E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Hirsch spoke to Emily Freitag about the importance of building common background knowledge among students to support linguistic comprehension.

Watch the full conversation or read the abridged Q&A below.

EDH: I started out getting my doctorate in English literature, but it was an intellectual history dissertation. And it was about the English poet Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling. I was already very intimate with European romanticism, which is the primary influence on Dewey, who is a primary influence on American schools. So, I’m quite aware of the intellectual impulses that created our orientation to schooling.

The next phase of my intellectual career got me into psycholinguistics and the science of language. In the elementary grades, which is my chief focus, language is primary. The romantic movement was against the linguistic emphasis of schooling. Everything depends on the mastery of language because, as we now know, language is the vehicle, and language mastery is and should be, the focus. Language is totally dependent on language comprehension, on things that aren’t seen or heard. We know this from psycholinguistics and the developments that occurred right about the mid-60s of the last century. I would say it’s the most important insight into language in the history of linguistics is that those sounds are meaningless without the knowledge that exists in the listener or the reader.

EF: Yes, I can read German because it’s very phonetic, yet I can understand very little.

EDH: Well that’s true, you can pronounce the sounds. Take something as simple as “Polly put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.” And that’s followed by, “Suki take it off again, they’ve all gone away.” Who in the heck could understand what that means? Certainly, the infant to whom it is sung does not understand it. The English understand that rhyme differently from the way we do, which says something about the nature of a speech community. The classroom must be a speech community if you want to reach everybody. You and I are interested in overcoming disadvantage. Well, disadvantage is in linguistic comprehension. We’re focused on elementary school, but if you want children to be able to go to college and have a good career and a successful life, no matter their ethnicity or anything else, they have to master the medium of discourse, the medium of communication.

American verbal scores have taken a huge nosedive over the last 30 years. That’s a national disaster. Those reading scores say something about how unified we can be as a country because they’re dependent on shared knowledge. Shared knowledge is the basis for linguistic comprehension. “Polly put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea” depends on knowing what “have tea” means. If you don’t know that, it’s pretty meaningless. And then, what is a kettle? It’s not just those dictionary meanings that are very important—it’s way beyond dictionary meaning. You can know what “kettle” means. You can know what “having tea” means. But there’s a subtle distinction between how an English person would understand that phrase and how an American would understand it. They both would understand you have to get together with a group of people and have a conversation over a cup of tea. But that’s just the beginning. In the English version of that nursery rhyme, Polly might not be invited to have tea. “Polly” happens to be a name that’s commonly used for a servant. Then in the second stanza, “Suki” could be another servant, and probably is. So here you are talking about a very elegant household—Polly is putting the kettle on, and Suki is taking the kettle off.

American verbal scores have taken a huge nosedive over the last 30 years. That’s a national disaster. Those reading scores say something about how unified we can be as a country because they’re dependent on shared knowledge.

I waste time on that example only because it’s about as simple an example as we can get. If you think of the difference between an advantaged student and a disadvantaged student, we’ve basically just described it. If you take the English complicated understanding of the nursery rhyme as a sort of a super-informed linguistic user, you can see how that totally changes the meaning.

Going back to the issue of disadvantage, if everybody is not understanding the language of the classroom, then some are falling behind. For the language of the classroom to be understood, there is a lot of unspoken knowledge that has to be gained. There is no such thing as general reading comprehension skill. There’s only reading comprehension that’s available if you have the necessary knowledge to belong to the speech community that is current in the nation. That means that you’ve got to have a definite knowledge-based curriculum in elementary school and it means all the kids have to be learning basically the same stuff so that they’re ready to learn the next thing. That’s well understood in mathematics. However, in a very subtle way, it’s true for all subjects. There is preparatory knowledge that you need in order just to understand what the teacher is saying.

Let me come back to my intellectual history background in the romantics just for a moment. It all came from Rousseau. Rousseau said, “You’ve got to follow nature. You have to take these children and let them be active, let them develop properly.” And of course, he was quite right about that. Then Rousseau made another move. He said that was also the way the children should learn their lessons, that they should do what comes naturally. Well, that’s incorrect. In other words, nature is not saying, “Let the child develop and do developmentally appropriate things.” Nature is saying, “Teach the child what the child needs to know in your particular society.” In other words, teach tribal competence. It turns out we have these huge brains that are there in order to make us linguistically able to form big societies that let the human group multiply and become a big organism that defends all the individual members. So, you’re not leaving the child to develop the way spiders and birds and what Horace Mann called the “lower orders of animated creation,” you are actually having to instruct the child into what’s needed for the sake of the tribe. Rousseau made it an individual development idea that nature would take care of it all. But new brain studies are making clear that nature is saying, “I’m in charge of the child’s physical development, but I’m not in charge of the child’s education at all. I’ve got to leave that up to the tribes, so the little German kids become German and the little French kids become French.”

EF: Tell us about those studies a little more.

EDH: The brain studies are fascinating. John Locke said that the mind of the child is a blank paper. And that’s what Rousseau challenged. It turns out from these brain researchers that Locke was right. If you want to check into that work, there was a huge amount of research going on now on what’s called “cortical plasticity,” the plasticity of the main educational part of the mind which is the cortex, which makes our head so big. That part of the brain is a blank slate. And that’s incredibly important for all kinds of things, including ethnicity and identity and so on. Those aren’t at all inborn characteristics. It’s very possible to have multiple ethnicities and multiple identities. And that’s an extremely important point about the curriculum.

EF: How do we build on knowledge as a prerequisite to reading? And who gets to decide what that knowledge is?

EDH: Let’s answer the preliminary question. Should it be decided that in first grade, you study this, and then second grade, you study this? Until that’s well defined, you are really injuring disadvantaged kids. We must prepare the knowledge to build on the next stage of learning and not depend on the household and where the child comes from to understand the language of the classroom.

EF: So a cold-read assessment is inherently biased?

EDH: You’re keeping kids at a disadvantage unless the classroom is a speech community. “Speech community” is the term that psychologists use for the group of people who have the background knowledge to understand collectively what “Polly put the kettle on” means. It is just like arithmetic in that respect. That is, knowledge builds on knowledge, and speech builds on knowledge. You can’t have a child who is from disadvantaged circumstances really progress up to their potential unless the knowledge background is there to take the next step. Kids love knowledge at these early ages.

EF:  This may be a simplistic question. Can you define “knowledge” for us?

EDH: I’m talking about facts, and of course a lot more than just facts. But facts are a good place to start. There’s a distinguished researcher named Paul Kirschner who wrote a wonderful piece about the inefficacy of discovery learning with two other colleagues. Discovery learning doesn’t work and it is extremely hard on disadvantaged kids. What are they supposed to discover if they haven’t been informed outside of school all of the kinds of things that more advantaged kids have learned? Multiculturalism is fine if everybody is studying the same multicultural materials. But if you have it so that you don’t know what the kids have learned when they come into your classroom, that is a sin against equity. Unless you treat multiculturalism in the right way, you’re holding those kids to disadvantage.

As to what the contents of that shared knowledge should be, well that’s up for grabs. The policymakers have to decide. The states have the power of deciding the elementary school curriculum.

 EF: States do have set standards, right?

EDH: Yes but they’re empty.

EH: What do full standards look like?

EDH: I started a foundation about 30 years ago called Core Knowledge. Its main product for many years was the Core Knowledge Sequence. It says that in first grade, these are the things you’re studying, and so on. Now 30 years later, there’s a couple of thousands of Core Knowledge schools and they’re doing wonderfully because everybody’s studying the same things. We can have a conversation about what the content should be, but that it should be the same for all the kids is critical. It’s critical to the nature of human education. Human education is education into a tribe. If you don’t learn the tribal lore, then you’re not a competent member of the tribe.

EF: Take us into your thoughts on grade level.

EDH: There is no subject that is particular to a grade-level. Ask any first-class cognitive psychologist about that issue. Whether you are ready for the next thing to learn all depends on what you already know. I’ll tell you an anecdote that has stuck in my mind from a Core Knowledge teacher. One day she saw this second-grade girl prancing around on the playground who said “I’m so excited. I’m so happy today.” The teacher asked, “Why are you happy?” She says, “We’re going to learn about the war of 1812 today.” And the teacher asks, “Well, what’s that about?” And the second-grader says, “I don’t know, but today I’m going to find out.” There’s an eagerness to learn.

EF: Take us a little bit more into this question of who gets to decide the knowledge?

EDH: The states have the power to decide. If a couple of governors got together, their states would make such strides in equity and proficiency.

You have to ask somebody else about the politics of who decides. But we can’t get lost at that point and then pretend it’s a hopeless case. We adults have a duty to do that if we want to achieve equity. We have to decide. The answer is that “we the people” ultimately do because we elect these governors and these governors have the power to set the school curriculum. I think what you have to say is that those who decide are some bureaucrats who have a certain amount of courage. That’s who decides, and they can consult anybody they want.

EF: And is not deciding is inherently damaging to equity?

EDH: Not deciding is damaging the disadvantaged kids the most. Pretending not deciding is a virtue, once you understand the real situation, that’s even more of a problem.

EF: We have talked about metaphors about learning in this series. For example, dominos falling as a metaphor for linear learning, which really is underpinning a lot of the “I have to meet kids where they are” mindset.

EDH: “You have to meet kids where they are.” Let’s challenge that idea. No, you have to bring kids to the point where they need to be in order to understand the next thing they need to learn. People have been trained in this metaphor of development. But a child’s mind does not develop the way a child’s body does. The analogy between the child’s development of a body, which is in the control of nature, is not the case with a child’s mind. And all you need to see is the example of the little French child and the little Vietnamese child who learn all kinds of different stuff.

‘You have to meet kids where they are.’ Let’s challenge that idea. No, you have to bring kids to the point where they need to be in order to understand the next thing they need to learn.

EF: Leaders are preparing to go back to school in this very changed context given coronavirus and social distancing, and in this time of violence against Black Americans. This is an important searching time for us as a country.

EDH: Black Americans are in a cycle of disadvantage, partly because of prejudice and also partly because they’re not given the right educational chances. The undefined curriculum is the biggest source of educational disadvantage in this country. If a couple of states got together, the results would be so remarkable that then that would turn into a national curriculum. But of course, that’s what all the good educational systems have. We are alone in thinking it’s a bad idea. We’re led to believe it’s a bad idea because we believe that children should develop as individuals and not as members of a society.

EF: Well, I think that is a good note to close on. Thank you so much for the time and the discussion.