Monday, May 10, 2010

education and common cultural literacy

From Alan Wolfe in Books and Culture in his review of "cultural literacy" maven E.D. Hirsch's new book, The Making of Americans...

Wolfe argues that this book neither adds much to the Hirsch canon nor to the available literature. But "this book is valuable because it offers a clearly written, highly accessible, and brief statement of the issues that have guided Hirsch for the past two or three decades".

One example of the way Hirsch does this is offered by his discussion of school choice, whose advocates seek to replicate the market by relying on vouchers or building charter schools. That school choice was advanced by libertarian economists such as Milton Friedman and has been adopted by many Republicans suggests that conservatives favor it. And that public school teachers who routinely vote Democratic by overwhelming margins have resolutely opposed it implies that liberals view school choice with the same hostility they view unregulated capitalism or any other policy prescription guided by free market principles.

This is an odd or deceitful conclusion. Teachers prefer to maintain their monopoly power and their union cartel. Their hostility toward greater competition is not at all surprising, and in any case, is not generally based on liberalism, but self-interest. Moreover, to the extent that hostility toward competition in schools is based on political opposition, this stems from statism rather than liberalism proper.

Still, Wolfe (via Hirsch) offers food for thought:

Hirsch's perspective is different. School choice by its very nature militates against one of his major recommendations: the adoption of a common curriculum that all students must learn. Libertarianism, his analysis reminds us, is not the same as conservatism. Unquestioning reliance on the free market puts the individual and his or her immediate desires at the center of the moral universe...By contrast, Hirsch argues that we need more common space and not the invasion of the schools by consumer culture....

From there, Wolfe goes back to somewhere between weird and hypocritical in his account of religion in schooling. If one follows his argument about a common culture, then one should be fond of a common religious expression-- or at least a serious but pluralistic approach to religion-- within schools.


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