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The Idea and Impact of ED Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’

A study day organised by the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

2:00pm, Sunday 19 June 2016, ACCENT Study Centre - 12 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3JA

Eric Donald Hirsch Jr is arguably one of the most influential educational thinkers of our times and certainly one of the most commonly read writers on the school curriculum. He is an emeritus professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, USA. His key works, including The Validity of Interpretation and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, have been international best sellers.

Hirsch began his academic career writing on Wordsworth, Schelling and Blake, and whilst doing so he developed a critique of New Critical and post-modern positions on literary interpretation. Contrary to the orthodoxy of that time, Hirsch proposed that the intentions of the author should be paramount, and that an important distinction should be drawn between the intended meaning of a text and its wider cultural significance. Making this distinction, he argued, is the basis of objective criticism.

More recently, education - and more specifically, the school curriculum - has been at the heart of Hirsch’s writing, although he continues to be concerned with how we engage with meaning. With regards to this, Hirsch has argued, to a chorus of progressivist distain, that there is an identifiable body of core knowledge to which all students need access if they are to effectively read, and actively contribute to, the culture in which they find themselves. This body of knowledge, he argues, can be identified and it is the duty of schools to ensure that it is transmitted. This proposition has been the inspiration behind the Core Knowledge Foundation, which has developed the Core Knowledge Programme, now used across 43 states and in more than 1,000 US schools.

Within the UK, Hirsch’s writing and practical initiatives have been influential amongst those who have sought to defend and further the position of knowledge within the school curriculum. The think-tank Civitas has developed an English version of the Core Knowledge Programme and Hirsch’s ideas were regularly cited by the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, during the development of, and argument over, the new National Curriculum for England.  The current Schools Minister Nick Gibb has stated that Hirsch’s work has “inspired much of our work on schools”.

Hirschianism, however, has not been without its critics within education. Predictably, perhaps, progressive and radical educators both in the US and UK have taken issue with his prioritisation of facts and knowledge, but there has also been a critique from within the camp of pro-knowledge educators. Some propose that his conception of the role of knowledge within the curriculum encourages superficial coverage at the expense of deep conceptual engagement. Others suggest that basing the case for knowledge on the idea of cultural literacy provides a weak intellectual prop for a content-rich curriculum.

Irrespective of one’s position on knowledge and the curriculum, Eric Donald Hirsch Jr is an educational thinker whose work demands a response from progressivist, traditionalist and radical educators alike.

Welcome and Introduction
Kevin Rooney

The Idea of Cultural Literacy
Harley Richardson


Cultural Literacy and the English School Curriculum
Toby Marshall

Making the Case for a Knowledge-Based Education Today
Gareth Sturdy



1. What is ‘cultural literacy’? What are the strengths and the weaknesses of this educational idea?
2. What does a school curriculum based on the idea of cultural literacy look like?
3. In what ways has E.D. Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy had an impact on the English school curriculum?
4. How might we best make the case for a Knowledge-Based Education today?


Key Reading

Hirsch, E.D. (1987) Cultural Literacy What Every American Needs To Know Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, particularly the preface, chapter 1 and the appendix

Optional Additional Readings

Lui, E (2015) What Every American Should Know, a review essay for The Atlantic

Hirsch, E.D. (1960) Objective Interpretation, a paper in which Hirsch outlines his theory of literary interpretation

Simons, J and Porter, N eds. (2015) Knowledge and the Curriculum, a collection of essays on Hirsch published by Policy Exchange

Hirsch, E.D. (2015) Policy Exchange Annual Lecture on education

Department for Education (2013) The National Curriculum for England

A variety of resources from Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation can be found here, including examples of schemes of work, as well as an explanation the curricular principles on which Core Knowledge Programme is based -

Civitas, the UK partner of the Core Knowledge Foundation, has also produced a number of resources for teachers based on the curricular principles developed by Hirsch, these materials can be found here.

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