Some things I’ve learned from… Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch (2016)

PLEASE NOTE: All opinions on the text and the ideas that it discusses are my own. This piece is a discussion of my own thought process, inspired by the text and may not necessarily represent the views of the text’s author. Sources used in the writing of this piece have been referenced, if you believe a source has been omitted please contact me so I can rectify it.

Hirsch’s central argument can be summarised as follows: the twentieth century shift towards individualised, skills-based education systems has resulted in the stagnation of student outcomes. Through his analysis of the French education reforms of 1989 and their parallels with the American education system, Hirsch demonstrates that a focus on the development of generalised skills over the acquisition of a collectively agreed knowledge set has entrenched disadvantage, tied the hands of educators and added to the prevalence of ‘teaching to the test’.

The debate, Hirsch points out, stems from the two prevailing schools of thought that have influenced educational thought over the last few hundred years: Classical and Romantic. Hirsch suggests ‘the classical aim of education was to correct nature through civilization. The romantic aim of education is to correct civilisation through nature’ (p. 194).  

I would argue that these two movements are still visible in the discourse today: Classical thinking evolving into the modern ‘Trad’ stance while the Romantics can be found arguing for the progressive values that have dominated education in both America and the UK. I find this interesting as it highlights the cyclical nature of education reform and challenges the notion frequently shouted by our politicians, that under their stewardship education has been on an improving trajectory. Of course, the data presented by Hirsch further reinforces the reality that education has stagnated under the current regime.

Hirsch’s assertion that teaching generalised skills without teaching an established knowledge set is ineffective seems to be supported by the evidence put forward by today’s cognitive science (See Willingham, 2009). The alternative view is a naturally attractive one: educating the individual and drawing out their innate talents fits nicely with the ambition to dismantle the power structures that have caused so much inequality down the centuries. However, clinging on to these revolutionary aims misses a key point: if a person is to achieve a position where they are able to affect the system and bring about positive change, they need to have a command of the language and knowledge that such a position is built on. I agree with Hirsch and would add that this, in my opinion is one of the main drivers of the persistent attainment gap between those in the UK who attend our poorest schools and those who attend the richest. As a system, we fail to make up for the head start that advantaged young people gain through their early exposure to the culture that is eventually tested at school.

Faced with this problem, many people argue for the abolition of exams and the economic model of education that currently exists. Hirsch, however, points out what I believe is a better alternative. Rather than rejecting a knowledge-based education, we should improve the provision of that knowledge to those students who have the least exposure to it through a cumulative, knowledge-rich curriculum. In this ambition, Hirsch does not suggest what this knowledge should be other than that it should be that which is commonly known to an educated citizen. I believe this opens up a different route to improvement: a focus on creating a democratically agreed, collective canon that equally privileges all groups in society. Of course, this is a utopian ideal but surely it is a better to work towards a lofty vision than to continue along a path we know to be ineffective.

One of my pet hates about debates in education is the absolutism with which proponents on both sides of many issues argue. While at times, I felt this influence in Hirsch’s work, on the whole I found his argument sympathetic to those on the other side of the aisle. He eloquently demonstrates the ease with which we can fall into faulty thinking in such a complex field and above all, goes to great pains to illuminate those aspects that unite us all: whether we believe the purpose of education is qualification, socialisation or subjectification (Biesta, 2008:39), we all ultimately want what’s best for our students.

Hirsch’s work covers many more ideas than I have space for here; this piece barely does it justice. I would certainly suggest anyone working in education reads Why Knowledge Matters, regardless of their ideological persuasion, it offers plenty of food for thought.


Biesta, G. (2008) Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, Volume 21(1). Available at:

Hirsch, E. D. (2018) Why Knowledge Matters. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Willingham, G. (2009) Why Students Don’t Like School. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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