual responsibility. Questioning this socio-political degeneration in terms of educating the young, Aristotle says, “…nor yet is it clear whether [the child’s] education ought to be conducted with more concern for the intellect than for the character of the soul. In our modern system, soul nurturing takes place at the classroom level between the teacher and her students, but it does not preclude the objective of teaching a common knowledge-centered curriculum.
Hirsch’s book does not refer to soul nurturing, though it is an implied part of every good teacher’s personality. Rather, he introduces the Enlightenment concept that the child’s mind is a “blank slate.” My experience as a classroom teacher for twenty-seven years is that there is far too much sentient and imaginal energy expressed in a child’s mind to call it a “blank slate.” However, in all due respect, we might assume that Hirsch is taking a diagnostic approach, separating the mind-ego complex from the totality of the psyche for the purpose of examination – though the psyche cannot be thus dissected. This leaves us with two possible conclusions. One, is that culturally educating the mind is how children are taught to control their sentient and imaginative impulses and energies. On the other hand, soul nurturing in the classroom teaches the child to tame and focus those energies and integrate them with mental understanding as a way of revitalizing the culture. President Jimmy Carter, in many of his speeches, referred to the sanctity of the individual. Soul nurturing is what brings out the sanctity of the individual in the personality which, along with learning our common culture and cultural identity, revitalizes the soul of the nation.
Hirsch, in this book, and other educationists are effectively calling for a complete restructuring of the Common Core curriculum to teach the elementary grades a common knowledge-centered curriculum. This common knowledge is the core of cultural identity formation in the secondary grades. At this time in our history, the cultural identity of America is a delicate national issue that requires a more open national discussion. Hirsch’s book focuses on an important part of teaching children to identify with our common – not tribalistic – American cultural identity. If you are passionate about educational reform and unifying the American national-cultural identity, this book will leave you with a visceral as well as an intellectual impression of what action needs to be taken to bring about a new, educational revolution.