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Popular Educational Classics

A Reader

Edited By Joseph L. DeVitis

The last half century has created deep tensions in how we analyze educational and social change. Educators, policymakers, and concerned citizens have had to cope with competing belief systems in evaluating and acting upon school policies and practices. This illuminating book untangles many of the roots of those persistent debates that have divided the nation for so long. It offers readers a critical opportunity to reflect on our continuing ideological struggles by examining popular books that have made a difference in educational discourse.
The editor has specifically selected key books on social and educational controversies that speak to wide audiences. They frame contextual issues that so-called «school reformers» have often neglected – much to the detriment of any real educational progress. Ultimately, this text is meant to stir our consciences, to disorder our certainties, and to compel us to treat education and culture with both reason and passion. It is highly relevant for courses in social foundations of education, school reform, educational policy studies, philosophy of education, history of education, politics of education, curriculum studies, and teacher education.
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Chapter Seventeen: E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)


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E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)

Emily Nemeth and Karen Graves


“Of course it’s cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism has gotten a bad rap.” That’s how a seminar participant recalls hearing E.D. Hirsch, Jr., defend his argument at the core of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know a few years after the book was published.1 In 1987 the celebrated Professor of English at the University of Virginia had weighed in on the national concern regarding illiteracy. He posited that cultural literacy—the “traditional literate knowledge, the information, attitudes, and assumptions that literate Americans share”—was the only sure remedy for interrupting and disrupting the relationship between illiteracy and poverty.2 It was a bold claim, with clear ramifications for public schools. Hirsch traced a decline in literacy to a favorite punching bag in American politics: colleges of education. Condensing the diverse mix of philosophies and curricula that characterized teacher preparation programs into a pappy concoction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey, and operating on the assumption that whatever is taught in college finds its way directly to school practice, Hirsch claimed that teachers’ emphasis on the processes of learning had displaced content knowledge in the nation’s schools. His analysis of the literacy problem relied on a transmission model of schooling, one that holds that the school’s primary purpose is to introduce students to a shared culture that enables...

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