Tower of Babel: Where ED Hirsch Gets It Wrong

“Those who in the Elysian fields would dwell Do but extend the boundaries of hell.” Oakeshott – Tower of Babel

In his book ‘Cultural Literacy, What Every American Should Know’ ED Hirsch writes that:

The complex undertakings of modern life depend on the cooperation of many people with different specialties in different places. When communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel).

I’ve been puzzling over this because as far as I’m aware this isn’t the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel.

Genesis 11:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech…

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth…

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech

From there the Lord scattered the people and ensured that they did not ‘understand one another’s speech’. What is the moral? Isn’t it that what failed here was man being ‘one’: having one culture and one language? The great cultural policy that was the Tower of Babel was one in which man assigned himself to reach unto a place in heaven whilst on earth, a place in which there would be no restraint on man, a place of ultimate power, indeed that man would be equal or, heaven forfend, more equal than God. Clearly our jealous Lord didn’t like this so He destroyed the tower and set about scattering mankind and confounding our language. It wasn’t communication failing that caused the downfall of Babel. In modern parlance Babel was ‘on message’ and all were ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’; they felt that they were ‘unrestrained’ and nothing could stop them! Oh the arrogance but when Babel played God, God confounded the hubris. It would be quite a paradox if Hirsch were to use a Biblical tale as a pivotal example in his book to justify Cultural Literacy but use it in a culturally illiterate way…

Hirsch wrote that:

Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents… My aim is to contribute to making that information the possession of all Americans… Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community.

[Cultural literacy] is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension… relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they have read.

In this Hirsch is akin to the biblical Nimrod beginning his tower of Cultural Literacy. The story of Babel is a warning against the undertaking that Hirsch wishes to take on. Hirsch’s goal is an instrumental one ensuring that all will be able to be better people by having access to knowing the same stuff. This is delivery of a promised people, homogeneously educated, in which all will be able to join the elite. Hirsch’s American Babel is based on a ‘coherent system of fundamental values and principals’, though ‘tolerant of diversity,’ it enables cultural change to take place in a way that is conservative as to its ‘glacial slowness’. This seems to belong to a Statist view in which ‘we know best’ what is good for you – the type of politics that insists on top down measures such as the Common Core or The National Curriculum.

How conservative would this seem to the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott? I wager he would see this as too much of a pursuit of a utopian vision, he preferred an unfixed, ever changing world governed by habits through interactions with others, adventures, conversations, a tradition in which: “There is a freedom and inventiveness at the heart.” Habits are always evolving in which no tradition: “Ever remains fixed; its history is one of continuous change… But it is not deliberate, controlled, directed change…” He resists the ideologues who once they have hit on a right way of doing things set it in stone because they know best. Oakeshott denigrated education as socialisation, complaining about its functionality. He railed against extrinsic motivations to systematise education to serve the needs of Babel. Education, to Oakeshott, sees ‘newcomers initiated into the world which they are to inhabit…’

This is a world of understandings, imaginings, meanings, moral and religious beliefs, relationships, practices – states of mind in which the human condition is to be discerned… Thus, an educational engagement is at once a discipline and a release… when to teach is identified with socialisation, education becomes the engagement to teach nothing.

Notice the use of the plural – understandings, imaginings… these are cultural literacies through which we discern our very humanity and rather than have a common culture imposed through school it is established and reestablished through initiation into an intellectual adventure that is bound by our cultural inheritance(s) with which young people become conversant, adding to the inheritance and not restricted by the idea of it having a utilitarian or utopian purpose. Because, like it or not, we are part of society whether society likes it or not.

Oakeshott would be against the Common Core and the National Curriculum, rather a curriculum that is diverse built through continuing conversations through a tradition we inherit and pass on. Part of this tradition is how we do things here, we do not build Towers of Babel for we are not arrogant enough to be Gods who pretend to know what every person needs to know.

As Noel O’Sullivan puts it: “The education in question is not a matter of training; it is, rather, a matter of critical induction into the on-going tradition of self-interpretation which constitutes a society’s culture.” This ongoing tradition is not stable it embraces flux that is kept in check by tradition, change here is not revolutionary, it is organic and the best way to engender this in schools is to have teachers in conversation deciding what to teach, deciding how to bring in critical voices where important and being prepared to initiate and then engage with their pupils in the conversation that continues throughout the ages. These conversations should be organised through the tradition of subjects and a pupil should be initiated into an understanding of a wide range of different voices through these subjects. The voices should be drawn from teachers’ current thinking as to what was and is the best that has been thought, said and done in their subjects and pupils should be inculcated in a way that allows them to absorb, argue, pass on and add to the best that has been thought said and done. There also needs to be a way that students can bring together these voices and bring in their own voices, conversationally, a space in which to make a sense of things. This will enable students to be truly culturally literate because this would be a curriculum that is not imposed by those in the Elysian fields.

22 thoughts on “Tower of Babel: Where ED Hirsch Gets It Wrong

  1. Conservatives do sometimes think something is so rotten it requires radical rather than evolutionary change.
    However, as a small c conservative by instinct I am in sympathy with your main point. I do find much of the reform discourse too utopian or too utilitarian – it is too liberal for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always going to be with the tower builders rather than a capricious and jealous God.

    Your Hirsch seems to be close to the popular stereotype; a cultural imperialist, full of hubris, intent on forcing all to conform to his personal view of culture.

    My Hirsch is a pragmatist; an empiricist who asks, “what do children need to know in order to be able to read and understand something like the New York Times.” High philosophical rhetoric aside, I think this is a question worth answering and one that has been neglected.


    1. I think the point is valid though, your example makes presumptions about the worthiness of the New York Times which takes us back to Martin’s blog. I, like I determine you also do, think it is a great publication, for one it endorses democratic candidates for the presidency, but therein is the point again.

      A national curriculum may be pragmatic but whether intentionally or otherwise the immutable nature of such a structure involves some element of assimilation rather than a passing on of tradition.

      I am in favour of an agile curriculum, and I would ask “what do children need to know in order to read and understand the most challenging of texts?”


      1. Q: what do children need to know in order to read and understand the most challenging of texts?

        A: That’s an easy one. To have an “agile curriculum” children need to know how to handle the Alphabetic Code–the link between spoken and written language. To stick with the Biblical analogy, God gave us spoken language. Nimrod and his friends had it. Any child who can participate in everyday conversation has enough of it can be taught how to read.

        But God didn’t give us written language. Humanity figured that out for itself. Babel insured that both spoken and written languages would be different. [An electronic “app,” Google Translate, resolves the matter, but that’s a whole nother story.]

        A child who can pass the UK Alphabetic Code Check has been enabled to read any text with understanding equal to that were the communication spoken. After that, it’s an open matter between the child and “everybody” to determine what the child reads.

        What is a “challenging text” for me may be any “easy text” for you. With further communication, written or spoken, we may both be able to “get on the same page” but that brings up back to Babel. It’s neither necessary’ or desirable that we all be on the same page at the same time. Allwegottado is follow the Golden Rule and we’ll survive.

        One Alphabetic Code fits all. The only question is how to teach all children how to handle it and how to know when that job is done. The CC (Code Check, not the Common Core) that Science and Technology has given us is the tool that will lead to the answer. How many ways are there? We don’t now know. The question is being pursued in the UK, and there will be “more news at 11.”


      1. I don’t think it would. I am talking about Hirsch and his purpose i.e. what you have commented upon. You seem to have accepted the popular caricature that he is trying to impose his view of culture on everyone. I am pointing out that his approach is more pragmatic and empirical than that.


  3. A genuinely interesting article. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with it.

    On one hand, I’d love a bit more space within curriculum time to develop some of the aspects of my subject that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily get a look in. One of the issues with high content exams and a tightly defined National Curriculum, is that it frequently feels like a constraint. One of the joys of teaching is being able to share the things that inspire us.

    On the other hand, I’d not be happy with a free-for-all. You appear to argue from a cultural relativist perspective (culture is different but essentially equal) and I don’t entirely agree. For example, I’d be very unhappy with teachers being able to decide to teach Creationism as an alternative ‘scientific’ explanation to Evolution through Natural Selection. I think there are some things, as a society, we should agree to teach in state schools – and other things we should agree not to teach.

    So, I guess I’m sympathetic to Hirsch’s view that there are some elements of cultural knowledge which are important for children to learn about. If you like, there are some things that facilitate being able to take part in Oakeshott ‘conversations’ more than others. For example, so much of English language draws upon phrases and ideas from Shakespeare and the Bible – it would seem ‘facilitating’ if children had at least some exposure to them.

    What elements of curriculum might be sufficiently facilitating that they should be essential for all children to learn? Well, that’s the hard question. If we’re not content for a free-for-all, I suspect the fairest answer to that is the messy process of democracy. Thus I think it is inevitable – but also desirable – that politicians (as our representatives) debate and help decide what is taught in schools.


    1. Nick, it is truly an honour to have you comment on my blog! AND I owe you a pint so it would be good to chat about this over a bag of nuts and two pints of ale.

      Thank you for agreeing and disagreeing at the same time, I think this is usually the best option with most things…

      I don’t think constraints are necessarily a bad thing, but I do think if we want a, so called, more professional teaching profession then teachers should be trusted more to make decisions about what they teach, why and how and where and when… I think teachers focus too much on classroom tricks because many have lost the art and overview that curriculum design gives you from which, also, good ‘internal’ assessment ideas can arise.

      My argument is far from a relativist position, but it does take seriously the idea that knowledge might move quicker than a bureaucracy can contemplate – Hadron Collider in or out? Pluto and planet or not? Who’s the leader of Singapore? As well as decisions around which Shakespeare Play is best to teach in year 8; Constable or Turner, or both, which one first? The discussions around what knowledge constitutes the ‘Best that has been thought or said’ tempered by tradition taught in a way to get kids to add to it is not ‘relative’ at all! I wouldn’t have uttered the words’ best’ etc… It is, however, in many subjects controversial and this debate should be had in departments.

      I would be surprised if Creationism was taught in science and surprised if it wasn’t broached in RE – I think the debate should be had between religion and science and more interestingly between scientist who are believers as well as atheist. A dialogue can ensue but the ‘fact’ should be taught as and where it is known.

      There is more important knowledge that should be taught in schools and I too am very sympathetic to that or else there would be hardly any point in having schools. And I would hope that not just the bible but the King James Version would be taught alongside Shakespeare but also an array of different ‘quality’ writers and ‘knowledges’ of which there are far too many to go round – hence why it is even better that people know (some) different things. Foundational knowledge, Powerful knowledge, Transformational knowledge all these things can come into our discussions.

      Trust teachers as some of our most famous schools have done for hundreds of years. This is far more democratic than leaving it to a minister or two, a quango or a committee of experts.


      1. Agreed, I think this can ONLY be resolved over a couple of pints! 🙂

        I think we’re probably saying the same thing, to be honest. I think there should be some very basic ‘ground rules’ about what gets taught in schools, but more flexibility for teachers to re-discover the art of curriculum design (which I agree, we have all but lost): A skeleton, if you like, to which we can add the meat.

        Leaving curriculum entirely to teachers – however – isn’t something I’d support. You may doubt that anyone would teach Creationism as science – but I suspect some teachers would if they were free to do so. You may think it natural that teachers would select important cultural influences to teach to their students – but I suspect some might think Shakespeare or King James too ‘high brow’ for ‘these students’ and avoid material that they didn’t think was sufficiently ‘relevant’ or ‘authentic’. There is, after all, no accounting for taste – and this is where your plan risks falling into a form of cultural relativism I think.

        So, I think we need both. A basic framework (perhaps a ‘common core’!) that as a society we agree all children should learn about – though I would make this much more ‘light touch’ than anything that’s existed since I started teaching. I think schools could then develop a curriculum within that framework for different subjects. I’d also like contact time to extend a bit beyond this, so I can bring in a few particular inspirations and experiments of my own.


      2. Well, Nick, the ‘skeleton’, if you will, for me is the trivium… so a common core built around those principles – take the three ways to curriculum design – would be a wonderful idea and be constraint enough to free the creative minds of teachers and schools…

        As for teachers being silly with the curriculum, I do understand that can happen, they are human after all, as are ministers and curriculum experts… The thing is when a few teachers make some silly calls when it comes to the curriculum the children in only one school or a chain of schools suffer, when a National Curriculum contains silliness a whole cohort of children in the nation suffer…

        Tradition, in the main, would keep a steady hand on the tiller, but where found wanting, the fleet of foot of the chalk face floor could make the necessary adjustments quickly and productively.


      3. but I suspect some might think Shakespeare or King James too ‘high brow’ for ‘these students’

        I think they are too high brow for me, let alone students.

        For the record, I read plenty of modern literature and even read have a subscription to the LRB. I, however, have little desire to read Shakespeare, and never have. I object strongly to being told I need to know about poetry to take part in the “appropriate” level of culture, because I loathe poetry. Yet I regard even the best read people I know to be hopeless about basic elements of history.

        The idea that everyone needs the same access to culture is not terribly helpful, Just giving them access to it is no use if they can’t or won’t use it. Having everyone read high brow newspapers is an impossible dream, in a world where some people can barely read.

        Give everyone access to culture, and then let them decide. If they don’t want to do it, then don’t make them. Making it compulsory is just as horrible to them as making high level Calculus compulsory would be to the Arts-oriented.


      4. Isn’t this very much related to what kind of grading system you have? Whether it’s goal oriented or relative? If you have a goal oriented system teaching and school levels are seen as in need of strict goals (core standards) that can be secured by different kinds of controls and assessments and also subjects divided up in separate courses, all with their own goals and standards for “excellence “.The backlash to those in power is that it sooner or later leads to grade inflation and all kinds of corruption and you get the most absurd use of VAM data. This is what we have In Sweden since the early 1990’s and we do not have external examination. Teachers set grades themselves. As a result almost all research activities are related to assessments.
        In a relative grading system the profession is trusted to make decisions on both content and know how and a curriculum only needs to address general ideological matters and which subjects to be included. There are of course problems here as well – like an unproportional power to what publishers of textbooks and providers of software produce and singlehanded decide to be good (or profitable)


  4. Reblogged this on KitAndrew and commented:
    There are times to simply admire some great writing and appreciate that it has caused you to pause in your headlong rush that is modern life and to appreciate that someone has made you think. Thank you Martin

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the thoughts – I am concerned over the influence of Hirsh and the mimicking of his work in the UK via the Civitas publications. Like Nick I find myself within the spectrum between “the best that has been …” and the “free choice of everything”. My concern about the new NC is that most of the choice has been very un-democratic with substantial (or depending on some sources almost all) influence being politely influenced by the ‘reigning party’ and thus subject to the leanings of that party – only to be changes / undone later on.

    As our political system is still very bi-partisan (though of course this coming election may be interesting in changing this) this leads to the bi-polar impact on the curriculum. The science-religion is an interesting case and I think I would argue for equipping children (as much as possible) with their own critical skills so they could determine the place of the creationist argument as presented by their RE or science teacher.

    If anything is to change then it will have to be the assessment system whcih demands a unity of content in order to compare and contrast the achievement of the individual – and this is one that politicians (of any ilk) will find very difficult to let go of.


  6. I can see some false oppositions in the thread here: ‘teachers decide the curriculum’ vs ‘politicians decide the curriculum’. I’m not sure that any people on the side of more democracy in education said that teachers should decide all. One model emerged in the UK during what was known as the LINC project (Language in the National Curriculum). On that occasion there were guidelines which had been thrashed out between those in government, some hand-picked academics and the the idea was these would be ‘cascaded’ through regional and local conferences and teachers’ own action research. The whole thing was headed by Ronald Carter who was from HMI at the time and an academic grammarian. Over two or three years it started to produce a) some serious and excellent classroom research b) superb co-operation between teachers, academics and, yes, government and c) teachers developing their professional abilities and practice.

    What was its fate? It was abolished. Wiped out. Turned to nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The education sector remains the focus for much debate: what the educational aim is, who decides what we learn, what is desirable to learn, along with at what stage, in what depth, and how we establish if the learning has taken place.

    I favour creating an independent education institute which would bring together those who are skilled experts and professionals in their field: subject-knowledge, pedagogy, social care, economists, etc, to create an education sector of high standards and deep learning that prepares students to contribute to society and earn a living, as a minimum.

    It is beneficial to have a framework of core subjects and knowledge taught in schools, fed into hungry minds over 14 years by professionals; this will always be experienced, and delivered, through a prism of personal interests, ability, culture, and ambitions.

    Education must have and deliver facts, ideas, and methods to develop young adults who are numerate, literate, physically fit, who can respond to instruction, think, create, and apply their knowledge and thinking.

    In my experience teachers’ subject knowledge varies wildly, affecting even the delivery of English and Maths curriculum in the primary years. Subject experts should be academics who have read and analysed a canon of works and continue to research. I think core subject-knowledge at primary and secondary level should be overseen by a good-cross section of subject experts at tertiary level. The professional teacher encourages engagement/dialogue on the canon, including what isn’t included in the canon.

    My assumption is the teaching professional’s expertise is the method and practice of teaching; the process of sharing knowledge and checking learning. The professional is required to hold good core subject knowledge to do this.

    I think an education institute should decide the core framework that prepares students for each next step: primary > secondary/work > tertiary/work by transparently drawing on those with the relevant expertise.


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