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Eric Donald Hirsch

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Eric Donald Hirsch

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr.
Born (1928-03-22) March 22, 1928 (age 86)
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Literary critic, educator, and writer

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. (born March 22, 1928) is an American educator and academic literary critic. Now retired, he was until recently the University Professor of Education and Humanities and the Linden Kent Memorial Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Virginia. He is best known for his writings about cultural literacy.

Life and works

Education and early life

Hirsch was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a prosperous Jewish cotton merchant. He attended the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, then studied English at Cornell University (B.A., 1950), and Yale University (Ph.D., 1957) where he was an honorary member of Manuscript Society.

The Romantics

Hirsch began his academic career as a Yale English professor and a scholar of the romantic poets. His first book, Wordsworth and Schelling (1960), was a comparative study of the Romantic or "Enthusiastic" mindset, adapted from his Yale dissertation. His second book, Innocence and Experience (1964), was a monograph on William Blake. Hirsch argued, contra Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom, that Blake's outlook changed markedly from the time when he wrote the Songs of Innocence to the time when he wrote the Songs of Experience, and that the Songs of Experience represent a reply to the earlier work and a satire of his earlier views. The book was awarded the Explicator Prize but its thesis provoked criticism from Blake scholars who had followed Frye's lead in developing systematic interpretations of a more-or-less static Blake.


The next phase of Hirsch's career centered on questions of literary interpretation and hermeneutics. His books Validity in Interpretation (1967) and The Aims of Interpretation (1976) argue that the author's intention must be the ultimate determiner of meaning. At Yale, Hirsch had studied with and taught alongside eminent Yale-based exponents of the "New Criticism," including Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt. His hermeneutic works represent a reaction against New Critical concepts that were omnipresent at the time, especially the idea that texts should be viewed as autonomous objects, without reference to authorial intent.

Hirsch also took issue with Gadamer's Heideggerian hermeneutics, Barthes' concept of "the death of the author," and Derrida's deconstruction. In his hermeneutic work, Hirsch drew extensively on German philosophy, especially the ideas of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Husserl. He popularized the distinction between "meaning" (as intended by the author) and "significance" (as perceived by a reader or critic) and argued for the possibility of objective knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. Hirsch's hermeneutic books are controversial, and his defense of authorial intention remains a minority position in Academia, though a widely cited one. "Validity in Interpretation" has remained continuously in print for more than 40 years and has been translated into German, Italian, Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian.


In the late sixties Hirsch moved from Yale to the University of Virginia, where he became department chairman and head of the composition program. In 1977 he published The Philosophy of Composition, an investigation into the question of what makes writing more or less readable. The key concept in the work is the concept of relative readability. Hirsch argues that readability must be assessed relative to the writer's "semantic intentions." One text is more readable than another if it conveys the same semantic intention (i.e., meaning) more succinctly and clearly, so as to demand less effort from the reader. The goal of composition instruction, according to Hirsch, is to find ways of conveying the same meaning more clearly, effectively, and efficiently. The book was widely reviewed and somewhat controversial.

From Composition to Cultural Literacy

Hirsch's work on composition led to a major shift in his career. During the late 1970s, while giving tests of relative readability at two colleges in Virginia, he discovered that while the relative readability of a text was an important factor in determining speed of uptake and comprehension, an even more important consideration was the reader's possession—or lack of—relevant background knowledge. Students at the University of Virginia were able to understand a passage on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, while students at a Richmond community college struggled with the same passage, apparently because they lacked basic understanding of the American Civil War. This and related discoveries led Hirsch to formulate the concept of cultural literacy — the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging cultural background knowledge. He concluded that schools should not be neutral about what is taught but should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers tend to take for granted.

The concept of cultural literacy was initially adumbrated in an article, "Culture and Literacy," published in the Journal of Basic Writing. Some time later, Hirsch published an article, "Cultural Literacy" in The American Scholar in 1983. His book-length exposition of the subject, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, was published in 1987.

Cultural Literacy

Cultural Literacy was widely reviewed and became a best-seller. It rose to number 2 on the New York Times Bestseller lists for nonfiction, just behind Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, with which it was frequently reviewed and compared. The appendix to the book, a long list of names, dates, places, sayings, etc., Hirsch and his collaborators thought every American ought to know, attracted a great deal of attention. Hirsch's ideas were extremely controversial. Although himself a liberal, he was attacked as a neo-conservative and an advocate for a conservative, lily-white curriculum, a promoter of "drill and kill" pedagogy and a reactionary force. His theories were criticized for not addressing supposed differences in learning styles and for not adequately including the contributions of African Americans and other ethnic minorities to American culture.

Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge

Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986, and published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy[1] in 1988.

The Core Knowledge Sequence and The Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence lay out the information Hirsch and his associates at the Core Knowledge Foundation believe should be taught in each grade. The Core Knowledge Sequence has been revised several times and is available online, free of charge.[2]

Beginning in 1990s Hirsch began publishing books in the Core Knowledge Series. Each book focuses on the content knowledge that should be taught to each particular elementary grade level. There are currently eight books in print, beginning with What Your Preschooler Needs to Know and ending with What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The books have been popular with teachers and homeschooling parents. In 2011 a British version of the sequence was published online[3] and the books began to be adapted for the UK, beginning with What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know.[4]

The revised national curriculum for England being proposed by Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is said to have been heavily influenced by E.D. Hirsch.[5] Some educationists have been strongly opposed to the core-knowledge approach.[6] Their claim that a knowledge-rich curriculum 'deprofessionalises' teachers has been contradicted.[7] 100 academics wrote to the Daily Telegraph arguing that the focus on facts in new national curriculum would prevent children from acquiring 'thinking skills'.[8]

Ed School critique

In 1996, Hirsch published The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that Romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are prevalent in America, and are not only the cause of America's lackluster educational performance, but also a cause of widening inequalities in class and race. Hirsch portrays the focus of American educational theory as one which attempts to give students intellectual tools such as "critical thinking skills", but which denigrates teaching any actual content, labeling it "mere rote learning". Hirsch states that it is this attitude which has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.

A sample passage on Romanticism, from The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them:

Romanticism believed that human nature is innately good, and should therefore be encouraged to take its natural course, unspoiled by the artificial impositions of social prejudice and convention. Second, Romanticism concluded that a child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the adult nor a formless piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to develop and run their course.

The Schools We Need included sharp criticism of American schools of education. Hirsch described the contemporary ed. school as a "Thoughtworld," hostile to research-based findings and dissenting ideas.

Recent works

In 2006 Hirsch published, The Knowledge Deficit, in which he continued the argument made in Cultural Literacy. Disappointing results on reading tests, Hirsch argued, can be traced back to a knowledge deficit that keeps students from making sense of what they read.

His most recent book is The Making of Americans; Democracy and Our Schools (2009), in which he makes the case that the true mission of the schools is to prepare citizens for participation in our democracy by embracing a common-core, knowledge-rich curriculum as opposed to the current content-free approach. He laments 60 years without a curriculum in our schools because of the anti-curriculum approach championed by John Dewey and other Progressives.

Fellowships, awards, and memberships

Hirsch has been awarded several fellowships and honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship (1955), the Morse Fellowship (1960), the Guggenheim Fellowship (1964), the Explicator Prize (1965), the NEA Fellowship (1970), the NEH Senior Fellowship (1971-71), the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities Fellowship (1973), the Princeton University Fellowship in the Humanities (1977), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship at Stanford University (1980–81).

He has received honorary degrees from Rhodes College and Williams College.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.


  • Wordsworth and Schelling (1960)
  • Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (1964)
  • Validity in Interpretation (1967)
  • The Aims of Interpretation (1976)
  • The Philosophy of Composition (1981)
  • Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987))
  • The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988)
  • The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them (1996)
  • The Validity of Allegory in Convegno internazionale sul tema ermeneutica e critica: Roma 7-8 ottobre 1996. Roma: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1998.
  • The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil (2002)
  • The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006)
  • The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (2010)
  • A collection of articles and speeches by E. D. Hirsch



External links

  • Core Knowledge Foundation
  • Information at Hoover Institution
  • Public School Insights interview with E.D. Hirsch Posted September 2, 2008
  • Profile of Hirsch at PhilWeb
  • Hirsch Discusses his book The Making of Americans on C-Span. Video
  • Education Next Interviews Nathan Glazer on E. D. Hirsch. Video
  • Sol Stern, "E. D. Hirsch's Curriculum for Democracy", City Journal, Autumn 2009, Vol. 19, No. 4.
  • Christopher Hitchens, "Why We Don't Know What We Don't Know," New York Times, May 13, 1990

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