My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?
Thinking about how best to teach Walker to read, I’ve learned a bit about two competing approaches to early instruction: whole language and phonics. But another perspective is also present in the debate, arguing that what’s needed is not merely skill at decoding words or picking up on contextual cues; rather, what students need is foundational knowledge. They need to know something concrete about the topics of their readings in order to make sense of them.
I read Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap to better understand this perspective, and ended up reading Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., as well, since his ideas are so much a part of Wexler’s argument. I’m persuaded by Wexler that 1) knowledge about a topic is an aid to reading comprehension; 2) that the process is recursive, with knowledge boosting comprehension, comprehension boosting knowledge, and both spiraling ever upward together; 3) that a student’s knowledge base should be wide indeed, built over years; 4) that a lot of that building must take place outside of school; and 5) to the extent that schools are responsible for helping students construct a sturdy storehouse of knowledge, they need to employ a coherent, strategically designed curriculum that builds sequentially from grade to grade.
Hirsch is the granddaddy of foundational knowledge. His 1987 book took a stab at identifying a good chunk of what (he suggests) Americans need to know to be “culturally literate:” names, dates, historical and cultural references, scientific and philosophical ideas, maxims and adages, and much, much more. From Mother Goose to quasars to the Treaty of Versailles, Hirsch’s list comprises a whole constellation of information and associations that, he says, Americans must have at least a passing familiarity with in order to communicate effectively with one another.
Hirsch’s larger project is to keep American society from falling apart, which he’s concerned it might do if schools continue to neglect their role in teaching a culturally shared body of knowledge. For him, the point of literacy is acculturation. Wexler mostly just wants to improve reading instruction by stressing content over skills. Both writers tend to treat the knowledge base they’re urging on students as value neutral. That is, they understand information and vocabulary, facts and references, to have an existence independent of the uses they get put to.
This is the least persuasive dimension of their argument. After all, there’s a whole body of thought—call it “critical theory” or “discourse analysis”—devoted to uncovering the ways in which information and language and cultural forms of every sort are not at all neutral, but are always, inevitably, contested terrain upon which haves and have-nots duke it out. It is strange to me that, though knowledge is central to their project, neither Hirsch nor Wexler addresses the theory of knowledge that has dominated the academic understanding of culture for many decades now.
Knowledge is power, as the old saying goes. Examining the relationship between the two, Michel Foucault found that the people and institutions with the authority to define knowledge—what information and understandings will be considered legitimate and true—do so in ways that maintain their own political, economic, and cultural power.
Language plays the critical role, since it is the means by which everything gets conceived, defined, discussed, and conveyed. Those with the power to control the language of a culture control what can legitimately be spoken within it.
In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch writes, “What counts in the sphere of public discourse is simply being able to use the language of culture in order to communicate any point of view effectively.” But this is not how it works at all. Rather, points of view are made possible, or not, by that language.
When in the language of a culture “woman” means “the second sex” and only “the second sex,” for example, any point of view cannot be communicated. Rather, only a limited number of points of view can be expressed—or even conceived—until there arises an alternative vocabulary for other ways of thinking and being. Such an alternative vocabulary doesn’t come about on its own; it has to be forged through the conscious effort of people seeking change.
Hirsch believes that the national language, while open to change, is remarkably stable over time and takes shape mostly through unpremeditated, organic processes. “Occasionally,” he writes, “it is possible to change our vocabulary by acts of common will, as we are changing it to remove racism and sexism in language.” He doesn’t acknowledge that “common will” is the product of protracted, on-the-ground, tooth-and-nail struggle. Nor does he consider that the absence of change, the inertia of cultural language that keeps in place the status quo, is also a product of will.
Keeping lodged in the cultural lexicon “Gilbert Stuart, Stuttgart, Strum und Drang, Peter Stuyvesant, and the river Styx,” as Hirsch’s list would do (just to take a tiny snippet from the S’s), is an act of willfully defining which words, which histories, which mythologies people will have access to as they conceive of their world and the possibilities therein. If that act doesn’t actively discourage other ways of thinking and speaking, it doesn’t facilitate them either.
I wish he had acknowledged the longstanding American project aimed at molding the English language to achieve social goals. This project began at least as far back as Emerson, who wanted to free Americans from the imperialist English inherited from Great Britain and to develop a native, American English that would foster democratic ways of speaking and thinking. Way back in the 19th century, Emerson recognized that how we think and act is in every way facilitated and constrained by the language we have at hand.
Emerson was the progenitor of American pragmatism, a philosophy (or, really, anti-philosophy) that sees language not as passive and neutral but as “symbolic action.” In this tradition, American society is a great experimental field in which new ideas and ways of being are constantly being introduced and tried out with conscious intention. Language is the vehicle of this cultural dynamism. According to Ralph Ellison, one of the great 20th-century pragmatists (himself named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, incidentally), “Out of democratic principles set down on paper in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, [Americans] were improvising themselves into a nation, scraping together a conscious culture out of various dialects, idioms, lingos, and methodologies of America’s diverse peoples and regions.” Above all, American pragmatists have seen American language as protean, adaptive, and useful in effecting change.
In Hirsch’s list, we get no sense that the accumulation of constantly evolving and interacting vernaculars—indeed nothing but these vernaculars—is how American culture writ large gets put together. I agree that to be effective in society people need to know things—but I’m not convinced that everyone has to know the same things. Rather, isn’t it more likely, at least in this country, that it’s the head-butt of difference that generates dynamism, innovation, new solutions and possibilities?
Both Wexler and Hirsch, I have no doubt, would promote “diversity” and “inclusion” in whatever knowledge base students get. But just including Maya Angelou and Louis Armstrong alongside Shakespeare and John Wayne in the cultural literacy list is not enough to equip students for either understanding their culture or acting effectively within it. Making sure there are people of color on your curriculum committee probably isn’t sufficient, either.
I suspect that students need skills over knowledge after all—the ability to look at a list like Hirsch’s and pick it apart, drawing on a deep understanding of how “literacy” works within culture both to liberate and oppress. They need habits of mind and heart that lead them relentlessly to question what counts as knowledge, what counts as fact, what counts as true, who says so and why.
Emerson wanted not only to change the English language to promote American democratic ideals; he wanted to change the way Americans read. There was, he reasoned, an imperialist way of reading, which he called “the gaze.” And there was a democratic way of reading, which he called “the glance.” He urged Americans to learn to read via the glance.
When people gaze in their reading, they are like imperial subjects, looking upon the text as though it were a king, the embodiment of authority they dare not question. It would be better for Americans, Emerson said, to give what they read a side-eyed glance, never quite convinced that what they’re seeing on the page is the end of it. A democratic way of being requires an abiding skepticism. In the pragmatist tradition, knowledge is not universal and timeless, but always contingent, always situated in a particular context. The test of knowledge is not its truthfulness but its usefulness— how well it applies in this place, at this time.
That’s the turn of mind I hope Walker acquires. He needs to be a reader, of course— but the kind of reader he is matters, too. I hope he develops the skill to look at whatever knowledge or curriculum his education throws his way—whether from school or from me—with a glance rather than a gaze.