Challenging the Intellectual Monopoly

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University of Virginia educator and best-selling author E.D. Hirsch Jr. has long championed content-based curricula over what he sees as abstract--and discredited--theories of how children learn. In his latest book, The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them, he deepens and extends his arguments for the primacy of academic challenge in school reform and seeks to explain why the history and processes of American public education have led us to the schools we have.

Though critics often complain of the public education "monopoly," Mr. Hirsch notes that monopolistic control in other modern nations, like Japan and Norway, does not result in lowered quality. In the United States, he says, the problem extends beyond institutional monopoly to encompass a deep-seated intellectual uniformity that is aided and abetted by education schools, philanthropies, and official agencies of every stripe. His message, encapsulated in the excerpt below, is that the field is in desperate need of vigorous challenge--from within and without.

Our American experience demonstrates that an intellectual monopoly which requires conformity of ideas is more stultifying than a merely institutional one. Despite the myth of local control, the intellectual monopoly ruling American K-12 education is more pervasive and harmful than the merely bureaucratic control exercised in other liberal democracies. Its prevailing ideas are more extreme and process-dominated than those found in systems that are more successful than our own.

Who will challenge this intellectual monopoly? How can parents, politicians, and philanthropists be expected to perceive that the slogans of educational experts are misleading polarizations and simplifications? Who, unwarned of their seductions, would wish to oppose "critical and creative thinking" or "self-esteem" or "attention to the individuality of the child," or would deliberately wish to impose "developmentally inappropriate" tasks upon young children? How can ordinary citizens be expected to know that these phrases, applied as they currently are, produce the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve? Consider the following paradoxes:

  • To stress critical thinking while de-emphasizing knowledge reduces a student's capacity to think critically.
  • Giving a child constant praise to bolster self-esteem regardless of academic achievement breeds complacency, or skepticism, or both, and, ultimately, a decline in self-esteem.
  • For a teacher to pay significant attention to each individual child in a class of 20 to 40 students means individual neglect for most children most of the time.
  • Schoolwork that has been called "developmentally inappropriate" has been proved to be highly appropriate to millions of students the world over, while the infantile pabulum now fed to American children is developmentally inappropriate (in a downward direction) and often bores them.

Inundated by high-sounding slogans, parents, politicians, and philanthropists cannot be expected to exercise skepticism unless they are provided access to well-established alternative expertise--the chief requisite for true reform. One barrier to developing such expertise has been the politicization of educational issues that are at bottom technical rather than political. For example, finding the most effective methods for teaching young children how to read is a technical rather than an ideological matter. Yet the "phonics approach" to reading instruction is identified with "conservative," "hickory stick" Republicans, while the "whole-language approach" is identified with "liberal," "wishy-washy" Democrats.

In the heat of this battle, few have wished to heed researchers like Jeanne Chall and Marilyn Jager Adams, who found that a middle-of-the-road approach is the most effective teaching method. But what rancorous attacks from both sides these researchers have endured, what cynicism about their "hidden agendas"! Indeed, because Ms. Adams' work was sponsored by research grants from the U.S. Department of Education, two education professors from Teachers College, Columbia University, insisted upon inserting in her book a more "liberal," pro-whole-language "Afterword," adding to the public confusion.

In this case, the confusion over reading methods might abate if the participants or members of the public asked research psychologists how they view this dispute about phonics vs. whole language. In mainline departments of psychology (as distinct from education school departments of psychology), among those who have studied the subject there is consensus supporting the Chall-Adams middle-of-the-road conclusion. Still, mainline research findings are simply ignored in favor of polarization. It is assumed that any challenge to progressive educational orthodoxy must be a politically conservative challenge. This tactic has been quite effective in silencing criticism and avoiding changes in practice.

One must look to the mainline press for public criticism of these bankrupt ideas, but so far the outlook for an effective challenge from this quarter has proved to be bleak. Despite the social and economic significance of schooling, reporters tend to consider the education beat the way they do agricultural reporting in the hinterlands--of enormous importance but dull. Education is usually assigned to a junior reporter, who, just as he or she has gained useful knowledge and skepticism, is elevated to another beat. If only our education reporting came close to the shrewdness, skepticism, and probing of our political reporting, we might see plenty of informed criticism in the press, and thereafter in the foundation world and the general public.

I recently received from a well-informed parent a long, exasperated letter, which quoted the following press comment on education from a local paper:

On our wish list for graduates the first item would be the ability to read at least moderately complex material with comprehension, and to clearly express oneself. Also at the top of the list would be reasoning and problem-solving ability. With these two tools, graduates would be prepared for a reality they may not expect: that learning does not end with school. Few jobs today are done exactly the way they were a decade ago. Workers have had to learn new skills, new technologies just to keep their jobs, let alone move up. Increasingly, workers who cannot learn will fall behind ... so schools will need to prepare students for a lifetime of learning.

The parent then proceeded to point out that (amid the truisms about modern employment) the newspaper was advancing the same fallacies promulgated by educators and reformers: 1) that it is possible to teach abstract reading ability; 2) that it is possible to teach abstract problem-solving ability; and 3) that once provided with these abstract abilities, students would be able to pursue a "lifetime of learning." As our parent pointed out, each of these three assumptions is a half-truth whose limitations the reporter or editor obviously knew nothing of.

The press is the best agency for challenging the intellectual status quo and for bringing issues out into the daylight. It would be of great benefit to the general public if reporters turned to two neglected sources of scientific and technical expertise--educational specialists in Europe and Asia, and American researchers who work outside the educational community. Education reporters rarely interview researchers in departments of psychology. If they did, they would learn that the mainstream scientific community gives little credence to many of the psychological presuppositions of the educational community, such as the assumption that children can be taught generalized critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

The public needs to be offered choice of ideas even more than choice of schools. The educational community, operating behind a web of slogans and brooking no internal dissent, resists the scrutiny and the rough-and-tumble of scientific criticism that characterizes subject-matter disciplines. A well-informed press might begin to induce dissent where it is most needed--within the American educational community itself. I know from direct experience that there are many people in that community who would break out of enforced intellectual conformity if given the chance to do so.

Vol. 16, Issue 10, Pages 39, 52

Published in Print: November 6, 1996, as Challenging the Intellectual Monopoly
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