Not so long ago, E.D. Hirsch, an outspoken critic of education, joined a wide range of scholars in specifying what a core knowledge curriculum in the English language ought to include, from the kindergarten upward. In the second grade, this curriculum included such engaging writers of poetry as Emily Dickinson and Robert Louis Stevenson. Not many second-graders today choose those poets -- they prefer books with lots of pictures to lure them to read for the mindless "fun" of it.
"Cultural literacy," as Hirsch defines it, means that no student is to leave high school without a common core of reading for citizenship, including a close reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This idea is difficult to implement today, when many teachers themselves are historical illiterates.
"High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do," a recent study commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute, finds that both public and private school teachers push courses directed more toward personal and professional advancement than imparting basic core knowledge.
Courses in history, civics and political science have lost status -- the pressure on schools is to show progress in statewide math and language arts tests. In the American Enterprise Institute survey of more than a thousand public and private school teachers, only a slim majority say their students read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution with focus and care.
Many teachers admit to prejudice against teaching fundamental historical information. Fully a third say it's not necessary "to be knowledgeable about such periods as the American Founding, the Civil War and the Cold War." In a list of priorities for teaching citizenship, a mere 20 percent of these teachers put teaching about Bunker Hill, Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor at the top of their list.
"Dumbing down" is a phenomenon that threatens all of us, but in a political culture eager to find a crisis not to waste, it's hard to accentuate learning for citizenship. "As the tangible economic benefits of schooling have become central to policy thinking," says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "the teaching of citizenship has become increasingly peripheral."
We could be fusing economic possibility with the obligations of citizenship, but instead we separate them. Instead of education drawing us together with a common core of knowledge, we foster a runaway multiculturalism that widens and emphasizes differences. The Founding Fathers knew that a shared body of knowledge was needed to protect democracy. It's needed now more than ever.