Curriculum: The influence of ED Hirsch...

Written by: Greg Sloan | Published:
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How can a child think if he or she has nothing to think about? Thus knowledge-based learning. ...

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As part of his Master’s studies, teacher Greg Sloan has dissected the impact that ED Hirsch’s influence on education ministers has had on our curriculum culture. He argues why this will do nothing for the culture of success in our schools...

The idea of a new national curriculum is taking us backwards. The recent changes to the curriculum and its lists of “key course content” seem to have returned us back to a time when the classroom prioritised classical, canonical texts and theories.

This brings with it obvious challenges to classrooms and institutions in which pre-existing background knowledge and any preconceived ideas of culture differ hugely from student to student.

The recent article by Chris Kirk in the TES (January 2017) about government interference and the shambolic consultations and (lack of) response to the English Baccalaureate also highlighted just how confusing and necessary this process can be when government departments attempt to tell teachers what it is that is good for our children to know.

But taking this a step further, have all the academic arguments for not teaching a national curriculum simply disappeared? Maybe in the sheer confusion around the new progress measures and total lack of guidance for what could constitute a national assessment strategy, education professionals have simply allowed a narrow band of cultural literacy champions in the Department for Education (DfE) to dictate to us what we are supposed to teach to young people.

The new curriculum has been drawn up within the ideology and pedagogy of the cultural literacy model as championed by ED Hirsch, the American educationalist who gave us Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know back in 1987.

Schools minister Nick Gibb highlighted how eager the government were to embed this approach: “In the first meeting of civil servants after the 2010 election to discuss the curriculum review, all the officials came into the office with bound copies of the core knowledge curriculum and in this way Hirsch’s work in America provided us with a tangible precedent for our thinking on the English national curriculum, which could reassure civil servants that we were not entirely alone in our ideas.”

The binding of our curriculum to that of the cultural literacy approach is at least preferable to just the pure folly of one or two individuals, as the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg noted when he saw the then education secretary Michael Gove personally drawing up the kings and queens that he thought were suitable for the new history specification! (Hughes, 2015 – see

However, the ideas of Hirsch are controversial because they propose that there are set ideas that all people should know and set lists of knowledge that all children should be taught. By knowing these things people will then be culturally literate enough to move (successfully) through the world. Essentially it means teaching people facts. It doesn’t take much theorising on this Gradgrindian approach to education to reach some fairly obvious and clear problems.

However, the subjective, value-based nature of Hirsch’s ideas do not need much further elucidation – it replicates the same kind of sentiment as can be found in the UK government’s decision to introduce the EBacc.

For example, he states no need for study of language arts which he sees as “cognitive wastelands” (Hirsch, 2009: 42). To arrive at his claims Hirsch analysed the data from SATs across America that showed a decline in reading, writing and mathematical ability since the 1960s up until the 1990s.

For Hirsch the blame is clear: “An influx of educators trained in child-centered, anti-curriculum ideas, along with an influx of skills-oriented textbooks reflecting the anti-curriculum point of view” (2009: 26).

Allowing students to be individuals and to allow a breadth and depth of education is something that Hirsch sees as damaging rather than emancipatory. His outline for a culturally literate society is one in which there is a core knowledge understood by everybody and for this to happen there needs to be more standardisation, not less.

“We have moved to the proposition that, in order to enable communication in the public sphere, commonality of language requires commonality of knowledge. Now we need to take the next logical step. Commonality of knowledge requires commonality in schooling” (2009: 114). This is exactly what our new national curriculum is intended to do.

Below is an example of just a few “key themes” designed as a result of the lists of core knowledge provided by Hirsch and then adapted into current school curriculums.

  • Things every year 1 child should know: Acorns, Continents, Mexico, Jungles, AA Milne, Musical Pitch.
  • Things every year 2 child should know: Tap-dancing, Louis Pasteur, Rabies, Atlantic Ocean, Dinosaur Bones (further examples of this can be found at

How they arrived at these decisions of culture one will never know. The need to specifically identify that all children must know about Acorns, AA Milne and Mexico seems a little ridiculous. But this is a much larger criticism about the nature of “facts” in education.

Hirsch and his supporters defensively attempt to frame his argument as a social justice story, one in which a formalised curriculum will unlock the achievement of the lower classes and tackle the cultural shortcomings and cultural disparity affecting the achievements of many students.

Hirsch himself attempts to combat accusations of elitism and snobbery in his later works by quoting and sympathising with left wing intellectuals in their desire for a commonality within schooling.

But these arguments are disingenuous and inaccurate; a call for greater equality in schooling standards is not the same as asking for an inevitably limiting set of topics to be discussed on repeat in every educational setting. If anything this idea could do many students a disservice. By narrowing their curriculum down to lists it dissolves the enthusiasm for a breadth and depth of knowledge alongside an enthusiasm for self-investigation of the academic world that the most privileged students often possess.
There is also the problem that it is impossible to split the lists of core knowledge and facts that Hirsch derives from culture from that of the power structures of western tradition.

This common culture that Hirsch seeks can never be as such to all minority groups if it is not what their culture already believes (Apple, 2000: 59-60).

There are clearly issues around whose culture is being championed here, and the uncertain nature of how he arrives at knowing what is worthy of study and what isn’t.

Hirsch’s dismissive non-explanation speaks volumes: “Once you start down that road, where will you stop?” (Hirsch, 1996: 31). Hirsch seems content with the current cultural status quo – the existing classics are the classics and there is nothing we can do about this.

The problems in definition and subjectivity for what constitutes culture or worthy knowledge also raise more than just a small problem for the champions of cultural literacy and the curriculum. Raymond Williams points out in Keywords that culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams 1985: 87) and Terry Eagleton highlights how “many of the advocates of Dante or Goethe have never read a word of them” (Eagleton, 2000, p53).

It is the symbolic nature of culture and of being cultured that is important to many. This argument can also find a clear target in the government’s seemingly archaic attempts to insert British Values onto the curriculum. The ideas of national identity and cultural identity are seemingly hot topics again and recently Kwame Anthony Appiah in his insightful and articulate Reith Lectures on this issue encouraged us all to dispel any attempts to try and define and predetermine the cultures and identities of anyone at all.

We should resist any attempts at perpetuating a canon of culture predominantly from a false idea of western civilization “people have supposed that an identity that survives through time and space must be propelled by some potent common content. But that is simply a mistake” (Appiah, 2016 – see

But if we can clearly see the intellectual holes in the current curriculum design and the arguments around defining, arbitrarily, what it is that students must know, then why do we not do more to tackle or remedy this?

The idea of “the canon” or “powerful knowledge” must be defeated if students from all backgrounds are to progress equally (as is now becoming all to obvious for many formerly “high-achieving” schools who now sit much lower down on the list contemplating a low Progress 8 score).

There must be a constructive dialogue between the tastes of the teacher and those of the students, so that “the necessity for discrimination, an irrelevance in the process of understanding, withers away” (Masterman, 1980: 20). The danger we now face is how to resist the inevitable consequences of canon formation that will affect our teaching and students’ academic lives now that their experiences of subjects will be inevitably narrowed to the core canon established by government departments.

We run the risk of losing the rich range of cultures that we have at our disposal by trying to seek for a “better” culture somewhere in an imaginary canon of work that never even existed.

“We should not forget that the effects of this alienation are sometimes permanent, and that it is precisely ‘one’s own’ culture which sometimes fails to survive the culture of the school” (Guillory,1993:41).

In my own context I have been trying to remedy and “co-opt” the new curriculum by working with students in my secondary school in Hackney by curating cultural topics from the curriculum to which they “curate back” texts and ideas from their own cultures.

The students run their own blogs and websites in which they collect and keep the often-elitist, canonised culture on the curriculum and they work with this (because they have to), but they co-opt and dilute this influence by applying to it new culture and new topics that are relevant to their lives.

The “cultural capital” on offer in this type of cooperative student-focused practice is often much richer and diverse than any form of top-down approach to cultural capital given to us from the DfE.

Why shouldn’t we allow students to take knowledge that is important (as decided by as wide a range of educational professionals as possible) and complete relevant work that uses this as a starting point from which to bring in theories, concepts and culture that they find relevant?

Many who were involved in the curriculum overhaul speak of how their ideas for this were changed by government officials during the design process for this new cultural literacy curriculum that nobody asked for.

David Buckingham provides insight into the process and his negotiations with the DfE for my own subject of media studies: “We were keen that any named theorists should have the status of examples. So we might have ‘semiotics, e.g. Barthes’ or ‘theories of representation, e.g. Hall’. Somewhere in the process, ‘e.g.’ was changed to ‘including’, in line with the ‘knowledge-based’ approach.

“Despite several responses to the public consultation challenging this (including that of the MEA), the DfE was not prepared to shift. And so we have a de facto canon of media studies theory, set in tablets of stone, that all students at this level will be required to study” (Buckingham, 2016 – see

The solution to this “canon-centric curriculum” could lie in a bespoke, locally curated curriculum culture that is fluid and responsive to the needs of the intake and demographic of the individual institution. One in which teachers and students collaborate to curate facts and culture of importance to them.

We now have the technological tools in which to change this and it’s time we co-opted the cultural hegemony at the top of our education hierarchy for something much more useful, relevant and personalised to the lives and experiences of the young people we teach. We do not need the new national curriculum we need a new way of collaborating around academically relevant culture from a combination of backgrounds and positions.

How can a child think if he or she has nothing to think about? Thus knowledge-based learning. There is nothing magic about acorns and continents, but Hirsch has done the work that few others have: making decisions and tracing a trajectory. It is a starting point from which you might add and subtract-- he never claims those things are magic-- but what is more ridiculous than the "scandal of particularity" is the scandal of vacuousness. Better something than nothing.
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