Friday, July 23, 2010

Are we Ketman?

I have been reading the Diane Ravitch book The Death and Life of the American School System after being intrigued by the review written by E.D. Hirsch. Once I realized this was the same Hirsch who authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know which, once upon a time, I actually read I was surprised by how much of what Hirsch said seemed reasonable to me. When I used to teach the large section of intermediate microeconomics (about 10 years ago) my experience was that many of the students couldn't read the New York Times and make good meaning of the pieces I encouraged them to read. I found a Newsweek piece from back in 1987, A Dunce Cap for America (this link is to Ebsco which your Library must subscribe to to get to the record) that talks about Hirsch's book and Allan Bloom's The Closing of The American Mind. The Newsweek piece actually has a line, "Should it take a Ph.D. to read The New York Times?" Then a little later in the piece it has a Pop Quiz:
Here are some things E. D. Hirsch says literate Americans should know in high school. He asks only general familiarity and common associations -- instant recognition, not encyclopedic expertise. (Answers are NEWSWEEK'S.)
1. 1066
2. absolute zero
3. beginning, In the
4. big bad wolf
5. Currier and Ives
6. demonstrative pronoun
7. Doctor Livingstone, I presume?
8. Earp, Wyatt
9. epistemology
10. flapper
11. Get thee behind me, Satan.
12. Hegelian dialectic
13. Hickory, Dickory, Dock (text)
14. I think, therefore I am.
15. Jolly Roger
16. Kafka, Franz
17. Knock on wood
18. lean and hungry look
19. Marx Brothers
20. Nantes, Edict of
21. n.b.
22. open shop
23. Planck's constant
24. Presley, Elvis
25. quadratic equation
26. Remember Pearl Harbor!
27. Remember the Maine!
28. Sherlock Holmes
29. Slough of Despond
30. Typhoid Mary
31. uncertainty principle
32. utilitarianism
33. vector
34. wave-particle duality.
35. Win this one for the Gipper.
36. X-chromosome
37. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
38. Zeitgeist

Answers 1. Norman conquest. 2. molecular motion ceases. 3. Genesis 1:1. 4. Who's afraid? 5. quaint printmakers. 6. this and that. 7. Stanley's greeting. 8. brave, courageous and bold. 9. knowing about knowing. 10. '20s party girl. 11. Jesus to Tempter. 12. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. 13. mouse in motion. 14. Descartes routs doubt. 15. pirate flag. 16. "Metamorphosis" author. 17. to ward off bad luck. 18. what yond Cassius has. 19. Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo. 20. right for French Protestants, 1598. 21. nota bene (Latin: "note well"). 22. nonunionists allowed. 23. quantum theory cornerstone. 24. king of rock. 25. has a squared unknown. 26. World War II battle cry. 27. Spanish-American War battle cry. 28. Elementary! 29. swamp of despair in "Pilgrim's Progress." 30. famous carrier. 31. you can't know a subatomic particle's position and momentum simultaneously. 32. useful=good. 33. line showing size and direction. 34. light behaves like both. 35. Ron's gridiron tear-jerker. 36. the female one. 37. newspaper's reply to doubting tyke. 38. spirit of the age.
I didn't know a few of these - I'm a bit weak on religious references, especially Christian ones, I never read Pilgrim's Progress, and while I think I know what a relative pronoun is, that to which we refer, I was hard pressed to identify a demonstrative pronoun. But I took the point of the whole list. In order to understand stuff, you have to know other stuff. So as an author or a teacher it sure helps to know that there is some common ground of stuff that your readers or students can be expected to already know. Indeed this is true for any adult communication whatsoever. There must be a common base.

But I associate Bloom and Hirsch with the right wing on education, particularly William Bennett, to whom I have a distinct aversion. So I was surprised to read in Hirsch's Wikipedia entry that he is described as a Liberal, which perhaps explains why some of his review resonated with me, though I still had some reservations. Hirsch has it in for John Dewey and his disciples. So, I wonder. Does it really have to be one or the other but not a little bit of both? Must these ideas be argued in such a doctrinaire way? Can't we enjoy reading Hirsch and like reading Jerome Bruner too? If in fact we want to know what we should know then there appears no tension whatsoever, at least to me. The issues arise when it appears that ignorance is preferred and, then, what to do about it. I will write a subsequent post on Ravitch's book when I've finished reading it and try to take on those questions.

I found her history of the events immediately preceding and succeeding A Nation At Risk fascinating. I was an Assistant Professor at the time and pretty locked into my econ research, so this gave me a different perspective of what was happening in the Department of Education then. I should add that the ANAR document itself is well worth the read. It seems to hold equally well today as it did when it was written, though now the risks are even greater having gone through No Child Left Behind, and the emphasis on accountability that continues under President Obama.

Ravitch's history makes the following argument. Politicians shy away from divisive issues that split right down the middle. While in the immediate sequel of ANAR there was a push to define standards, the Left and the Right could not agree on what those standards should be. This produced stalemate that never has gotten resolved, a quagmire that might have produced a new synthesis if we persisted and worked away at it but instead generated a search for the quick and easy way out - which was found in testing and accountability. This part of the history has some interest to it since the evidence in support of the new approach apparently can be substantially questioned because aggregate test performance depends on demographic factors - race and income of the student families - and evidence that originally seemed to provide strong support for the learning benefit of the new methods in retrospect seems to be attributable entirely to a change in the composition of the population that received the treatment. But after reading this I started to get depressed because there was stonewalling on this point. It seemed like a WMD-type argument applied to student learning.

So I looked elsewhere for solace. What I found was this recent blog post by Tony Judt, which gives a comparative of Czeslaw Milosz's Captive Minds, written in the earlier 1950s and focusing on the plight of intellectuals living within the Soviet sphere who couldn't openly argue their ideas and ultimately succumbing to the totalitarianism, since then their thoughts didn't have to be challenged by an unwelcoming public, with current day intellectuals in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere in the West) who have remained too passive in the wake of WMD and the horrific excesses of capitalism that led to the burst of the housing bubble and what ensued thereafter. That thinkers get cowed and then ultimately come to like that in some way because they feel they are not threatened is an interesting idea, one worth exploring. Milosz refers to these intellectuals as Ketmans - minds without moral backbones.

The thought hits close to home. Ravitch in a later chapter that I've yet to read takes to task the charitable Foundations which are providing funding for much of the new school reform - mistakenly applying business principles to the learning environment according to her. One of those is the Gates Foundation, which has recently funded a new Educause initiative, Next Generation Learning Challenges. Will Ravitch's concerns find their way into this program? I know too little about Ravitch's concerns and what NGLC is likely to do to comment intelligently on that question now. As I do learn more, if I see a cause for alarm I will chat this up a bit with colleagues. What then?


Gardner said...

In my view, Hirsch's work helped fuel the mania for high-stakes testing, and his notion of "cultural literacy" is an Escher drawing of teaching people what everyone in the culture already knows. At its nadir, the drafting of the "dictionary" was largely the work of four grad students sitting in a room speculating about what a banker probably knew. I wish I were kidding.

I don't know how Hirsch votes, but it seems odd to call him a liberal. His blanket rejection of Dewey is not in my view well-considered.It's also worth noting that his "what every child should know" series has been quite a profitable industry for him and his assistants. Nothing wrong with making money, of course, but he's certainly been good at playing the broader, more superficial market in ways that are more like Kaplan test prep than they are like genuinely thoughtful educational affordances. Again, in my view.

Ravitch was an early Hirsch supporter. Has that changed?

Lanny Arvan said...

Ravitch argues that the new reformers have a model of liberal education --- constructivism --- coupled with a conservative approach to the business model --- market driven. But in her description of how reading is "taught" all I could see was pedantry. It seems to me that the reformers have captured the label for the pedagogy. A cynical view of that is it serves propaganda purpose rather than a view of how students learn.

It is hard not to be cynical here, I know, but if we tried would these views be so far apart? It is also possible that the Wikipedia reference on Hirsch is itself part of the propaganda.