Thursday, April 06, 2006

Et cognoscetis veritatem, et veritas vos liberabit

E.D. Hirsch has a new book out, The Knowledge Deficit, in which he continues to argue for a broad base of "cultural" knowledge as the primary goal of education. A review:

"If there are one or two unfamiliar words in an extended paragraph, you can still figure out roughly what the passage means, and also, in that context, what possible meanings the unfamiliar words could have. Encounter those words over and over, and in time you will know what they mean and how to use them, without any conscious effort to memorize their definitions (a highly inefficient way to learn new words, Hirsch points out).

But if the passage has too many unfamiliar words, you not only can't understand it, but you can't use it to bootstrap yourself into a larger vocabulary.
So it is essential, Hirsch believes, that the material children see and hear in the early grades helps to familiarize them with the knowledge their books will take for granted later. Otherwise, the gaps that are already present simply grow larger over time. Some researchers, he notes, have called this 'the Matthew effect.'

If you immediately recognize this as a biblical allusion, your understanding is enhanced. If you don't, the name adds nothing to your understanding. That's Hirsch's point."

Of course, the verse in St. Matthew about much being given to those who have much, and those who have little losing even that, is about the last piece of cultural knowledge a public school is going to touch; but such ironies aside, it's nice to see Hirsch continuing to work out the ground reasons for a liberal education. (Or "classical education" as they call it in homeschooling circles.) Hint to Hirsch, for when he finally gets completely past the clumsy utilitarian rationales: it has something to do with the worth of knowledge for its own sake, genuine participation in the stream of two-and-a-half millennia of Western Civilization, and the reasons for the names "liberal [freeing] arts" and "humanities."

(HT to Joanne Jacobs)


Anonymous Amy said...

I didn't like the parable of the talents as a child; it ran counter to my socialist inclinations. But as I've grown older, I've learned the corollary of the Matthew effect - "To him whom much has been given, much is required." The two princilpes taken together have become guiding stars to me, and truths I try hard to instill in my children.

7:35 AM  

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