book cover imageThe Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
Yale University Press (New Haven, CT),
261 pp., $17 paper, 2009

Toward the end of this highly readable book, E. D. Hirsch makes a very telling observation about the overall responses to his earlier seminal writings on education by stating the following: “One of the gravest disappointments I have felt in the twenty-five years that I have been actively engaged in educational reform is the frustration of being warmly welcomed by conservatives but shunned by fellow liberals” (186). One wonders—why the disappointment? True, one answer is that Hirsch has identified himself as a political liberal. Still, conservatives, who will most likely agree with many of Hirsch’s educational ideas, should cautiously read The Making of Americans and perhaps look beyond the basic areas where they have previously agreed with him.

Hirsch begins with a review of the political and educational ideas of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. Correctly noting that these men were concerned about the actual survival of the new Republic, they thought that a fundamental purpose of public education should be to provide a universal educational experience (thus, later the nineteenth-century “common school” nomenclature) for all children regardless of their backgrounds, in order to create from them “competent, loyal Americans” (2). Hirsch notes that Jefferson twice attempted to establish a statewide public school system that would have educated all students for their role as future citizens in a republic and at the same time provided expanded opportunities for some (males only) to develop into the future political leaders of Virginia.

Hirsch then argues that early nineteenth century American public schooling lacked an official national curriculum, but that it had a de facto national curriculum based upon an early textbook industry that promoted a common core curriculum that shared “many of the same facts, myths, and values” (2). Public schools taught “common knowledge, virtues, ideals, language, and commitments” (5) and served as the best possible institution to transform America’s e pluribus to e pluribus Unum. Clearly, Hirsch is advocating for a twenty-first century version of a national common core curriculum, specifically for grades 1–8, yet he somewhat clouds his argument by suggesting that “diverse localities could teach whatever local knowledge they deemed important . . . but every school was to be devoted to the larger community and the making of Americans” (8). He even suggests that 50 percent of a school’s curriculum could reflect national curricular standards, while the other half could be determined by state and/or local standards. What if the first half and the second half of the curriculum dramatically differ? He never addresses that possible dilemma in any detail.

Hirsch contends that a current lack of both civic and general knowledge “is the most significant deficit in most American students’ education” (11) and that this negates the Founding Fathers’ previously noted universal civic education as one of the principal purposes of public schooling. Furthermore, Hirsch blames the decline in reading ability over the last half century to this same knowledge deficit, which he argues also results from a lack of a common core curriculum in the nation’s schools. Suffice it to say that readers who are familiar with Hirsch’s first major work on education, Cultural Literacy (1987), will recognize his earlier thesis that reading problems at a younger age are due primarily to students not having been taught phonics. Then, by the time students reach secondary schools their reading problems are exacerbated by a lack of general content knowledge. The missing knowledge about history, geography, literature and the sciences should have been taught in the elementary grades along with phonics. Historically, he supportively cites the McGuffey Readers as an approach to reading instruction that once combined both phonics and content knowledge.

Who are we to blame for our contemporary schools’ failure to teach a common core of knowledge? Hirsch squarely points the finger at the modern child-centered progressive education movement, which first began in America in the early twentieth century. Noting that the child-centered progressive education movement had its earliest roots in the Romantic writings of Rousseau and then later Dewey and Kilpatrick, Hirsch suggests that it has been constantly reinvented with fads like inventive spelling, reading readiness programs, whole language approaches to reading and language arts instruction, balanced literacy, and, in general, constructivism. Hirsch summarily labels all of these approaches to education as the anti-curriculum movement, which led to a rejection of subject-matter content.

Teacher education programs in our colleges and universities are then identified as the chief culprits responsible for the long term survival of the above anti-curriculum movement of the schools into the twenty-first century. Starting with Teachers College, which became a part of Columbia University in 1898, and then extending into the transformation from 1910–1930 of nearly ninety normal schools into colleges with teacher education programs, the anti-curriculum movement impacted generations of new teachers. Those few teacher educators, like Bagley, Kandel, Gramsci, and Demiashkevich, who favored schools with core content oriented curriculums were ostracized by their teacher education colleagues, and some were even called fascists. Hirsch argues most forcefully that most teacher education programs are dominated by a monopoly of anti-curriculum professors who do not tolerate any dissent to their educational ideas. For example, in 1996, Hirsch was a highly respected professor at the University of Virginia. He offered an elective course, which would have exposed students to his criticisms of the anti-curriculum ideas dominant in teacher education. Surprised by the low enrollment in his course after three years of offering it, he was astonished to be informed by a teacher education student that the education faculty had explicitly warned its students not to take the course. He recalled that incident as a “totalitarian feature of present day education schools” (50).

Hirsch also takes aim at the mantra of multiculturalism and argues instead for a “transethnic America” with a shared devotion to a commoncivic core of beliefs, knowledge, and values. Accordingly, schools should encourage students to retain their ethnic identity within their private lives, but as citizens of our Republic, who can also function well in our economy; these students must be taught a common core curriculum of shared content knowledge to fully benefit as Americans in their public lives. As support for this idea, Hirsch cites Abraham Lincoln, who as early as 1838 in a speech entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” advocated that schools should teach a reverence for our democracy “and, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation” (68). In Hirsch’s own words: “Our brilliant political tradition cannot altogether remove the instinct of tribalism, with its innate dislike and suspicion of the other, but it is the best system yet devised for counteracting it, for transforming an other into an us” (86). As part of this effort, Hirsch argues at length for the public schools to teach all students to master Standard English, so that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, will have the linguistic tools necessary for them to take full advantage of the equality of opportunity in this land of liberty, which Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth” (83).

Much of the remainder of The Making of Americans focuses on evidence of how core curriculums can dramatically improve American schooling and why our efforts must focus on the early grades of elementary schools. Overall, many conservatives will be in agreement with Hirsch over the following: a phonics approach to reading, a curriculum that emphasizes mastery of the content of subjects, an emphasis on Standard English, and a public school system with a universal educational experience resulting in an equal opportunity for all.

On the other hand, what reservations should conservatives have regarding Hirsch’s educational ideas? First, Hirsch knowingly is not very specific about how a common core curriculum on a national level should be established and who should do so. Secondly, most conservatives would oppose the involvement of the federal government in such a national curricular effort. TheUnited States Constitution gives no explicit powers to the federal government in regard to local schools, including their curriculums. Finally, while it is commendable that Hirsch thinks public schooling is vital to the survival of our democracy, it is also fundamental in a Republic like ours, where education is left as a matter for the states and their people, that citizens have the Constitutional right to establish private schools to educate their children. Unfortunately, Hirsch unexplainably omits this rightful option. He never once mentions private schools in the entire book.  

James Green is an Associate Professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph.