E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr., is the son of Rabbi Eric Donald Hirsch and Leah Aschaffenberg Hirsch. Hirsch received his training in literary scholarship first at Cornell University, from which he received a B.A. degree in 1950, and at Yale University, which granted him an M.A. in English in 1955 and a Ph.D. in 1957. A revised version of his doctoral dissertation on William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schelling and their philosophical contributions to literary Romanticism was published in 1960, followed in 1964 by his book on William Blake, a model of the close reading of poetry growing in popularity during the 1960’s. Hirsch’s book on Blake won for him the Explicator Award.

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Hirsch, who had taught at Yale from 1956 to 1966, seemed destined for a typical academic career when he began work at the University of Virginia as professor of English in 1966. There he served as department chair from 1968 to 1971 and again from 1981 to 1983. He was named William R. Kenan Professor of English in 1973 and Linden Kent Professor of English in 1989. By 1967, however, it was already clear that Hirsch was beginning to move in new pedagogical directions. The publication of Validity in Interpretation, and of The Aims of Interpretation nine years later, revealed a literary scholar deeply committed to the craft and politics of writing. Indeed, by 1971 Hirsch had become so interested in writing as a process that he eagerly took on the position of director of composition in his department.

While he occupied this position, Hirsch worked on The Philosophy of Composition, a book that addresses the role linguistic competency and language change play in communication skills. Hirsch argues that both the research and the teaching of written composition need to be redirected so that writing will be learned as a craft in itself rather than as a by-product of a given subject. He also calls for interdisciplinary research into the teaching of writing.

Until the late 1980’s, Hirsch’s writing reached only a narrow academic audience. It was not until 1987, with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, that Hirsch captured the imagination of a public deeply concerned with literacy, which was becoming a highly charged political and educational issue. Cultural Literacy, building on many of the questions Hirsch had earlier posed in The Aims of Interpretation, focuses on the factual information that people in the United States need to know in order to read with comprehension. His basic thesis is that because society shares a common information base, it presumes a specific, minimal understanding of significant terms, dates, and names that appear commonly in the media. People who do not know, for example, that 1066 refers to the conquest of Great Britain by Norman invaders or that the World Trade Center consisted of New York’s two highest buildings are limited in the information they glean from the printed page or from the spoken word.

Hirsch’s proposed solution is contained in the sixty-three-page appendix to Cultural Literacy, where he, assisted by historian Joseph F. Kett and scientist James Trefil, presents some four thousand terms that he believes constitute the core of general knowledge in the United States. Hirsch asserts that one need not have in-depth knowledge of everything on the list. People who recognize less than 80 percent of the list, however, may have significant comprehension problems.

Although Hirsch’s book has been called elitist—even totalitarian—for the absolutism of its approach, it captured considerable public attention and has consistently been a best-seller. It was followed in 1988 by The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a hefty volume that defines every term on Hirsch’s revised list to the extent that Hirsch and his two collaborators think the term requires definition. Many of the definitions are basic (critics might say superficial), but Hirsch has strongly contended that a basic knowledge of them is all one needs in order to be an effective and efficient reader of general materials. To further his ideas on educational reform, Hirsch founded the Cultural Literacy Foundation in 1987 and the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1990, both in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Not surprisingly, Hirsch’s cultural literacy program has been the subject of controversy, with some calling it anti-minority, mechanical, and even harmful, and others praising it as a cure for the steady decline in literacy in the United States. Hirsch’s other major idea—that a literary work means what the author intended it to mean—has also generated a great deal of debate in academic circles.

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