Education Federal File

Back in the Fray

By David J. Hoff — October 23, 2006 2 min read
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The curriculum outlined by the best-selling education thinker E.D. Hirsch Jr. in his new book sounds familiar to Lynne V. Cheney.

Mr. Hirsch’s book describes the schools she attended in Casper, Wyo., in the 1940s and the 1950s, Mrs. Cheney said last week. She learned to read with phonics, and teachers in the early grades read to her and her classmates every day, she said at an Oct. 16 forum about Mr. Hirsch’s new book, The Knowledge Deficit, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“We did all of the things that are in Don’s descriptions,” Mrs. Cheney said, referring to the University of Virginia professor of humanities and education by the name he uses socially.

Although ideas about de-emphasizing subject matter to allow students to learn through their own experiences had started to take root in American schools when Mrs. Cheney was a student, her teachers stayed with their old- school methods.

“They simply had never been infected with the disease,” she said, referring to the methods associated with progressive education that she and Mr. Hirsch have often criticized.

In The Knowledge Gap, Mr. Hirsch argues that U.S. students’ achievement lags because the curriculum they study favors experiential learning over ensuring students learn content and develop their skills. Schools need to offer a “liberal arts education,” teaching subjects such as history and literature in depth, he said at the forum. Students’ reading, writing, and other skills would improve by studying those subjects, he said.

As one of two discussants of Mr. Hirsch’s presentation, Mrs. Cheney voiced concern that the book argues for a common curriculum—something she said would be too close to a national curriculum. As the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993, under President Reagan and the first President Bush, Mrs. Cheney underwrote efforts to write national U.S. history standards. She later criticized the result for not requiring students to learn specific facts and events.

“One of the lessons of the not-so-distant past is that [national efforts] are dangerous and easily corrupted,” said Mrs. Cheney, who has remained a senior fellow at the AEI while also handling her public role as the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Hirsch said he isn’t proposing a national curriculum. “Curriculum should have a common core, but not be determined down to every detail,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week

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