E. D. Hirsch

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Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr.
E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange Education Lecture (3).jpg
Hirsch in 2015
Born (1928-03-22) March 22, 1928 (age 90)
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Literary critic, educator, and writer

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. (/hɜːrʃ/; born March 22, 1928) is an American educator and academic literary critic. He is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.[1] He is best known for writing Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987),[2] and is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Early life and works


E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a cotton merchant. Of his formative years, he has said that he inherited "this load of guilt that Southerners have"[3] which influenced his lifelong commitment to social equality.

In the 1930s, he first attended public schools where "traditional" subjects were taught, and later attended the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois—a progressive project-based school which gave students considerable freedom in choosing what they wished to learn.[4] He went on to study chemistry at Cornell University, but changed his major to English after attending lectures in literature taught by Vladimir Nabokov.[5]

He earned degrees from Cornell University (B.A., 1950), and Yale University (Ph.D., 1957) where he was an honorary member of Manuscript Society.

The Romantics

Hirsch began his academic career as a Yale English professor and a scholar of the Romantic poets. His first book, Wordsworth and Schelling (1960), was a comparative study of the Romantic or "Enthusiastic" mindset, adapted from his Yale dissertation. His second book, Innocence and Experience (1964), was a monograph on William Blake. Hirsch argued, contra Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom, that Blake's outlook changed markedly from the time when he wrote the Songs of Innocence to the time when he wrote the Songs of Experience, and that the Songs of Experience represent a reply to the earlier work and a satire of his earlier views. The book was awarded the Explicator Prize but its thesis provoked criticism from Blake scholars who had followed Frye's lead in developing systematic interpretations of a more-or-less static Blake.


The next phase of Hirsch's career centered on questions of literary interpretation and hermeneutics. His books Validity in Interpretation (1967) and The Aims of Interpretation (1976) argue that the author's intention must be the ultimate determiner of meaning. At Yale, Hirsch had studied with and taught alongside eminent Yale-based exponents of the "New Criticism," including Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt. His hermeneutic works represent a reaction against New Critical concepts that were omnipresent at the time, especially the idea that texts should be viewed as autonomous objects, without reference to authorial intent.

Hirsch also took issue with Gadamer's Heideggerian hermeneutics, Barthes' concept of "the death of the author," and Derrida's deconstruction. In his hermeneutic work, Hirsch drew extensively on German philosophy, especially the ideas of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Husserl. He popularized the distinction between "meaning" (as intended by the author) and "significance" (as perceived by a reader or critic) and argued for the possibility of objective knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. Hirsch's hermeneutic books are controversial, and his defense of authorial intention remains a minority position in Academia, though a widely cited one. Validity in Interpretation has remained continuously in print for more than 40 years and has been translated into German, Italian, Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian.


In the late sixties Hirsch moved from Yale to the University of Virginia, where he became department chairman and head of the composition program. In 1977 he published The Philosophy of Composition, an investigation into the question of what makes writing more or less readable. The key concept in the work is the concept of relative readability. Hirsch argues that readability must be assessed relative to the writer's "semantic intentions." One text is more readable than another if it conveys the same semantic intention (i.e., meaning) more succinctly and clearly, so as to demand less effort from the reader. The goal of composition instruction, according to Hirsch, is to find ways of conveying the same meaning more clearly, effectively, and efficiently. The book was widely reviewed and somewhat controversial.

Career in educational reform

From composition to cultural literacy

Hirsch's work on composition led to a major shift in his career. During the late 1970s, while giving tests of relative readability at two colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining speed of uptake and comprehension, an even more important consideration was the reader's possession—or lack of—relevant background knowledge. Students at the University of Virginia were able to understand a passage on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, while students at a Richmond community college struggled with the same passage, apparently because they lacked basic understanding of the American Civil War. This and related discoveries led Hirsch to formulate the concept of cultural literacy — the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging cultural background knowledge. He concluded that schools should not be neutral about what is taught but should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers tend to take for granted.

The concept of cultural literacy was initially adumbrated in an article, "Culture and Literacy," published in the Journal of Basic Writing. Some time later, Hirsch published an article, "Cultural Literacy" in The American Scholar in 1983. His book-length exposition of the subject, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, was published in 1987.

Cultural Literacy

Cultural Literacy (1987) was widely reviewed and became a best-seller. It rose to number 2 on the New York Times Bestseller lists for nonfiction, just behind Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987), with which it was frequently reviewed and compared.

The appendix to the book, a 63-page alphabetical list of 5,000 subjects and concepts Hirsch and his collaborators thought every American ought to know, attracted a great deal of attention.[4]

Hirsch co-wrote The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988) with Joseph K. Kett and James Trefil, and was the main editor of A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1989).[2]

Core Knowledge

Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986.

The Core Knowledge Foundation publishes the Core Knowledge Sequence—a detailed outline of the content and skills which the Core Knowledge Foundation recommends should be taught in each grade level, from pre-school to Grade 8. The Sequence has been revised several times and is available online, free of charge.[6] The curriculum is designed to "help children establish strong foundations of knowledge, grade by grade"[7] across the following subjects—English/language arts, world history and geography, American history and geography, visual arts, music, mathematics and science.

As stated in the Core Knowledge Sequence:

If all of our children are to be fully educated and participate equally in civic life, then we must provide each of them with the shared body of knowledge that makes literacy and communication possible. This concept, central to the Core Knowledge Foundation’s goal of excellence and equity in education, takes shape in the Sequence -- a pioneering attempt to outline the specific core of shared knowledge that all children should learn in American schools.[6]

Beginning in 1990s, Hirsch began publishing books in the Core Knowledge Grader Series which the Foundation describes as "an engaging, illustrated guide to the essential knowledge outlined in the Core Knowledge Sequence" [8] including information and activities for teachers, parents and children, as well as suggestions for related readings and resources. There are currently eight books in print, beginning with What Your Preschooler Needs to Know and ending with What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The books have been particularly popular with parents who homeschool, as well as parents whose children attend Core Knowledge schools, and have been revised and updated over the years.

Ed School critique

In 1996, Hirsch published The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that Romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are prevalent in America, and are not only the cause of America's lackluster educational performance, but also a cause of widening inequalities in class and race. Hirsch portrays the focus of American educational theory as one which attempts to give students intellectual tools such as "critical thinking skills", but which denigrates teaching any actual content, labeling it "mere rote learning". Hirsch states that it is this attitude which has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.

A sample passage on Romanticism, from The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them:

Romanticism believed that human nature is innately good, and should therefore be encouraged to take its natural course, unspoiled by the artificial impositions of social prejudice and convention. Second, Romanticism concluded that a child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the adult nor a formless piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to develop and run their course.

The Schools We Need included sharp criticism of American schools of education. Hirsch described the contemporary ed. school as a "Thoughtworld," hostile to research-based findings and dissenting ideas.

Recent works

In 2006 Hirsch published, The Knowledge Deficit, in which he continued the argument made in Cultural Literacy. Disappointing results on reading tests, Hirsch argued, can be traced back to a knowledge deficit that keeps students from making sense of what they read.

His most recent book is The Making of Americans; Democracy and Our Schools (2009), in which he makes the case that the true mission of the schools is to prepare citizens for participation in our democracy by embracing a common-core, knowledge-rich curriculum as opposed to the current content-free approach. He laments 60 years without a curriculum in US schools because of the anti-curriculum approach championed by John Dewey and other Progressives.

Core Knowledge in the UK

In 2011 a British version of The Core Knowledge Sequence was published online[9] and the books began to be adapted for the UK, beginning with What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know.[10]

Influence in US education

While Hirsch's views continue to provoke debate and controversy, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on education reform, wrote in 2013 that Hirsch was "the most important education reformer of the past half-century."[11]

Core Knowledge schools in the US

The Core Knowledge Foundation reports that there were 1,260 schools in the US (across 46 states and District of Columbia) using all or part of the Core Knowledge Sequence.[12] The Foundation believes that the actual number is much higher, but only counts schools that submit a "profile form" to the Foundation annually.[12] The profile of Core Knowledge Schools in the US is diverse—including public, charter, private and parochial schools in urban, suburban and rural locations.

Independent nonprofit GreatSchools.org reports that more than 400 of these schools are preschools.[13]

Common Core standards in the US

While he was not directly involved in developing the Common Core State Standards adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, many education watchers credit E.D. Hirsch as having provided the "intellectual foundation" for the initiative.[4][11][14]


Political views

While the Core Knowledge Foundation in the US describes itself as non-partisan,[15] Hirsch himself is an avowed Democrat who has described himself as "practically a socialist"[4] and "a man of the Left, the Old Left".[16] Over the years, he has expressed deep sympathy for underprivileged minority youths and has stated that he specifically designed a curriculum to "place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights."[17]

In The Making of Americans (2010), Hirsch explained his position as both a "political liberal" and "an educational conservative":

I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an educational conservative.... Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.[16]

Proponents and critics

Ironically, since "Cultural Literacy" was first published in The American Scholar in 1983, Hirsch has often been embraced by political conservatives and attacked by liberals and progressives. William Bennett, a prominent conservative who served as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later US Secretary of Education, was an early proponent of Hirsch's views.[5]

Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, has been a long-time critic of Hirsch. Gardner described one of his own books, The Disciplined Mind (1999), as part of a "sustained dialectic" with E.D. Hirsch, and criticized Hirsch's curriculum as "at best superficial and at worst anti-intellectual".[18] In 2007, Gardner accused Hirsch of having "swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education."[19]

While acknowledging that criticism and debate "have been very good for business,"[17] Hirsch has openly expressed his frustration with ongoing accusations of intellectual elitism and racism. Regarding the frequent comparisons of Hirsch's Cultural Literacy to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind which was published around the same time, Hirsch has stated: "That was just bad luck...Allan Bloom really was an elitist."[4]

In reality, critics of Hirsch come from both progressive and conservative circles.[20] As Jason R. Edwards explains:

Opponents from the political left generally accuse Hirsch of elitism. Worse yet in their minds, Hirsch’s assertion might lead to a rejection of toleration, pluralism, and relativism. On the political right, Hirsch has been assailed as totalitarian, for his idea lends itself to turning over curriculum selection to federal authorities and thereby eliminating the time-honored American tradition of locally controlled schools.[21]

Influence in the UK

In the UK, the Core Knowledge books are published by Civitas, which is widely characterised in the national news media as a "right-of-centre",[22][23] "right-leaning"[20][24] or "right-wing thinktank."[25]

Former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove publicly expressed his admiration for E.D. Hirsch as early as 2009,[26] and education watchers have suggested that the revised national curriculum first proposed by Gove in 2011 was heavily influenced by E.D. Hirsch.[26][27]

Fellowships, awards and memberships

Hirsch has been awarded several fellowships and honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship (1955), the Morse Fellowship (1960), the Guggenheim Fellowship (1964), the Explicator Prize (1965), the NEA Fellowship (1970), the NEH Senior Fellowship (1971-71), the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities Fellowship (1973), the Princeton University Fellowship in the Humanities (1977), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship at Stanford University (1980–81).

At University of Virginia he was Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English Emeritus, in addition to Professor of Education and Humanities.[28]

He has received honorary degrees from Rhodes College and Williams College.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.




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  10. The official partnership in the UK
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External links