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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2005.1 (2005) 186-204

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[Article by E. D. Hirsch Jr]

Comment by Michael W. Apple

E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s paper is characteristically provocative. Hirsch identifies what he perceives to be the root causes of the crisis in education and then advocates particular solutions. To respond to his claims about both causes and solutions, I need to begin with a few serious questions. Is it sensible to believe [End Page 186] that the problems in our schools are almost totally the fault of progressive education? Does it serve any useful purpose to claim that the most powerful force in education has been a group of professional educators, largely housed at a few institutions, whose theories have been so powerful that they have swept away all resistance to them? Can we treat such things as the economy, the bureaucratic nature of large institutions (which he does briefly mention), and the ties between the state and powerful economic, political, and social movements as minor elements that have no real impact on school reform? Can we honestly say that school reform has failed because the progressives, and a few formalists and determinists, who have been in charge for nearly one hundred years have rejected the changes that Hirsch and others propose? If your answer to these questions is yes, you may find Hirsch's arguments to your liking. If you believe, as I do, that this account is immensely reductive and actually quite naive, then you will not.

I would hope that our differences are not based on any sense of personal animosity, for we have much to learn from Hirsch about how a larger movement can be built that pushes for school reforms. Hirsch and I may disagree about the specific content of such reforms, but this does not mean that we differ on the need for substantive change. In fact, there is much that Hirsch and I agree on. We agree that some of the arguments from a number of radical educational critics are overly deterministic and that in some of these theories, schools and the way they educate are seen as totally determined by outside forces. Unfortunately, however, Hirsch paints with such a broad and stereotypical brush that he appears not to understand that most of the arguments within the critical traditions over the past twenty years make no such claims and are actually quite thoughtful about what can go on in schools and what is required to change them.23

Hirsch and I also seem to agree that many of the educational reforms that have come out of the No Child Left Behind Act are problematic and sometimes even harmful.24 We both also are less than happy with some of the overly romantic notions that have become part of the standard fare at many colleges of education, although Hirsch's attacks on such colleges seem to me rather gratuitous and bear little resemblance to what really goes on—in many of the methods classes, for example—at these same institutions. A considerable number of these classes are well balanced and actually do stress much of what he seems to be calling for when he gets a little less censorious.

Finally, Hirsch needs to be commended for his optimistic stance on the capacities of students and teachers. He will not settle for cynicism and despair, as too many people inside and outside education tend to do. Although I have [End Page 187] criticized the accepted modes of operation of a good deal of schooling here and elsewhere, I too might be described as an optimist. After all, why criticize if you do not believe that accepted modes of operation can be changed? But perhaps, unlike Hirsch, I am what might be called an "optimist without illusions." That is, I believe that only by situating schools and their curriculums, teaching, and forms of evaluation in their larger context can we actually make lasting changes.

Although there are agreements between us, then, there are also a considerable number of disagreements. Many of these disagreements are...


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pp. 186-204
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Archived 2007
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