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Should American education treat children as individuals or have the same goals for all students?

Both scholars paid their dues with monographs and specialized studies before becoming reformers. Hirsch backed up his claims by citing myriad experiments on fluent reading and clear writing. The pro-scientific trend was not friendly to all educators, marginalizing classroom teachers such as Rafe Esquith, who wrote inspiring accounts of classroom success but offered only anecdotal insights. Earlier in the century, William James was allowed to be more anecdotal. From science, however, emerged these two thinkers who gradually became generalists, humanists, and public intellectuals.

Americans were content to allow academic experts to dominate the debate about the ills of public education. Hirsch and Gardner formulated their ideas during an era preoccupied with race, class, and income inequality. Gardner offers no panaceas, but he did suggest that responding to multiple intelligences would enlarge the cohort of successful students and that society should not privilege only those with linguistic and logical intelligence. Each thinker has tried to respond to the information revolution, personal computers, the Internet, and social media.

Hirsch concedes that information is more rapidly available, but he argues that it must be internalized if students are to become fluent readers and that traditional classrooms are necessary in a democracy that tries to educate all. Gardner argues that the digital revolution decreases the need for traditional classrooms and the acquisition of facts. Digital devices, he asserts, can both individualize and pluralize instruction as well as encourage collaboration. Both thinkers were influenced by their times—by a hypercritical reformer ethos, by scientific social science, by a democracy plagued by inequality, by a perceived decline in civics and morals, and by the rise of digital technology.

And the times left these two philosophers with very different views of human nature. McGuffey readers, widely used textbooks published in the nineteenth century, have come to symbolize a lost unity in American education. He sees the need for some kind of national standards and some sort of high-stakes test, as can be found in Great Britain, France, and South Korea. Schools need to provide models, instill habits, and encourage character. Gardner is harder to pin down. He seems more comfortable with Rousseau and Dewey.

Freedom-loving, he does not like authority figures, uniform schooling, formal classrooms, and national standards. Egalitarian, he does not want a cognitive elite running America and given all the rewards. Optimistic about human nature, he believes students can do without standardized tests, competition, and grades.

A believer in human potential, he mistrusts the grim conclusions of evolutionary psychology, that by nature human beings are aggressive, violent, hierarchal, and territorial. According to Gardner, students should play, imagine, construct, experiment, explore the arts, follow their interests, cultivate their individual intelligence, and collaborate in groups. Whereas Hirsch leans toward tradition, Gardner praises innovation. A self-described liberal progressive, Gardner simultaneously admires genius and praises unreserved effort and deep understanding.

He believes a materialistic, pleasure-loving America should rededicate itself to good works, to truth, beauty, and goodness. Each thinker puts forward valuable reminders and raises important questions that have policy implications for state and federal departments of education, for parents, professors, and pundits—and, most importantly, for teachers. Are students going to sit in rows or groups? Is direct instruction or cooperative learning more effective?

Is the teacher a facilitator or an expert? Should we evaluate students by standardized tests and grades or projects and portfolios? Can the achievement gap be overcome by more money, more choice, and higher expectations? Should America have some sort of national standards the Common Core and high-stakes testing, or should we let states and local communities decide what is best for its children? The books and articles by E. Hirsch and Howard Gardner reflect a passionate concern for an appropriate pedagogy for the twenty-first century. Each is a serious scholar and public intellectual.

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Article appears in. Nor do his critiques of child-centered schools and cooperative learning. Stressing Americanization offends many liberals. Like many conservatives, Hirsch favors choice, competition, and charter schools, especially those that opt for the Hirsch Core Knowledge Curriculum. Hirsch is focused not only on a knowledge deficit that cripples students but also on an achievement gap that holds back minorities. The gap may be as much as 30 million words, according to researcher Dana Suskind. Hirsch ardently believes that starting students early with his reading theory, his fact-filled and orderly K—5 curriculum, and his inclusion of more nonfiction texts can compensate for less educated parents, promote equality, and pave the way for the meritocracy he treasures.

Local autonomy, he believes, diminishes rigor and uniformity and penalizes disadvantaged students who move from district to district. If Hirsch is a social justice conservative, he is also a nuanced conservative. He concedes that progressives have brought kindness to schools, and that projects and small-group instruction have their place.

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

He acknowledges individual differences among students but insists that large-group instruction is inevitable in a nation educating millions of students. There is no insurmountable reason why those who advocate the teaching of higher order skills and those who advocate the teaching of common traditional content should not join forces. Hirsch is a clear and forceful writer and has mastered an enormous number of educational studies with which he sometimes overwhelms the reader.

He can be strident in his attack on schools of education, which he claims indoctrinate teachers with a progressive, anti-content ideology. He criticizes Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey, insisting that romantics write good poetry but produce poor educational philosophy. At the same time, he has created a sophisticated theory of reading that makes a compelling case for background knowledge. He reminds us that reading is essential and complicated, a lifelong task that must start early. Like most reformers, he deplores the achievement gap.

It remains a challenging question for Hirsch, however, whether the most detailed, finely tuned curriculum can compensate for poverty and overcome class distinctions and whether that curriculum is more important than a highly trained, effective teacher. Howard Gardner considered becoming a lawyer, and also a pianist, but at Harvard he fell under the spell of such giants as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, sociologist David Riesman, and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner.

Gardner became famous through his theory of multiple intelligences MI , which was inspired by his work with brain-damaged adults at a veterans hospital and by his work with gifted children. In the book, Gardner argues that intelligence is not unitary but comes in eight forms, ranging from the linguistic to the logical and mathematical to the interpersonal. Because a classroom includes individuals of differing strengths and skills, the teacher should individualize instruction, appealing to different ways of learning.

The aim should be disciplinary or genuine understanding—or learning to think, for example, like a scientist. Gardner does not dismiss information but associates it with lists and uniform schooling—both of which he deplores. Direct instruction and a uniform curriculum ignore diversity and are neither effective nor democratic. Students are intrinsically motivated.

National Endowment for the Humanities

Competition, fear, and testing are unnecessary, he believes. Unlike Hirsch, Gardner is not preoccupied with civics or patriotism. Cosmopolitan, he is more interested in world citizenship than in American identity. He is opposed to history education that emphasizes coverage, memorization, and facts.

Interview | Judith Harris | Edward Hirsch, Poet

Instead, he wants students at all levels to think like historians. Gardner finds such teachers in short supply.

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Though he says his arguments for disciplinary understanding are applicable to elementary school students, it is clear from his examples that he is more focused on adolescents. In fact, a key difference between the two thinkers is that Hirsch is focused on reading, the achievement gap, and elementary schools. Neither Gardner nor Hirsch, a teacher might add, offers advice on classroom management. Gardner favors primary sources and projects. Skills are more important than facts, performances are better than tests, and museums and apprenticeships are as important as schools.

In the current climate of tests, standards, direct instruction, and compensatory education for disadvantaged students, Gardner proudly identifies himself as a progressive, even though he acknowledges progressivism is in retreat. Gardner does not believe that charter schools are a panacea and sees little value in competition, either between schools or among students. Of course, as Gardner might point out, the progressive retreat may be temporary—as students and parents rebel against standards and tests, as personalized computer instruction increases, as cooperative learning flourishes, and as social-emotional instruction returns as an educational goal.

Unlike Hirsch, Gardner does not concentrate on the achievement gap.

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He admits that progressive schools have limits. They work best with motivated, middle class students and require knowledgeable, creative teachers. Gardner is no fan of traditional education, where the adult is in charge and where the students absorb a canon of knowledge on which they are tested. I think I put my first manuscript together after I spent a year traveling around Europe after college.

For a couple of years I was calling my book Songs and Voices. But then I had a breakthrough when I was twenty-five years old.

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  • I should say that the thorny metaphysical poets were my first crush in poetry. The modernists gave them back to us. The subject is hot, the structure cool. The whole poem works as an analogy between a new love affair and a still life painting, one of those Dutch still lives where everything is so vividly alive, so poignantly shot through with death. It sets a still life into motion, turning something frozen into something dynamic, an argument that unfolds in time.

    Natural Selection is a proven scientific truth, but I thought it would be telling to take natural selection as a metaphor and then stand up for the underdogs, the losers, the unfit ones. The whole poem is a comic democratic catalogue of neglected and forgotten things that are not listening to poetry, but nonetheless need it. I make a community of the non-listeners. I recognized my own voice in these three poems, my own idiomatic note.

    My first book changed many times over the coming years, but those three poems always remained, a way of thinking, a signpost. And those are just a few of the named presences. When did you start reading international poetry? But I came to Williams later along with Stevens and Crane, great modern romantics.

    But I felt betrayed—I am still repelled—by their anti-Semitism, their disfiguring hatreds. They aspired to coldness, sculptural form. I loved the imaginative freedom of the French surrealists, but I found even greater depth of feeling in Spanish language modernists, such as Lorca and Hernandez, Vallejo and Neruda. My poems about Lorca and Vallejo are poems of self-conscious apprenticeship.

    In the end, they leave me, as all mentors must, to my own devices, my own poems. History was vitally personal, vividly alive for these poets, whose scale appealed to me. My chapter on Polish poetry in How to Read a Poem pays back an old debt to writers who, in my view, were metaphysically minded poets compelled by circumstance to become historical ones. I like the way he intimates the erotic and the personal in the political and the historical. Judith Harris: What about Isaac Babel? I think I must initially have identified him with my Latvian grandfather, who also had spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.

    I admire the unflinching way that Babel looks at the relationship between Jews and Cossacks. My first poem imagines being with him in Odessa. Later, I was fascinated by his Diary I liked the staccato style, the keen observations, the hunger to describe everything. I tried to imitate it all in a poem.

    Joseph Brodsky was a dear friend, but we had a few literary disagreements. One of them was about Babel. He considered Babel a local colorist. I think of him as a true cosmopolitan. But, even more than that, I like the dramatic situation that insomnia creates within a poem.

    It is a way to deepen a feeling of loneliness, to establish the sense of a solitary speaker, a sole consciousness, alone in the world while everyone else seems to be asleep. Sleeplessness becomes a metaphor for a kind of watchfulness, a restless consciousness.

    The poem of insomnia, as I understand it, is set at an epiphanic hour and seeks illumination in the darkness. It has an inner turbulence and outer calm. It loosens our ordinary or commonsensical way of thinking, and creates a wider space for reverie. It is not a dream poem, but it is a poem of night mind. Judith Harris: Your second book, Wild Gratitude seems more cohesive than your first book. How is it structured? Edward Hirsch: Robert Frost said that if there are twenty-nine poems in a book, then the book itself is the thirtieth poem.

    Wild Gratitude is filled with individual lyrics, but it is also structured as a journey, a descent into the abyss. It begins with a cry for help—comical, serious—and creates a feeling of falling. There is a diversity of subjects, but an underlying coherence of feeling. The personal, the artistic, and the historical are all inter-braided.

    The poems about art and artists are situated in life. Some of the personal poems are seen through a lens, darkly, as if filmed from above. I had a strong feeling that American poets were somehow undervaluing history, and I wanted to make it part of the personal fabric of my work. It closes with a feeling of grief and wonder, the cold cleansing of a snowfall, the miracle that we are still here.

    Judith Harris: A few of the poems in Wild Gratitude , including the title poem, rely on a parallel structure. Is that one of your recurring strategies? I start playing with my cat Zooey, now long dead, and this puts me in mind of Christopher Smart playing with his cat, Jeoffry. The strategy is a bit outlandish, really, but it gives me the chance to think about a couple of things, such as daily life, cats, praying, the experience—the extravagance—of Christopher Smart himself. I came to feel that daily life, quotidian things, may have resonated so deeply for Smart precisely because so much was taken away from him when he was locked away in the mad house.

    Everything happens at a magical remove and the ordinary takes on a sacred air. Something similar happens in the poetry of James Schuyler, by the way. My idea was to press the parallel as far as possible to see what it would yield, in this case a lesson about praise, one of the ground notes of poetry. Christopher Smart and John Clare are two of the holy eccentrics of English poetry who mean the most to me.

    Part of the pleasure was in going back and forth between the nineteenth-century English countryside and the twentieth-century American metropolis. I wanted to see how far I could push the comparison. I finally decided to make my realization part of the poem itself, which reverses itself. The third journey becomes my own. Judith Harris: You have mentioned memory and childhood as extremely important catalysts for emotions and the desire or exigency to write—and The Night Parade proves how beautifully poems rise from the ashes of the past and transform personal, even idiosyncratic experiences into those immediately relatable to other people.

    The Night Parade is a book about recollection, but it is more than that. These are spots of time, flashes of recognition. What got you going? Before that, I was more interested in escaping my childhood than in writing about it. My Chicago childhood was there driving me, but it was an unspoken fuel. I had to figure out that childhood was completely lost, perhaps irretrievably, before it interested me as a subject. By then, I had been reading Wordsworth with growing fascination and awe, and I was trying to figure out how he dramatized those spots of time, those intense, rupturing, a-temporal moments, which are sudden, unexpected, dangerous.

    By voluntary memory he meant that which is intentionally and consciously recalled; by involuntary memory he meant that which is given back to us, as if my magic, unconsciously. Involuntary memory is sacred. In my late thirties, I tried to woo it. Is that as one of your key subjects? It was just a given when I was growing up that everyone worked hard, sometimes at jobs they disliked.

    I had a lot of lousy manual labor jobs when I was young—working as a bus boy, as a garbage man, as a brakeman on the railroad, in a chemical plant, in a box factory—and you never forget those experiences, or the people you worked with, or what it means to punch a clock. I recognize that white collar jobs are jobs, too. And so is teaching, managing a program, running a department, a foundation. It has been important for me to try to keep the subject of working, labor itself, in the mix of my poems, sometimes in unexpected ways. My experiences have also led me to try to think about the work of art, about work songs, and about the work that poetry does—or could do—in the world.

    The light in those paintings just goes through me. I like all those scenes of daily life, all those mirrors and windows, drawers and curtains, cobblestone passages. I like to breathe that watery blue air. I had a long lyrical descriptive list of Dutch paintings at the end of the review, which the editors made me cut in half. I decided to try to save the descriptive phrases and put them into a poem, to find out what happened when I lineated them. That was the beginning, which sent me back to the paintings themselves.