My mother invented a curriculum for cultural capital way before E D Hirsch. In the late 1960s she created a special course to help the brightest students at her New York City girls’ high school to pass the New York State scholarship test. Winning a scholarship would mean several thousand dollars worth of university tuition fees for the students, mainly children of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
In those days, it would be fair to say, the scholarship test’s assumption of a substantial level of general knowledge discriminated against the least privileged. My mother’s Scholarship Class set out to teach these Hispanic, African American and Chinese girls what her own daughter had picked up by living in an educated New York household and hanging around with kids from similar families. Her course could have been called What Every Educated American Should Know.
Over a year, she led the girls through the history of Western civilization, Bronowski-like, showing pictures from the Metropolitan Museum, discussing Greek myths, playing Beethoven. The course won awards, I don’t think that many students actually won scholarships (even my mother couldn’t compensate for 16 years of a different existence), but they loved the course. It changed lives.
About a decade after my mother devised her Scholarship Class, an English professor at the University of Virginia named E D Hirsch, Jr was thinking about similar questions. During his investigations of what makes prose more or less readable, he discovered that even more important than the “readability” of the text was the background knowledge brought to it by the reader.
The example he gave to Fran Abrams in her excellent Radio 4 Analysis programme this week, was that many of the poorer students he taught at the University of Virginia not only lacked basic knowledge about the US Civil War, but this gap made it hard for them to read passages about it, even though their reading was fine when it came to familiar subjects.
“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 background knowledge, “ according to Wikipedia. “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 take for granted.” His goal was to improve social mobility.
He wrote Cultural Literacy: What every American Needs to Know in 1987, followed 10 years later by the Core Knowledge series, with each book titled What Your ____ Grader needs to know. As readers of the IOE London blog will know, Hirsch’s ideas have had a powerful influence on Michael Gove’s thinking about the forthcoming new curriculum.
In the US, Hirsch, an American liberal, was lauded by the Right and condemned by the Left, just as he has been over here. My mother, whose work preceded such labelling, would have been horrified if her course had been called right-wing. But it is at the junction of social mobility and cultural capital that the battle lines cross. Who is qualified to decide which set of facts all children should learn? How can we make sure it is taking the country into the future and not languishing in the past?
There is a very lumpy circle to be squared. My mother’s scholarship students gained knowledge that would help them succeed at university and in the world of work, but those Chinese, Hispanic and African American girls did not learn about their own rich cultures. If the school curriculum – by sustaining and building a common culture — helps to shape society, shouldn’t we be finding ways to broaden our ideas of what every educated person should know?
Diane Hofkins edits IOE London blog