‘Cultural Literacy’, ‘Key Facts’ and Hard Times

Teachers, parents and school governors need to take a look at this report in the Guardian this week:


Hirschism, if there is such a thing, is spreading fast through the English school system. Two proposed new primary free schools – the West London free school, backed by journalist Toby Young, and the Pimlico Academy primary – are planning to base their lessons on it. A new curriculum centre is devoting its efforts to promoting it, and a right-leaning thinktank is publishing a series of how-to guides on it for teachers.

Moreover, a new primary curriculum – due to be implemented in 2014 – has Hirsch at its heart. Both Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Nick Gibb, until recently his schools minister, and architect of a major review of the curriculum, have been profoundly impressed by his ideas.

So who is ED Hirsch? What does he believe? And how on earth did he manage to influence the way children across England will learn – without even being aware he was doing so?

Good questions. Apparently, in “a hugely influential book”, first published in 1983 (!), on what he calls Cultural Literacy, Hirsch argued that

All American children needed a body of “core knowledge” which would allow them to function as fully rounded citizens – and that, as some were not absorbing this knowledge at home, they needed to be taught it at school. He even added an appendix, with long lists of facts, words and phrases whose significance every US child should know: the Adirondack Mountains; the Alamo; Alaska; the Founding Fathers.

In the ensuing years – during which Hirsch was greeted by the American right as a prophet and a saviour, and by the left as a scion of the empire of evil – these ideas solidified. Hirsch published a series of further works, which argued that children not only needed a clear body of factual knowledge but that they should also learn that knowledge in a very highly structured way – starting with basics and building up, rather than taking a more thematic approach.

Hirsch’s position as an influential figure in American education has long been established – he set up a body called the Core Knowledge Foundation, which has spread his philosophy across the States – but how did he come to be influential here?

Indeed. The answer is really quite simple: because our education system has been taken over by people whose model of learning is based on Victorian didacticism, as described by Charles Dickens in Hard Times:

Chapter I — The One Thing Needful

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Chapter II — Murdering The Innocents

Michael Gove, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Toby Young, sir — peremptorily Toby — Toby Young. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.

As he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

And so the peasantry must have their heads filled with Facts – facts about the Adirondack Mountains; the Alamo; Alaska; the Founding Fathers – if you’re in the USA. No doubt facts about the Pennines, Waterloo, Trafalgar, Cromwell, the British Empire, the House of Windsor and Winston Churchill, if you’re English. Lord knows which Facts we might drum into our children if we want them to grow up as Europeans, or even World Citizens. The important thing is that they must know and must remember the Facts that we adults already know – some of us – even though they have access to far more Facts on their smartphones than we could ever imagine.

The really outrageous thing about all this is that it’s a well known FACT that children learn far more and learn much faster if they’re actually interested in what they’re learning, and if they have some say in setting their own personalised learning agendas, having first of all established a love of learning for its own sake.

So – is the REAL agenda here to impose a view of the world – as to what’s important and what’s not important – on young children, and to ensure that from the very outset our children become, and remain, passive vessels who simply wait to have imperial gallons of government-approved FACTS poured into them, a la Gradgrind, and M’Choakumchild?

‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

And this could well be the next, the newest, and the mother of all National Curriculums, to say nothing of the English Bac and the Tech Bac, or the Engtech Bac.

Mr Gradgrind was much obliged. ‘Mr M’Choakumchild, we only wait for you.’

So, Mr M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within — or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

Hopefully Hard Times will be included in the new National Curriculum as a key text that all children should be familiar with. Maybe as THE key text.

Sample comprehension questions:

Should all children be forced to learn whatever Key Facts certain politically-motivated   adults say they should learn?

Should those facts be changed and be determined by whichever politicians currently form the government?

Should all teachers be forced to teach the same curriculum regardless of the enthusiasms and preferences of their pupils?

Should children be passive or active learners?

Should children (and by implication teachers) be tested to ensure they have ‘remembered’ the ‘key facts’ and can therefore be considered “culturally literate”?

Related articles

. Thomas Gradgrind

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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2 Responses to ‘Cultural Literacy’, ‘Key Facts’ and Hard Times

  1. Professions for PEACE says:

    Another powerful post from 3Di! Incredible. Brilliant inclusion of Dicken’s Hard Times. Imagine teaching children like this: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Scary! If children cannot be encouraged to read what they want and learn more about what they are truly interested in, then the educational systems have not come far since Victorian times. Thank you for another eye-opening article! Good on you! ~Gina


    • 3D Eye says:

      Many thanks for this and for all your other comments, Gina. You keep us going, as do our other regular readers and commenters! This elitist nonsense of ‘cultural literacy’ really needs to be resisted. We hear versions of this all the time – most often from politicians and others who have attended (academic) ‘crammers’ or were sent away to boarding schools, and subsequently went on to the so-called elite universities. It’s sheer arrogance for them to assume that they belong to a cultural elite and that the rest of us have no ‘culture’ worthy of the name. These people are on a par with a man like Gradgrind who arrogantly assumes that he has the right to tell a young girl that she, and her father, must not abbreviate her name to Sissy. These are spiritually barren people who secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, really hate the ‘plebs’. Dickens no doubt encountered such people quite regularly, especially after becoming a famous author, and he had the spirit and the nerve to skilfully and forensically expose their vile class-based assumptions about ‘culture’ and their aggressive and belittling attitudes towards those whom they saw as the ‘lower orders’. As for their ignorance about children’s developmental needs, and about learning and teaching – well you know we’ll always speak our minds and try to stand up for children’s rights as positively and persuasively as we can.


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