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 école 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.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.”
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.
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.