How Schools Fail Democracy

Do schools fail democracy, as argued by E.D. Hirsch Jr., in How Schools Fail Democracy (The Chronicle Review, 9/28/2009)?  Personally, I have been frustrated by public education’s emphasis on skill development for check-lists, competitions, and test-taking with low reference to exposing students to common culture, core values, and must reads (i.e., classics).  As a parent, I have slowly come to own the counter-cultural responsibility of intentionally teaching our common knowledge, but ironically it demands a lot of effort to share who we are (and our roots) while still maintaining ties to the larger culture!

Stepping back to look at the big picture, how do educators come to agreement upon the truths/reality which are to be imparted by schools in the United States of America, e.g., what books are to be read over the course of one’s fifteen minutes of reading per day at home?*  Do Education degree programs have a shared culture on which they can agree and impart to their students as the foundation from which our future direction emerges?  Can they, along with concerned parents/communities, challenge the common cultural definition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness before the consequences run over us (if they already have not done such)?

Too many Americans are in the linguistic shadows now—possibly close to a majority. Despite intense efforts driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, the language abilities of our 17-year-olds have remained stuck at the steeply declined levels of the 1970s, while the language gap between white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other remains distressingly and immovably large.

This language gap represents more than a civic disability that prevents full participation in a democracy. It also represents a bar to general prosperity and social justice. According to studies by the University of Virginia economist William R. Johnson and others, the large wage gaps among demographic groups narrow significantly when scores on a language-comprehension test are factored in. I use the word “language gap” because the usual term, “reading gap,” is far too narrow. Our schools have made progress in imparting technical decoding skills in the early grades, but that improvement in early technical facility has not been followed by improvement in language comprehension in the later grades.

A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like “he struck out” can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like “he was leg before” cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes. …

We cannot assume that such needed knowledge will come to everyone through the pores. Demonstrably, it has not done so. Yet the chief effort in the teaching of “reading” in the schools has been to drill students in how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author” while neglecting systematic instruction in the background knowledge required for participation in the American public sphere. — E.D. Hirsch Jr., How Schools Fail Democracy, The Chronicle Review, 9/28/2009.

*Note:  I have heard it said that some reading, no matter what it is, is better than no reading at all.  I do not agree.  I think that it matters what goes in and the lens/framework by which it is understood.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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