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Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: E D Hirsch

Is Rousseau a traditional educator?

As an undergrad student, I was not that impressed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The phrase, ‘man is born free but everywhere else he is in chains’ seemed too simple a rationalisation for thinking about society. I became less impressed when I learned about his notion of the ‘state of nature’ where humans were uncorrupted and this construction was a  way to think about  how political states should interact in international politics.  I did not enjoy reading his work yet I recognised that he was a complex thinker. Years later (and I completed my teacher training in a university and did not come across his name), Rousseau appears again as a mover in E.D. Hirsch’s thought about what is wrong about education in the USA and as a example of ‘progressive’ educational thought. Rousseau’s work Émile, or On Education, is identified as a key driver in creating a poor intellectual climate for thinking about education, especially in relation to the importance of factual knowledge. Rousseau writes:

No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.

It seems pretty conclusive that facts (especially the kind I am interested in as a history teacher) are not meaningful to Rousseau. However, accepting this view means ignoring Rousseau’s work that was produced ten years later and published after his death. Considerations on the Government of Poland was Rousseau’s opportunity to put into action his thought as he was asked to provide suggestions as how Poland should be governed. Regarding education, Rousseau had this to say:

I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. My emphasis added.

Dates, names, and facts, it seems, are important.

The above highlights the problem with using  Rousseau to represent contemporary ‘progressive’ educational thought because he could also been seen as an advocate of contemporary ‘traditional’ educational thought.

Categorisations that seem clear and coherent in the present are complex and can fall apart when we add history to them.

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The misinterpretation of E D Hirsch

Today’s TES has an interview with academic E D Hirsch and it is enlightening to read his thoughts on how his work has been appropriated and used by educators. There are two telling passages in the article. The first deals with the application of his work to secondary education:

In Cultural Literacy, he repeatedly emphasises that his attention is on the primary age group. He does not endorse his work being used to justify a curriculum beyond that level. “My focus is on 3-11 education,” Hirsch reiterates. “I am calling for a solid, well-rounded, common early curriculum.”

The second deals with the ‘progressive’/’traditional’ pedagogic divide:

The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of children and they’re happy? Pedagogy is highly variable. It is very context-dependent.” [Emphasis added]

It really does seem that we have been listening to shades of Hirsch.

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Talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothin’? Progressive v Traditional teachers

Like a dull knife, just ain’t cutting. Just talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothin’ James Brown


Premature polarisation of viewpoints is the chief device by which the education community maintains the intellectual status quo. E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need

I find E D Hirsch’s writing fascinating because of the impact (and appropriation) by various groups and even government ministers. In particular, the focus on ‘knowledge’ and ‘traditional’ teaching methods as opposed to the ‘present’ focus on ‘skills’ and ‘progressive’ teaching seems to define a new battleground. Wrapped up more commonly in the themes of  ‘child centred/progressive education’ versus ‘traditional education’ I am a little concerned that supposed proponents and supporters for ‘traditional’ means of education miss a few historical examples in the drive for theoretical neatness. Vittorino da Feltre suggests a curriculum that involves learning through playing games and the use of physical education.  Richard Mulcaster also suggests that educators should relate to young people and that they should have meaningful experiences. Both men put forward their ideas in the 15th and 16th Centuries respectively, making the notion of progressive/child-centred as a relatively recent phenomenon fall apart.  We could go back to Quintilian shortly after the start of the Common Era if these examples seem too ‘recent’.

If we really are interested in moving the debate about education forward, I suggest a more careful understanding of the categories we use and a deep appreciation that they often are more fluid than they may appear. If we cannot do this, we will still be talking loud and saying nothing.

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