Flying to Finland but stopping at France!

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2013

Who the heck is E. D. Hirsch: We’ve always been puzzled by E. D. Hirsch, the well-known—

Well darn it, there we go again! Who the heck is E. D. Hirsch?

Kevin Drum does a post today about Hirsch’s latest education pronouncement, in which Hirsch says it’s good for a student to have a large vocabulary. Or something like that. (Yes, we’ve read the whole piece, at City Journal.)

As always, Hirsch’s somewhat fuzzy piece made us wonder who he is. We often get a “Being There” feel when we read pieces by Hirsch.

Who the heck is E. D. Hirsch? We journeyed to Wikipedia, where we found this account of the period when he started as head of the composition department at the University of Virginia:
WIKIPEDIA: 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.
You’d think that passage came from The Onion, with its account of Hirsch’s key discovery—his discovery that readers who lack relevant background knowledge might have trouble understanding some particular text.

Just so you’ll know, Hirsch was roughly 50 years old when this breakthrough occurred.

Should we blame the oddness of that passage on Wikipedia? We’re not sure, but here’s the way the on-line encyclopedia describes Hirsch’s early days at Virginia:
WIKIPEDIA: 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.
If we’re reading that correctly, Hirsch decided a text is more readable than some other text if it’s easier to understand.

Although we’re often puzzled by Hirsch, this may be Wikipedia’s doing. But below, you see one part of Hirsch’s new piece, a passage Drum presented.

Hirsch says American schools should pattern themselves on something that happened in France a while back. We find this slightly puzzling:
HIRSCH (1/13): Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an ├ęcole maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.
Are we flying to Finland but stopping at France? We couldn’t help wondering: How “disadvantaged” were disadvantaged students in France in the 1970s? Reading this passage, a person is told that the French came up with a way to eliminate “the achievement gap.”

Plainly, that sounds like a great achievement. But how large was the gap the French were confronting? If we’re recommending an American application, this is a blindingly obvious question. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hirsch.

We’re always puzzled by E. D. Hirsch. All through his piece at City Journal, we found ourselves puzzled again.

8 comments:

  1. Re: background knowledge, it's partially Wikipedia and partially that as obvious as it might sound to you and me, in reality a great many educators are actually, truly confused about what influences reading comprehension. On the one hand, Hirsch's contribution here is trivial and obvious. On the other hand, that hasn't prevented the education world from failing to understand or believe it.

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  2. I'm not a Hirsch fan, but on the knowledge thing he is pointing at something that I see all the time in my English classes. I've taught in low-performing high schools in Los Angeles for the last seven years. The pre-fab lessons we are directed to use are filled with readings that require substantial background knowledge to be intelligible. The students lack this knowledge.

    The consultants hired to "support" the use of the pre-fab lessons insist, in so many words, that the content is not relevant. Reading strategies solve all problems. This is bullshit.

    They push this practice of cursory reading, really scanning, because that's what students have to be good at in order to score well on the multiple-choice tests that the whole country, apparently, has decided are the gold standards of education. This, too, is bullshit.

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  3. This is kind of snarky. What he is saying is not necessarily widely accepted, certainly not put into practice, so stating the obvious and trying to systematize it becomes a necessary step. That's not trivial. How disadvantaged were the French students? Geez, this is not an academic paper. The guy is trying to get people to open their eyes and consider new approaches.

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  4. I have just spent endless hours deciding on secondary readings for two new college courses I am teaching to very bright and eager students, most of whom have pretty strong "general learning" (of the kind relevant to what I am teaching). Choosing such readings is really hard. You want to draw students in, engage them in the primary texts, move things along so they will get into some meaty issues in the short span of a semester. But if you choose the wrong readings -- readings whose context is too foreign to them at this stage in their learning -- rather than engage them, pull them in, you'll lose them.
    And, of course, not all the students in these courses are the same. What will work for some will not work for others.
    I sympathize with James E. Powell. For all the challenges I face in devising a syllabus, I am not beholden (yet) to some standardized test of skills and content that may not even be relevant to my goals, and my students'.

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