Charlotte Mason, E.D. Hirsch, and Dropping Science Labs Because Science is Just Too White

It’s a despicable attempt, it really is. It defines everything that most outrages me about the false help offered by the left- ‘help’ that only permanently disables its victims. This is the sort of bigoted help that demeans, patronizes, and victimizes children of minorities. This sort of disdain for minority children is insidious and just nasty:


The racial madness that has left-wing America in its thrall finds its apogee in the Berkeley, California public schools. Berkeley High School is now poised to eliminate science laboratory classes because “science labs were largely classes for white students.” Eric Klein writes in The East Bay Express:

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High’s School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley’s dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

This is paternalism- the sort that prompted ante-bellum white slave owners to insist that keeping blacks in slavery was for their own good- they weren’t capable of handling freedom and they weren’t mentally capable of taking care of themselves. One of the tragedies of this age is the way black children have bought into this deadening patronization, telling each other that doing well in school is ‘acting white.’ So now the adults in charge are telling them they’re right- science is just for white kids, blacks can’t handle it? Is that REALLY the message they want to communicate?

The sheer racism of identifying science as something primarily for whites seems not to penetrate the addled minds of those who fancy themselves advocates for black and Latino students. The absence of any consideration of Asian students is also striking. The city of Berkeley has more Asian households (12,641) than black households (10,874) or Latino households (8,466).

LaShawn Barber has written about this, too. One important point is that these lab science classes are before and after school programs. They are voluntary. And they are being cut because the majority of the students who are seeking before and after school help with their science labs are white. That’s kind of a kick in the teeth to a struggling student trying to do better, isn’t it? Is this going to foster healthy racial relations in Berkeley High? If you were a poor white kid trying to get ahead, working hard in an after school program that was cut off because only you and your white peers were taking advantage of it, how would you feel?

That Berkeley parents and educators could even consider a plan like this is an illustration of how and why these kids really need to be better served by their public schools, of find other ways of gaining an education.

Cultural Literacy by Ed Hirsch
should be required reading by all those who purport to dabble in the education of American children. He began his great work when he was teaching at the University of Virginia and was concerned about the inadequate writing courses then available. They weren’t helping the UV students who were already struggling.

In trying to figure out how to close this “literacy gap,” Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered “a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences.”

Education, wrote Charlotte Mason in the 19th century, is the science of relations, and it still is. We all bring certain background knowledge and experience to the learning table, and some background knowledge is so basic and universal that those who have it are blessed with a genuine headstart.

Hirsch wanted elementary school teachers to focus on imparting this background knowledge. This was even more important, he felt, then teaching basic reading and writing. I agree- because teaching basic reading is really not that complex, but reading skills will never really grow beyond the rudimentary levels if readers lack the knowledge it takes to make reading sentences like “The discovery, in 1848, of gold in California bestowed upon America the Midas-touch it had fervently prayed for” or comprehensible.

Hirsch’s insight contravened the conventional wisdom in the nation’s education schools: that teaching facts was unimportant, and that students instead should learn “how to” skills.

This is a pernicious doctrine that has been influencing educators for over a century. Charlotte Mason called it a farce as long ago as 1922:

We must give up the farce of teaching young people how to learn, which is just as felicitous a labour and just as necessary as to teach a child the motions of eating without offering him food… The multitudinous things that every person wants to know must be made accessible in the schoolroom, not by diagrams, digests, and abstract principles; but boys and girls, like ‘Kit’s little brother,’ must learn ‘what oysters is’ by supping on oysters. There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books.… We have to face two difficulties. We do not believe in children as intellectual persons nor in knowledge as requisite and necessary for intellectual life.

Eventually, Hirsch would go on to start:

the Core Knowledge Foundation, which sought to create a knowledge-based curriculum for the nation’s elementary schools. A wide range of scholars assisted him in specifying the knowledge that children in grades K–8 needed to become proficient readers.

The author of this article (quoted extensively in this blog post which you are reading) had children in one of those ‘how to learn’ schools:

My children were students at P.S. 87 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School. Our school enjoyed a reputation as one of the city’s education jewels, and parents clamored to get their kids in. But most of the teachers and principals had trained at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a bastion of so-called progressive education, and militantly defended the progressive-ed doctrine that facts were pedagogically unimportant. I once asked my younger son and some of his classmates, all top fifth-grade students, whether they knew anything about the historical figure after whom their school was named. Not only were they clueless about the military leader who delivered the final blow that brought down America’s slave empire; they hardly knew anything about the Civil War, either. When I complained to the school’s principal, he reassured me: “Our kids don’t need to learn about the Civil War. What they are learning at P.S. 87 is how to learn about the Civil War.”

Progressives did what they tend to do best, and that was attack the messenger, particularly calling him an elitist racist conservative.


In fact, Hirsch is and always has been a liberal Democrat. Far from being elitist, he insists, cultural literacy is the path to educational equality and full citizenship for the nation’s minority groups. “Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

I suspect that Hirsch is an old school liberal, a Jeffersonian Democrat, because he:

could see how the progressives’ education agenda was rooted in a deeply flawed understanding of child development that went back to Rousseau. “The Romantics were wonderful for poetry but wrong about life,” Hirsch tells me, “and they were particularly wrong about education.” European Romanticism, he argued in the book, “has been a post-Enlightenment aberration, a mistake we need to correct.”

This was interesting because Charlotte Mason also attempted to disentangle Rousseau’s ideas from the education of her day:

It is probable that no other educational thinker has succeeded in affecting parents so profoundly as did Rousseau. Emile is little read now, but how many current theories of the regimen proper for children have there their unsuspected source? Everybody knows––and his contemporaries knew it better than we––that Jean Jacques Rousseau had not enough sterling character to warrant him to pose as an authority on any subject, least of all on that of education. He sets himself down a poor thing, and we see no cause to reject the evidence of his Confessions. We are not carried away by the charm of his style; his ‘forcible feebleness’ does not dazzle us. No man can say beyond that which he is, and there is a want of grit in his philosophic theories that removes most of them from the category of available thought.

She did appreciate the fact that he awakened parents to the binding character and vast range of the deep obligations parents had to their children, but she also said that “He failed, and deserved to fail, as he offered his own crude conceits by way of an educational code.” As a sidenote, it is fascinating and baffling to me how a number of people can read the above passage and conclude that Miss Mason was a fan of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ theories, particularly since she goes on to say he was ‘weak and little worthy’ and though he did offer this sound basis for education (the importance of parents), he had little to offer but wood and stubble for building beyond that point.

And wood and stubble is what we’ve been giving American children for a very, very long time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, progressive education also absorbed the trendy new doctrines of multiculturalism, postmodernism (with its dogma that objective facts don’t exist), and social-justice teaching.

More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be “critical thinkers” and teach them to “learn how to learn,” defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. Hirsch had spent the better part of the decade since Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics on which teaching methods best promote student learning. The scientific consensus showed that schools could not raise student achievement by letting students construct their own knowledge. The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students—the very opposite of what the progressives promoted.

The education establishment has reacted predictably, to those of us who believe that the education establishment is about holding their own power rather than about educating real children who deserve better than the fraudulent education they are getting. They attacked Hirsch. And eventually, when he’d won all sorts of academic awards and published best selling books, they allowed him to teach an education course at the University of Virginia, but privately warned education majors that they had best not take that course.

That is because, as we see from examples like that at the Berkeley high school considering whether or not lab science is too white, the goal is not well read, well informed children with a sound foundation and knowledge of the best ideas of mankind.

That needs to change.

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2 Comments

  1. kimberlyscup
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post! I am a former school teacher who taught in a Core Knowledge school for many years. It works. Taught well, CK can be the opening of many doors for a child. I was amazed at how little I had learned in my years as a student compared to what my students were learning.
    As a mother embarking on homeschooling, I find myself combining the best of both CK and Charlotte Mason. How wonderful to read about them both in one place! Thank you.

  2. Hopewell
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    EXCELLENT post. My kids, technically, are ESL [whatever it's called in today's jargon] yet they outscore the "locals" in our poor rural county on language. Why? We talk! I use "imagery" I put in "cultural references" their schoolmates haven't got a clue, nor do their parents or grandparents–all of whom have lives stunted by an unwillingness to READ, enjoy the arts, and, GET OUT OF THE COUNTY once in a while. I have used the Core Knowledge books with my kids to help them gain momentum in English when they were younger. Our schools are such a disgrace! Our rural school is doing better than most innercity schools on "standardized tests" but it is failing the kids in Cultural Literacy and so much more.

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