Knowledge, front and center

Curriulum: An english professor's vision has produced educated children -- and an education controversy lasting two decades

December 28, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Twenty years ago, E. D. Hirsch Jr. was at the top of the academic game, easing into his 50s as chairman of University of Virginia's English department. Then he turned his attention to the nation's public school curriculum and found it running on empty.

The professor's second career, devoted to filling classrooms with knowledge, has made him in just a few years one of the most revered -- and reviled -- figures in American education.

Hirsch, 71, is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a fact-filled sequence of what pupils are to be taught from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Based largely on Hirsch's 1987 best-seller, "Cultural Literacy," the program is in almost 1,000 schools nationwide, 40 in Maryland.

His rich, content-laden approach to learning would seem attractive, even necessary. "It's arguably the most productive curriculum in the U.S. today," says William J. Moloney, Colorado commissioner of education and the former school superintendent in Maryland's Calvert County.

But Hirsch and his creation are widely attacked. He's accused of elitism and racism. His curriculum is said to be "developmentally inappropriate" -- that is, too difficult for young children.

Critics call Hirsch the "man of lists," "Don Dilettante," the "bunch o' facts guy." They resent pronouncements on the sorry state of American education from a man who never taught a day in a public school. "The movement Hirsch is leading goes against the whole grain of diversity in education," says Michael L. Bentley, a professor of science education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

At one level, Hirsch thrives on the criticism. As intensely competitive at intellectual debate as he is at tennis, he says the charges hurled his way "have been very good for business." But at a personal level, Hirsch deeply resents some of the allegations -- particularly of intellectual snobbery and racism.

The son of a Memphis cotton broker, Hirsch says he inherited "this load of guilt that Southerners have" and designed a curriculum to "place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights."

`True social equality'

Hirsch's mission is "one of true social equality, just the opposite of what he's accused of," says Frederick Hirsch, his 39-year-old son who teaches Core Knowledge at a charter school in Hull, Mass.

Spreading the program is more of a calling than a profession for its founder. Hirsch takes no money from the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation or royalties from the foundation's books. He and his late mother launched the curriculum "on love," he says, and to this day the foundation runs on a shoestring.

In an era of glad-handing education reformers, Hirsch is an anomaly. He's something of a loner, doing most of his work at a large oak desk in the study of the spacious house that he and his wife, Polly, have owned for 34 years in the wooded hills north of Mr. Jefferson's university.

Hirsch is much more at ease in one-on-one conversation than in public speaking, where he tends to come across as arrogant. He seldom visits a Core Knowledge school, preferring to "leave that to the experts."

The younger Hirsch calls his father an iconoclast who doesn't suffer fools gladly. "My dad likes being an outsider," he says. "If he feels he's getting in a position where he's not the outsider, he makes sure he gets in that position."

In schools where Core Knowledge has taken firm root, first-graders excitedly study Mayan and Aztec cultures. Second-graders learn about the Greek gods Eros and Athena and read "Charlotte's Web" long before the classic is taken up in most schools. And third-graders study the Pueblo Indians and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."

Sappho, Langston Hughes

Fourth-graders take on early African kingdoms and the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. Seventh-graders begin their language arts study with the poets Sappho and Langston Hughes.

Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and member of the Baltimore school board, heads a team evaluating Core Knowledge. "I was in a school in Texas," Stringfield recalls, "and a third-grader came up to me and said, `Do you know how many kinds of galaxies there are?' I was blown away. I didn't know there were kinds of galaxies."

Core Knowledge is rich, says Moloney, because Hirsch "is a boy at heart and understands children better than many teachers."

Adds Gerald Terrell, principal of Paul H. Cale Elementary, a Core Knowledge school just outside Charlottesville: "My children are being exposed to knowledge a lot of adults don't have. It's a broader and more comprehensive education than we've ever had. It makes children more wholesome individuals, individuals who are able to understand how we got here and understand the nature of our people. Parents are ecstatic about it."

High marks from Hopkins

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