Nothing But Facts!

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Twenty years ago E. D. Hirsch struck a provocative chord with Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In this memorable book Hirsch told us why and then what: a third of the book is THE LIST, chock full of Facts that would have made Mr. Gradgrind very happy. Words like “byte” and “yuppie.” Phrases like “gilded cage” or “read the riot act.” Aphorisms like “three sheets to the wind” and “Win this one for the Gipper.” Names like “Borgia, Lucretia” and “Vulgate Bible.” Events like “Lusitania, sinking of” and “Spanish Inquisition.” Since then Hirsch has written more books and started the Core Knowledge Foundation which has developed curriculum, lesson plans, and more for those who wish to teach Facts.

And now Hirsch has a new book out, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. While I’ve read Cultural Literacy and several of his more recent books, I haven’t read this one yet, but I have read Albert B. Fernandez’s thoughtful and astute review of it, “The Almighty Facts.” I highly recommend it. After all, there are aspects to Hirsch’s ideas that are compelling; I too think children need to have a certain amount of common cultural knowledge. And while I can sneer with the best of them at that original LIST, I have to acknowledge that the Core Knowledge material is much broader. The problem, as Fernandez ably points out, is that Hirsch doesn’t seem to be interested in going beyond teaching the Facts to teaching how to Think about them.

To give you a taste of a current school curriculum based on Core Knowledge, check out the Baltimore Curriculum Project Lesson Plans. The fourth grade history lesson scripts for what I would be doing this rainy month (and “April showers bring May flowers” is in the original LIST) if I followed their curriculum are here. They are dense, dense, dense with Facts and full, full, full of a whole lot of teacher introducing, giving, telling, explaining, reminding, and directing. In the four lessons on the page, the word “think” is used once: “Ask: What do you think happened between these kingdoms? (They traded because each wanted or needed something that the other had.)”

“Dickens, Charles” is on Hirsch’s original list; “Hard Times” and “Think” are not.


1 Comment

Filed under History, Teaching

One response to “Nothing But Facts!

  1. Sounds like Jack Webb on the old Dragnet TV show, I wrote a review of Cultural Literacy while in graduate school. I looked for that paper but couldn’t find it but the gist of that piece was that Hirsch reduced all appropriate knowledge to the Western canon, an elitist move if there ever was one. Hirsch’s point is that in order to be truly educated (whatever that means) one must be familiar with a whole lot of stuff. Hirsch’s focus on surface knowledge leaves no room for depth. Furthermore, NCLB reduces what counts to basic reading and math skills thereby leaving out historical and scientific knowledge and knowledge gained from reading literature. I much prefer to think about knowledge as being constructed from authentic inquiry and social transactions with peers and more competent adults. You are so right–the word (concept, authority of) THINK has gone missing from the classroom. How sad for our children and how sad for us as well.


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