CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Twenty years ago, E. D. Hirsch Jr. was at the top of the academic game, easing into his 50s as chairman of University of Virginia's English department. Then he turned his attention to the nation's public school curriculum and found it running on empty.
The professor's second career, devoted to filling classrooms with knowledge, has made him in just a few years one of the most revered -- and reviled -- figures in American education.
Hirsch, 71, is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a fact-filled sequence of what pupils are to be taught from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Based largely on Hirsch's 1987 best-seller, "Cultural Literacy," the program is in almost 1,000 schools nationwide, 40 in Maryland.
His rich, content-laden approach to learning would seem attractive, even necessary. "It's arguably the most productive curriculum in the U.S. today," says William J. Moloney, Colorado commissioner of education and the former school superintendent in Maryland's Calvert County.
But Hirsch and his creation are widely attacked. He's accused of elitism and racism. His curriculum is said to be "developmentally inappropriate" -- that is, too difficult for young children.
Critics call Hirsch the "man of lists," "Don Dilettante," the "bunch o' facts guy." They resent pronouncements on the sorry state of American education from a man who never taught a day in a public school. "The movement Hirsch is leading goes against the whole grain of diversity in education," says Michael L. Bentley, a professor of science education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
At one level, Hirsch thrives on the criticism. As intensely competitive at intellectual debate as he is at tennis, he says the charges hurled his way "have been very good for business." But at a personal level, Hirsch deeply resents some of the allegations -- particularly of intellectual snobbery and racism.
The son of a Memphis cotton broker, Hirsch says he inherited "this load of guilt that Southerners have" and designed a curriculum to "place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights."
'True social equality'
Hirsch's mission is "one of true social equality, just the opposite of what he's accused of," says Frederick Hirsch, his 39-year-old son who teaches Core Knowledge at a charter school in Hull, Mass.
Spreading the program is more of a calling than a profession for its founder. Hirsch takes no money from the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation or royalties from the foundation's books. He and his late mother launched the curriculum "on love," he says, and to this day the foundation runs on a shoestring.
In an era of glad-handing education reformers, Hirsch is an anomaly. He's something of a loner, doing most of his work at a large oak desk in the study of the spacious house that he and his wife, Polly, have owned for 34 years in the wooded hills north of Mr. Jefferson's university.
Hirsch is much more at ease in one-on-one conversation than in public speaking, where he tends to come across as arrogant. He seldom visits a Core Knowledge school, preferring to "leave that to the experts."
The younger Hirsch calls his father an iconoclast who doesn't suffer fools gladly. "My dad likes being an outsider," he says. "If he feels he's getting in a position where he's not the outsider, he makes sure he gets in that position."
In schools where Core Knowledge has taken firm root, first-graders excitedly study Mayan and Aztec cultures. Second-graders learn about the Greek gods Eros and Athena and read "Charlotte's Web" long before the classic is taken up in most schools. And third-graders study the Pueblo Indians and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."
Sappho, Langston Hughes
Fourth-graders take on early African kingdoms and the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. Seventh-graders begin their language arts study with the poets Sappho and Langston Hughes.
Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and member of the Baltimore school board, heads a team evaluating Core Knowledge. "I was in a school in Texas," Stringfield recalls, "and a third-grader came up to me and said, 'Do you know how many kinds of galaxies there are?' I was blown away. I didn't know there were kinds of galaxies."
Core Knowledge is rich, says Moloney, because Hirsch "is a boy at heart and understands children better than many teachers."
Adds Gerald Terrell, principal of Paul H. Cale Elementary, a Core Knowledge school just outside Charlottesville: "My children are being exposed to knowledge a lot of adults don't have. It's a broader and more comprehensive education than we've ever had. It makes children more wholesome individuals, individuals who are able to understand how we got here and understand the nature of our people. Parents are ecstatic about it."
High marks from Hopkins
Core Knowledge is adjustable. The program doesn't tell schools how to teach, only what to teach. And the Hopkins researchers have given the curriculum generally high marks.
Yet supporters worry that the curriculum is being sacrificed to the demands of test-driven state reforms like the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). A Sun survey of several Core Knowledge schools in Virginia, Florida and Maryland confirms that more and more of their class time is devoted to prepping for the high-stakes state tests.
Diane Ravitch, an education critic whom Hirsch credits for inspiring him through her books and essays, says most of the state programs like MSPAP "have little expectation of knowledge. [They start with the idea] that we can't teach knowledge, so we'll teach skills. Hirsch is leading a minority battle. His views are out of fashion."
In Maryland's Calvert County, the first district in the nation to adopt Core Knowledge in all of its elementary schools, Superintendent James R. Hook is not enamored of the curriculum installed by his predecessor, Moloney. "I'm not going to kill it," Hook says, "but I don't think it's helpful for MSPAP."
Some low scores
Despite hefty MSPAP score increases at some Maryland Core Knowledge schools -- last year at Vienna Elementary in Dorchester County and this year at Catonsville Elementary in Baltimore County and at Thomas Johnson Elementary in the city -- many other schools with the program have mediocre scores on the state tests.
As a result, Stringfield believes the program "may not be robust enough to survive educational politics." And Kate Walsh, senior program officer at Baltimore's Abell Foundation, a long-time Core Knowledge financial supporter, says the program in the city "is being allowed to die a slow death."
Core Knowledge's roots go back 20 years, about a decade before publication of "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know."
As English department chairman, Hirsch noticed that most of the money budgeted to his department was "going to Pope and Swift and Wordsworth, and none, relatively speaking, to freshman writing."
His study of writing led Hirsch to a field known as psycholinguistics. He discovered that students at a Charlottesville community college could write about such subjects as friendship just as competently as his university students. But that wasn't true of subjects that require a good deal of knowledge, like the Civil War.
"It was about that time that psycholinguists were discovering the role of background knowledge. It was that technical insight, plus the fact that the kids who weren't understanding were black and the kids who were understanding were white, that got me started."
But when Hirsch looked at what was taught in most schools, he found "chaos" -- jargon, few specifics, a disparaging of facts, curriculum gaps, needless repetition, a heavy emphasis on skills but little on content.
For example, a typical elementary-level curriculum "framework" requires pupils to "recognize the effects of science and technology on yesterday's and today's societies." Which effects? Hirsch asked, and which societies?
In sum, Hirsch found a disaster resulting from a century of progressive education in America, one he documented in his 1996 book, "The Schools We Need: Why We Don't Have Them."
Almost all other industrialized nations require specific knowledge of their schoolchildren, Hirsch wrote. But U.S. schools emphasize "critical thinking," "problem solving," "higher-order skills" -- the very skills taught and tested under programs like the MSPAP.
"These ideas are more like religion than anything else," Hirsch says, sitting sideways in an easy chair for a morning-long interview, his legs dangling over the chair's thick arm. "In particular, the romantic notions about growth and development: Children will learn to read naturally, without direct instruction. What's natural is good and what's artificial is bad. Lots of twaddle about learning to learn.
Hirsch's withering criticism of what he calls American education's "thoughtworld" infuriates educational progressives, including many professors of education. "There's this fear of prescription among the [teacher educators]," says Ravitch. "Don absolutely terrorizes them."
In November, the hallways outside fourth-grade Core Knowledge classrooms are lined with pupil-made castles, whether the school is in Polk County, Fla., Albemarle County, Va., or the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore.
That's because in the fourth grade, the program's "sequence," the 218-page bible of the curriculum, teaches the history of the Middle Ages, along with the art and music of the period. And just as invariably, the castles made by pupils in their art classes spill into the hallways.
In Core Knowledge, the same general topics -- the Middle Ages, for example -- are studied in all subjects. The curriculum also "spirals" -- pupils return to the same topics as they progress through the grades, revisiting them in greater depth.
Schools supplement the set program with locally oriented topics -- in Maryland, for example, science lessons built around the Chesapeake Bay.
And although Core Knowledge includes a heavily phonics-oriented reading curriculum in kindergarten and the first and second grades, many schools choose their own reading programs with the blessings of the head office in Charlottesville. Most Core Knowledge schools in Baltimore, for example, use an even more scripted approach to reading known as Direct Instruction.
In Curtis Bay's second grade, Kevin Benner Jr., 7, demonstrates the horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines of Picasso's "Mother and Child."
In kindergarten, teacher Jacqueline Griswold has all of her pupils -- in the third month of school -- knowing the continents, the globe of the world and such U.S. symbols as the flag and the bald eagle.
"Their minds are like little sponges," she says.
Along the way in each grade, pupils learn the sayings and idioms that are part of the American culture: "Haste makes waste." "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
What's not to like?
Plenty, if you listen to Hirsch's critics. As Bentley of Virginia Tech puts it: "There's just no logical basis for anyone to have the right or the wisdom to say what everyone else should know."
Bentley and many others hold the theory of constructivism: Children build knowledge from their experiences in a social context. "Children have to construct their own knowledge in the classroom," Bentley says. "Hirsch is filling the empty vessel."
To the charge that he has no right to dictate what others should know, Hirsch replies that his Core sequence is more diverse and democratic than the traditional "de facto" curriculum devised by school district specialists and textbook writers.
Although Hirsch's fingerprints are all over Core Knowledge, the original sequence was vetted by a panel of some 150 teachers. It was substantially rewritten in 1995 and is revised regularly on the advice of Core Knowledge teachers and pupils.
As they didn't like it
This year, for example, Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" replaced "As You Like It" in eighth-grade English. "The kids complained about 'As You Like It,' " says Michael J. Marshall, associate director of the Core Knowledge Foundation. "They felt it was a little bit too fantastic."
The political correctness of Core Knowledge has been a matter of contention from the beginning. Calling himself a "political liberal but an educational conservative," Hirsch designed the curriculum to narrow the academic gap between children of different races by providing all of them with what he calls "mental Velcro" on which to attach new knowledge.
Nevertheless, he is still accused of an attraction for DWEMs -- Dead White European Males.
"Of all the charges that are hurled his way," says Terrell, the Cale Elementary principal, "the charge that he is racist hurts the most, and it's the most unfair."
Terrell, 51, is a veteran principal, an African-American who runs a school in which half the pupils live in poverty.
Gesturing to a framed photograph on his office wall of himself and Hirsch, Terrell says, "The thing about Don Hirsch and Core Knowledge is that they don't leave any children out. They're all on common ground when they're here. They're on uncommon ground when they're back in their segregated neighborhoods."
For his part, Hirsch says the campaign to infuse knowledge in the nation's schools has been "personally gratifying. The field I was in all those years, English study, has gotten sort of demoralized. Now I'm able to have in my life work that is real, that's connected with reality. And there are a lot of kids who have benefited from it.
"You can be gratified and tired at the same time, and I am both."