E.D. Hirsch Jr., best-selling author of Cultural Literacy and tireless opponent of permissiveness, progressivism, and political correctness in education, has struck again. Galvanized by the poor performance of American students in recent years, Hirsch has issued the first two in a series of six books designed to straighten things out: What Your 1st Grader Needs to Know and What Your 2nd Grader Needs to Know, published last month by Doubleday, are lurking just below the top 10 on the best-seller list. Laid out like textbooks, with bold illustrations and sturdy coated covers, these volumes emphasize the learning of facts and the importance of everyone sharing the same cultural referents (for first-graders, these include Mother Goose, ancient Egypt, the 13 Colonies, the Liberty Bell, and Louis Armstrong).
In justifying his project, Hirsch points out that 80 percent of American college seniors don’t know what the Emancipation Proclamation is. Nearly half can’t name the author of Moby Dick. Fully a quarter are unable to tell the U.S. Constitution from the writings of Karl Marx.
Does the professor expect some heat from those holdovers who still believe, as educator John Dewey did, that we should be teaching students how to learn rather than stuffing them with information? ”I expect negative criticism from those who see this as a danger to established practice,” says Hirsch, 63. ”And then the people who argued that Cultural Literacy was Eurocentric and elitist may raise a fuss, but then again, they may be quiet this time around, because we took great pains to take a centrist approach with these books.” Over 2,000 people, including a multicultural board, helped Hirsch construct his core curriculum.