A while back, a colleague recounted to me the following story: On the train to school one morning she found herself sitting next to a fellow teacher, one who taught AP® Government. They chatted about their classes and upcoming exams, and at one point her colleague began lamenting the fact that he was forced to make students learn facts like, say, the number of members in the House of Representatives. As he explained, his former students wrote to him with great enthusiasm about the political science courses they were taking in college. Why, he wondered, couldn’t he teach a course that generated that kind of excitement in students? Why couldn’t he just skip to the good stuff and focus on “real learning”?

I can’t say I was surprised by their conversation: I’m perfectly familiar with the trope of the teacher who proudly proclaims that it doesn’t matter whether students remember whatthey learned in his class—what really counts is the love of the subject and perhaps the habits of mind they acquired, not all those pesky little facts. But the incident stuck in my mind, and it also prompted me to finally try to put down some things that I’ve been trying to find a way to convey in less than a book-length post for a very, very long time now.

When I first discovered E.D. Hirsch’s work back about seven or eight years ago, I was already well acquainted with the deep-seated anti-intellectualism that runs through American society, but I did not fully grasp the extent to which facts themselves were maligned within the educational system.

Indeed, this is a trend that far, far predates the current political situation—by around a century, in fact; it’s just that its full consequences have not manifested themselves to quite the current extreme until recently. As Hirsch points out, certain nineteenth-century Romantic notions about education—ones stressing the primacy of “natural” experience and the dismissal of factual knowledge as contrary to true learning—have become so deeply embedded in the American school system that any alternative is literally inconceivable in many circles.

Somewhere along the line, the pushback against the teaching of rote, disconnected facts morphed into a conflation between rote, disconnected facts and factual knowledge itself; that morphed into a narrative in which the acquisition of factual knowledge was construed to be the opposite of “real learning”; and that (along with a healthy dose of bipartisan political pressure) in turn morphed into an insistence that facts not be taught at all.

Now typically, schools’ anti-knowledge bent is cast in terms of the desire to have students “go beyond the facts,” but in reality it often means that students come away with vague and airy notions about, say, “historical thinking” but have no idea whether the Enlightenment came before or after World War I.

In The Schools We Need (1996), Hirsch recounts his experience as a speaker at a school-administrators’ conference, during the course of which he became aware that the anti-knowledge sentiments he had commonly heard expressed by educators were not merely a tool for resisting curricular changes, but rather, as he puts it, “expressions of fundamental belief.”

As he describes:

In my first small-group session, an educator asked me what sorts of things I thought first graders should know. I mentioned…some fables of Aesop; some facts about Egypt, including mummies and the Nile; some elements of geography, like being able to find north, south, east, and west…as well as being able to identify the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and the seven continents. Immediately, one of the participants asked me if I really thought it was of any use whatever to a first grader to learn the seven continents. No one at the meeting was willing to defend the idea of teaching such facts to young children…

During the next several days, I traveled to two more IDEA campuses, where a large number of educational administrators were gathered, representing a good sampling of the thinking of school officials across the nation. On each campus, I encountered similar attitudes regarding the uselessness of factual knowledge and the undesirability of asking students to learn it. It was almost universally assumed that the teaching and learning of facts must occur in a fragmented, dry, and inhumane way, and that teaching such information as the names and shapes of the seven continents could only be accomplished by memorizing meaningless items disconnected from a child’s interest and experience.

In IDEA discussions, facts and information were invariably referred to as “mere,” in contrast to something better called “true knowledge.” In these educators’ minds, there existed a polarity between exciting, practically useful, morally beneficial teaching on the one hand and memorization of meaningless facts through dry, dull teaching on the other. At IDEA, I had entered an either-or world that had the flavor of a medieval morality play, in which good was set against evil. The possibility that factually rich and demanding learning of subject matter could, while requiring hard work, also be interesting, even captivating—not to mention morally beneficial and skill-enhancing—was not a concept that IDEA participants brought under discussion.

These hundreds of participants did not consider themselves to be enemies of knowledge, and might have thought it outrageous that anyone would so describe them. On the contrary, they thought of themselves as friends of “true knowledge” as distinct from “mere facts.”When I asked what they meant by “true knowledge,” some participants said that it consisted in knowing “the interrelations of things,” but they did not explain how things can be related without first being known. They also assumed that any really important factual knowledge is picked up automatically in the course of experience. (That it is not automatically picked up by American students is now well documented.)

What I think is so important about this passage is the way in which Hirsch spells out the way in which anti-fact discourse functions rhetorically—the set of clichés about learning and education that predominates in ed-world, establishing them not as conclusions that people arrive at through a process of careful observation and independent thought, but rather as a fixed discourse, an empty series of received ideas that continually get parroted more or less verbatim.

It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which the attitude outlined in the last couple of paragraphs has been absorbed into the mainstream. Read almost any moderately serious (generally left-leaning) newspaper or magazine closely these days, and it is possible to observe an interesting dichotomy: on one hand, there are the continual wails about a populace that no longer pays attention to facts, (inevitably accompanied by calls for schools to teach critical thinking). At the same time, however, one cannot be help but be struck by the skeptical, if not outright derogatory, terms in which the direct transmission of factual knowledge is characterized (“rote learning”).

Take, for example, a 2017 Atlantic piece that bemoaned high school seniors’ lack of basic factual knowledge about slavery, then turned around and cited a teacher whose “straightforward” solution was to give students… primary source documents so that they could discover answers for themselves. (Exactly how many high-schoolers can navigate nineteenth-century vocabulary and syntax? Exactly how many high schoolers even do their reading assignments at all?) The implication, of course, was that if students encountered factual information in an “authentic” way, they would naturally remember it, and thus there would be no need for the teacher to teach it.

Or consider a May 2019 article by John Urschel, a Ph.D. candidate in math, which appeared on the NY Times op-ed page and epitomizes the type of rhetoric Hirsch describes:

Growing up, I thought math class was something to be endured, not enjoyed. I disliked memorizing formulas and taking tests, all for the dull goal of getting a good grade. In elementary school, my mind wandered so much during class that I sometimes didn’t respond when I was called on, and I resisted using the rote techniques we were taught to use to solve problems. One of my teachers told my mother that I was “slow” and should repeat a grade. 

But my problem wasn’t with math itself. In fact, I spent countless hours as a child doing logic and math puzzles on my own, and as a teenager, when a topic seemed particularly interesting, I would go to the library and read more about it.

And later on:

The mathematical research I was doing [in college] had little in common with what I did in my high school classrooms. Instead, it was closer to the math and logic puzzles I did on my own as a boy. It gave me that same sense of wonder and curiosity, and it rewarded creativity.

I am now a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I have published several papers in mathematical journals. I still feel that childlike excitement every time I complete a proof.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Urschel was indeed bored in elementary-school math class—and I’ve certainly encountered classroom teachers who taught by rote, seeming not to really grasp the underpinnings of their own subjects—but the piece, entitled “Math Teachers Should be More Like Football Coaches,” is far more interesting for its rhetoric than for its actual content.

Are we seriously to believe that if math teachers—who, for the record, in American schools often arealso football coaches—simply sought to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity (“true learning”), then students would miraculously become as adept as Urschel became?

Students who are sufficiently motivated to go to the library and read about academic subjects at a high level for their own pleasure are by definition outliers; should their experiences really be used to dictate pedagogy for everyone? (Almost as a throwaway, Urschel credits his “boring” math teachers with giving him a solid enough foundation to be able to jump directly into higher-level work in college.)

But that is the worldview that outlets like the Times are more or less dedicated to propagating: if teachers would just stop with all the boring, rote facts and motivate students to just think creatively, then achievement would soar.

The problems, though, extend far beyond even that.

In his book Reading at the Speed of Sight, University of Wisconsin professor Mark Seidenberg highlights the role central role that constructivism has come to play in contemporary American education. Taken to the extreme, this is essentially the belief because people construct their own knowledge based on individual circumstances and experiences, nothing can be known for certain, and thus it is useless and even damaging for teachers to attempt to inculcate knowledge in their students:

Much of the air may have gone out of the Theory balloon at the Modern Language Association, but it remains influential in education because it complements existing beliefs about learning. The idea that children learn by being taught came to be seen as fundamentally flawed because learning is the process of constructing knowledge.

Seidenberg further cites Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who in a 2013 Education Next article (ironically pro-Common Core and entitled, what else, “Twenty-first Century Teacher Education”) took ed schools sharply to task for their anti-knowledge stance:

Harking back perhaps to teacher education’s 19th-century ecclesiastical origins, [the mission of teacher education] has shifted away from the medical model of training doctors to professional formation. The function of teacher education is to launch the candidate on a lifelong path of learning, distinct from knowing, as actual knowledge is perceived as too fluid to be achievable.

The strength of this trend was further driven home to me during the summer of 2018 (yes, that’s how long I’ve been trying to finish this piece!), when a colleague alerted me to the existence of Teaching Channel.

For those unenlightened souls among you, the Teaching Channel is to Common Core and progressive pedagogy roughly what Pravda was to the Communist Party, or what Fox News is to the Republican Party. And lest you think this is some sort of obscure aberration, it was a central part of the online “professional development” that my colleague—a public school teacher—was required by the Department of Education to undergo.

I spent several days watching, transfixed, as teacher after teacher babbled on wide-eyed (don’t these people ever blink?) about the joys of group work, Socratic Seminar, and twenty-first century skills.

In what were effectively conversion narratives, teachers proclaimed that they had seen the light and come to understand that students should never be corrected or told that they are wrong, and that all discussions must be framed in terms of agreement and disagreement.

Once in a while, a teacher might cop to directly instructing students, but only,only—they made clear—because they had no choice but to do so for that particular lesson.

Invariably, they also made a show of their guilt, in a sort of public spectacle of self-abnegation.

I generally try to avoid hyperbole, but those videos were truly over the top—they felt like scenes from a re-education camp. I couldn’t help but think of them when I came across the following quote:

Thought reform, at least in its full expression, is a systematic project that makes extensive use of criticism, self-criticism, and confession, both in groups and individual interrogations. Its ambitious aims [are] not only to bring about change in people’s political views but in what Erik Erikson called their inner identity. 

It does not require a great act of imagination to wonder whether students who have spent 10+ years in classroom run by teachers who do not really believe in the importance of factual knowledge, and who eschew the notion that they might bear some responsibility for transmitting it to their students, might come to have some, shall we say, difficulty with it as well.

I was leafing through Natalie Wexler’s recent book, The Knowledge Gap, recently, and although little of what the author had to say was new to me, the section in which she described one Connecticut elementary school’s attempt to implement a knowledge-based (!) curriculum stopped me cold:

Lina Wolters’s school, Cannan Elementary, adopted [E.D. Hirsch’s program] Common Knowledge in 2013. The first year was the hardest, she says, with some teachers resisting the focus on facts. Even now, Wolters has to remind teachers it’s important to provide kids with what she calls “free information.”

It’s very hard for them to remember that knowing stuff makes you a better reader,” she says. And so I try to put it into those simple terms all the time: knowing stuff makes you a better reader.”

Assuming that you, reader, are a reasonable person, just stop and try to process that for a moment.

I mean, good lord, how on earth did we get here? Do people truly not grasp how utterly, profoundly, outrageously disturbing a statement that is? How could a situation like this even be allowed to develop? I mean, I understand on an intellectual level—I’ve read enough about the history of education in the United States —but still. Seeing it spelled out so bluntly was kind of shocking.

The more I learn about reading pedagogy in the early grades, the earlier I realize this mindset permeates the classroom from students’ earliest days in school. How else to explain the ideological rejection of the fact (not the opinion!) that letters stand for sounds, and that decoding is literally a process of matching one to the other?

How else to explain the notion that children should be encouraged to just plug in words that fit the narrative, regardless of what is actually written on the page? Students taught like this are essentially trained to ignore reality—in a sense, to believe that reality is irrelevant, only what they happen to think— from a very young age.

This is, incidentally, in part why I’ve become so fascinated by the reading wars: they seem to me a symptom of a much deeper cultural instability, one that I’m still struggling to grasp.

Now, there is obviously nothing wrong with pondering the nature of reality as a philosophical exercise—people have done so for millennia. But it is one thing to consider the limits and distortions of human perception intellectually, and another to actually attempt to live as if reality itself were suspect(red pill! red pill!).

In order to function in the world, people must put aside this kind of extreme disbelief and accept that there can be some basis for common experience.

When people stop accepting this—or are manipulated into believing that such thing is impossible—then society itself breaks down.

Let me return to Hirsch, who wrote prophetically in The Knowledge Deficit:

The very fabric of our peaceable and unified democracy is at risk when we do not know how to communicate with each other…A content-neutral, skills-oriented education concept of education has the unintended effect of…diminishing the shared content we need for communication and solidarity within the nation as a whole…People who cannot communicate with one another do not trust one another. They do not feel a sense of responsibility to the larger community. Such conflict is inevitable in a big, diverse country. But some of the polarization has less to do with ideology than which the inherent suspicion and lack of solidarity among people who fail to share a common basis of knowledge—a commonality of discourse that alone enables shared allusions and mutual comprehension.

If the situation is at all to be remedied, teachers must believe—really, truly believe, not just give lip service to—that facts themselves are important. They are not “mere facts,” they do not just represent “rote learning”; rather, they are the basis for a functional society. And teaching them to students is in no way at odds with instilling a healthy sense of skepticism or the ability to assess arguments critically. The alternative is a situation in which people continually talk past each other, or else conversations devolve into nonsense.

That is not to deny the existence of a gray area, where the lines between “x happened” and “how x is interpreted” can and does get blurred (sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad); nor is it to deny the sheer superabundance of information floating around on the Internet; nor is it to deny that Americans come from an extraordinary range of backgrounds and have many different cultural heritages. However, to use these objections as an excuse to insist that schools should avoid the teaching of factual knowledge is a pathetic cop out.

It is impossible to know when someone is uttering blatant falsehoods unless you first know what the truth is—unless you think that there is such thing as truth. (As Hannah Arendt famously said of citizens who cannot believe anything, “With such a people, you can do what you please.” Or, as someone less eloquent put it, “It’s possible to be so open-minded your brain falls out.”)

And contrary to popular belief, there is no magical set of critical thinking strategies that will permit people to recognize nonsense when their knowledge base is ludicrously insufficient.

Indeed, if students’ main takeaway from school is that facts really don’t matter that much after all; that everything is just a matter of interpretation; that every question is open ended; and that there is no such thing as true or false, right or wrong, then it should surprise no one when society comes to disregard them as well.