Cultural literacy: Michael Gove’s school of hard facts on BBC Radio 4’s Analysis

In his review of the national curriculum, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has said schools should emphasise the learning of key facts, arming children with essential knowledge to aid their learning – but where has he got this idea from? A BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme (links below) explores the roots of “cultural literacy” and how it is gaining traction in England’s schools. This is from the BBC…

The new intake at Pimlico Academy in London is learning a new kind of lesson. It is all based on a curriculum of hard facts, rather than of skills.

“We want children to be critical thinkers, we want them to be literate, we want them to be numerate [but] what we’re doing is thinking how we achieve those ends,” says Annaliese Briggs, the woman appointed to run the academy’s primary school, due to open next year.

While she does not yet have a teaching qualification, we might be well advised to listen to what she has to say – because according to education secretary Michael Gove, this is the future.

“The curriculum at the moment in primary schools is often referred to as a skills-based curriculum – but I think it’s much better to refer to it as a content-lite curriculum,” says Briggs.

“We are developing a curriculum that specifies the knowledge that we think children need to know to develop these skills.”

This idea, which has really grabbed Michael Gove and other Tories, has its origins in the USA – specifically with an 84-year-old former English literature professor, E.D. Hirsch.

Hirsch has two big ideas: First, that we all need something he calls “cultural literacy” – certain facts, ideas, literary works that he says people need to know in order to operate effectively as citizens of the country in which they live.

And second, that children need to learn these facts in a highly organised, structured way – a sort of “back to basics” education.

The story of cultural literacy started around 20 years ago when Hirsch was working as a college lecturer in Richmond, Virginia – close to where General Robert Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War.

Hirsch was struck by something about his students – particularly those who came from poorer backgrounds.

“The critical reason that I got into education reform was the strange inability of some community college students – most of them black – to be able to read simple passages about the American Civil War,” Hirsch explains.

“The black students could do very well when the topics were about ‘Why I like my room mate’ and ‘Why I don’t like traffic on Route 29,’ and so on, but they did very badly when it came to ‘Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House’ – which was shaking to me because it took place in Richmond.”

“It wasn’t that they lacked reading ability. It wasn’t even that their vocabularies were excessively small – it was just basic factual information they lacked, which would enable them to understand what they read.”

What Hirsch had hit upon was a notion which is now pretty much universally accepted: While some people grow up in homes where all sorts of cultural knowledge is common currency – history, art, literature – others do not.

When those who lack that cultural knowledge find themselves in the midst of a conversation about the American Civil War, or Rodin’s sculptures, they feel lost.

Hirsch set about defining the most important background knowledge needed so that the cultural “have-nots” could become “haves”. His subsequent book Cultural Literacy became a US best-seller.

The debate about what American children need to know – in order for social justice to be achieved – has been filtering across the Atlantic for a couple of decades, but is now starting to gain some real traction.

A series of books based on Hirsch’s thinking are now being published by Civitas, a right-leaning think tank.

But Daisy Christodoulou, managing director of the Curriculum Centre, which is working to promote these ideas in schools across England, says these are not necessarily right-wing concepts.

“I think that if you look back through the historical contours of this debate, that generally it’s the left who realise that knowledge is power – that equal access and entitlement to knowledge is so important.”

More at:  Cultural literacy: Michael Gove’s school of hard facts

Listen to the full report on BBC Radio 4’s Analysis. Listen again on the Radio 4 website or the Analysis podcast

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