The Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for Grades K-8
Core Knowledge Foundation.

By M.D. Aeschliman.

The lack of effective early-literacy instruction in the USA and the West generally is the single most grievous problem that confronts our confused, complicated, and turbulent civilization. The contribution to such effective early literacy of the American scholar E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation is one of the most promising educational developments in an otherwise dispiriting landscape, and that contribution has been recognized in the USA by an increasing number of educators and K-8 schools, but also abroad in the educational policies and thinking of political and educational leaders in countries such as England and Portugal, where present or former education ministers such as Michael Gove, Nick Gibb, and Nuno Crato have been explicitly influenced by Hirsch’s critical and curricular efforts over recent decades.

Many of our public verbal jingles are too simplistic to do much good, but there are two such jingles that do serve us well: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”; and “Learn to read early and well so that you can read to learn for the rest of our life.” These pithy statements are wise and profound and have never been more relevant than they are today, when elementary-school outcomes in literacy and numeracy all over the West, especially in the most populous nations, are poor and rarely show improvement. Without a seriously, specifically planned elementary-school curriculum—a horizontal scope-and-sequence per grade and cumulative building vertically from grade to grade—pedagogical efforts, however energetic and sincere, have proved to be demoralizingly fruitless as far as measurable, substantial outcomes that would prepare students adequately for high-school studies, occupational competence, further education, and civic participation. 

Yet President George W. Bush was so disliked by Congressional Democrats that they canceled funding for the Reading First initiative, a very effective national clearing-house of information about what really worked in K-8 schooling programs. At the state level, in Massachusetts, for example, with the passing of Republican governors such as Weld, Cellucci, and Romney,  the majority of Massachusetts Democrats lost their taste for the bipartisan educational reforms that from the early 1990s on brought Massachusetts to the highest rank in the USA in K-12 educational outcomes. The efforts of moderate Democrats such as John Silber, Thomas Birmingham, and Mark Roosevelt were spurned or forgotten. The Boston Globe failed even to review the very eminent educator Joseph Cronin’s history of the Boston public schools, Reforming Boston’s Schools, 1930-2006 (2008), and reserved its attention and investigative resources for attacks on high-performing, lower-income Charter Schools that were insufficiently “progressive.” In New York City, Mayor DiBlasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña cut back promising programs using Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum in the interest of the increasingly-discredited “progressive” literacy program of Prof. Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, Columbia University. Two steps forward, three steps backward.

The effect of such partisan actions is always to strengthen the educational and socio-economic advantages of students who live in and attend wealthy school districts with high tax bases and affluent and vigilant parents. With the partial exception of Catholic schools, the wealthy suburban school districts of California, Chicago, and the eastern cities—Bergen County, NJ; Westchester County, NY; Fairfield County, Connecticut; the western suburbs of Boston—provide a most non-egalitarian spectacle of residential segregation that indirectly helps doom 90% of the American population to inferior schools. The rich get richer.

Yet funding and parental literacy (and marital stability) are not the only major factors in the poor educational outcomes of most American students. Poorly-planned curricula, the dominance of “progressive” bromides and shibboleths about literacy, and amazingly transgressive ideological fads (“gender fluidity”) have truly demoralizing effects on American students, giving them fundamentally false views of reality and the world. These factors are demoralizing in the two senses of the word: manifest and latent. Manifestly, most students will be depressed about a world of obvious injustice and mindless commercial squalor and their apparent inability to do much about it, with cynicism often succeeding idealism and hope. Over-simplified views of history, economics, politics, and ethics lead to the latent aspect of demoralization: the failure of steady, rational, ethical consciousness itself to seem real. Exciting teen-age liberation from religion—endlessly reiterated across generations—often leads in the long run to dreary doubt or despair about the existence of morality itself. Ironically, manic moralism can result, as Dostoyevsky and Michael Polanyi have demonstrated.

Our larger, longer American cultural tradition of philosophical Narcissism, from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman to Hollywood, the “Rock” culture, Trumpery, and our environing Pornotopia, has undermined the trajectory and residual momentum of Western civilization itself. A great body of post-World War II American sociological analysis—the work of Daniel Bell, Robert Nisbet, Peter L. Berger, Philip Rieff—is studiously ignored in universities in the interest of extravagant, topical, Marxisant fads. Entry-level, tenure-track university teaching positions in the humanities and social sciences, themselves declining in importance and numbers, are probably no longer available to anyone who does not clearly share the neo-Marxist commitment to the categories of gender, race, and class as the fundamental matrix for the explanation and interpretation of reality. 

Along with grotesque, ahistorical, neo-Marxist, cartoon versions of reality goes a celebratory, contradictory Nietzschean subjectivity that really undermines any cognitive, epistemological, rational, or ethical consistency: so “everything that is solid melts into the air.” “We all live in a yellow submarine.” Over forty years ago the culture critic Morris Dickstein (1940-2021) wrote a book celebrating ‘60s culture called Gates of Eden. A one-time teacher and life-long friend of mine, in later years he helped found a neo-conservative group to protest the further radicalization of culture and literary studies that his earlier book had praised. The Emerson-Nietzsche legacy has given us in the fullness of time not only the pan-sexual, pagan, drugged, long-haired and lecherous left of the “Rock” culture, but the arrant trumpery of right-wing libertarianism. Market outcomes rule all. Whatever sells is good. Price equals value.

Though “if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst,” these gloomy cultural dynamics, however exigent and real, aren’t the only factors and possibilities. The great Columbia and Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell wrote that modernist culture in our era was pornographic, perverse, and violent to a degree unprecedented in recorded history. We should not deny the reality of this analysis. But every child is, by the grace of God, a world of new possibilities, not completely predictable in terms of external cultural dynamics, however powerful and pervasive they are. It is to the immense credit of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and his colleagues and allies in hundreds of schools and communities, that a real, practicable, early-schooling program exists that may be the saving remnant in our otherwise-demoralizing cultural circumstances. “Say not the struggle nought availeth!”

M.D. Aeschliman is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston University and author of The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism, available in updated editions in English and French.

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