E D Hirsch is an indispensable writer for anyone who is waging a battle with the destructive dogmas of progressivism. Intellectual heavyweight and champion of core knowledge, he has continued to fight the good fight with inspiring vigour ever since he published his groundbreaking Cultural Literacy in 1987. Those who are familiar with his work will have noticed how strong his influence is on many of the posts I write.
I don’t agree with everything he says, though. He has a particular agenda with reference to American culture which grates against my more universalist traditionalism.
In his wonderful critique of the naturalistic Romantic ideas which have done so much damage to education, The Schools We Need (1996), Hirsch contrasts the Romantic strain of American culture, the world of Emerson and Whitman, with the Enlightenment thinking of the founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The founders had a deep scepticism about human nature, which was why they created a constitution designed to prevent anyone from having too much power. Unlike the government created by the more idealistic French Enlightenment, theirs has proven to be remarkably durable.
This scepticism also has a bearing on attitudes towards education. It means that the necessity for forming children in a certain way is recognised. There is no danger of placing the child on a pedestal, as do the Romantics and their progressivist descendants.
But scepticism about human nature, and the consequent understanding that children must be trained in good habits, not left to go their own sweet way, is not an Enlightenment idea. It is simply a traditional idea, which can be found in Plato, Aristotle and St Augustine. Hirsch does acknowledge this early in The Schools We Need, but for the majority of the remaining chapters he continues to refer to Jefferson and the Enlightenment view of education and culture. I suspect it is because he wants to demonstrate that the sceptical views about human nature held by the founding fathers are even more American than the idealistic ones which came later. He may be attempting to defuse American exceptionalism, and the consequent reluctance to accept an idea unless it can be labelled as purely American. And of course an idea cannot be purely American if it originated before the eighteenth century!
However, the Enlightenment is not a good place to go for illumination on human nature and education. To the extent that Jefferson and the other founding fathers accepted the idea that human nature was weak and in need of training and guidance, they were simply following traditional ideas which belong to human culture generally, as C S Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man.
Far from promoting healthy scepticism about human nature, the Enlightenment actually undermined it, by exalting human liberty and denying any external, objective authority over it. Thus it prepared the ground for Romanticism, as well as all of the horrifying modern examples of humanistic tyranny, from the French Terror in the eighteenth century, to Nazism and Communism in the twentieth.
To the extent that the American founding fathers were wise about education and culture, they were actually departing from the radical views of Enlightenment thinkers, and simply defending traditional ideas. There is a clear intellectual path which runs from Voltaire to Rousseau to Wordsworth and Whitman, and from them to all of the wrongheaded experiments that have been performed on our children in the last fifty years (or a hundred years in the US).
We need to go deeper into the common roots of human civilisation to find sources for renewal. It was because the American founding fathers had not yet pulled up these roots that they had worthwhile things to say about education. But for a description of the ultimate sources of this wisdom, we need to look to thinkers like C S Lewis or Roger Scruton, who take us beyond the parochial concerns of our peculiar times, and open up far broader vistas. We must not give the credit to Thomas Jefferson for ideas which are ancient and universal elements of human civilisation, ideas which no one had thought to question until our radical modern experiment in individual liberty.