At first, I assumed that the differences between John Dewey and E.D. Hirsch Jr. were going to be about how the best teaching methods. Reading about Dewey, I was on board with his using experiments and experiences as teaching methods. I assumed that Hirsch was going to argue for a “traditional” teaching style with a lecture, notes, and memorization method. However, both Hirsch and Dewey subscribe to a more Socratic teaching method, allowing students to experiment and explore in order to learn.
The actual contrast between these two pedagogical philosophers is in what the main purpose of education should be. Dewey believes that a school’s main objective is to teach life skills and social awareness while Hirsch believes that the purpose of a school is to give students fundamental academic knowledge.
In John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed”, he notes that the authentic way babies learn how to speak their first language is the best way to teach students when they are older. You don’t need to sit a child down and have them use rote memorization to have them learn how to move their mouths to form words. The necessity of communication drives their learning and language acquisition. Dewey goes further to say that students’ interests should guide their studies.
More importantly, Dewey argues, social awareness should be education’s main objective. Schools should be “a process of living and not a preparation of future living.” Schools should be teaching children how to be morally productive members of society. He isn’t saying that schools shouldn’t teach about geography, reading, writing, etc. Simply, children should be able to be children longer before jamming facts and figures into their heads. He thinks young children should learn life skills first like “cooking, sewing, and manual training” before settling into academic contents. He views schools not as preparation for life, but life itself.
In E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s “Why Traditional Education is Progressive”, Hirsch acknowledges that Dewey’s teaching method is valid. On page 43, Hirsch says that the dichotomy between traditional and modern teaching styles “is a false and misleading contrast.” It’s obvious, he says, that the best way to teach students is with hands-on experience, but that the value and need of verbal learning or lectures is also valid.
While Hirsch also discusses the need for social teaching, like in religious schools, he gives academic “Core Essentials” a priority. He agrees with Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci’s views:
“The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority- the ability to read, write, and communicate- and should gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them.”
In other words, closing the achievement gap between socio-economic statuses relies on everyone receiving the same lessons in math, reading, writing, history, and science. Having the same knowledge base is similar in having the same language. Communication and collaboration become so much easier when everyone can reference the same prior knowledge set.
The risk of placing priority on core academic standards is that there are many children who have talents outside of academics. A traditional setting like the one Hirsch envisions can discourage students who don’t excel academically, but excel creatively, musically, athletically, etc. Those children need outlets to cultivate and showcase their abilities. According to Sir Ken Robinson, the current institutions fail at meeting the needs of all individuals because we ignore their interests in lieu of rigorous academics. Society needs all kinds of people working together to function properly. Not everyone can or should get a college degree; therefore, college readiness shouldn’t be the main focus of education.
As we move into an uncertain future, it’s clear that we are at the same cross roads in education today. More and more jobs are becoming obsolete or automated. Schools are preparing students for careers that don’t exist yet. Many parents and educators wonder if there is value in teaching antiquated facts. And yet, many states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, an agreed upon set of skills and knowledge every child needs to know. This set of skills and knowledge don’t include life skills like keeping a balanced budget, how to do your taxes, how to take good notes, how to treat people in the service industry, just to name a few that I find particularly important. Ultimately, both practical, social knowledge, and academic knowledge are valuable; they are two sides of the same coin.