Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1999 Issue »


    The Editorial Board welcomes comments on articles, reviews, and letters that have appeared in the Harvard Educational Review. Letters from readers will be published, in full or in part, at the Editors’ discretion. Authors of the articles under discussion are invited to respond.

    Spencer Responds to Buras

    To the Editors:

    Your Spring 1999 issue of the Harvard Educational Review includes an Essay Review entitled “Questioning Core Assumptions: A Critical Reading of and Response to E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” The reviewer, Kristen L. Buras, tells us that her purpose includes locating Hirsch’s work “within New Right politics” (p. 67) and “situat[ing] the book within the conservative restoration”(p. 67). Further, she describes Hirsch as “perhaps the most influential neoconservative voice over the last decade” (p. 69) and his educational program as inherently undemocratic and at odds with the achievement of social justice.

    Yet Ms. Buras fails to mention a striking portion of Schools that directly challenges her Paulo Freire–based doctrine that political progressivism requires educational progressivism, and shows that another revered hero of the Left totally disagreed.

    Hirsch writes, “In 1932, the Communist Antonio Gramsci, writing from jail (having been imprisoned by Mussolini), was one of the first to detect the paradoxical consequences of the new ‘democratic education,’ which stressed ‘life relevance’ and other naturalistic approaches over hard work and the transmission of knowledge” (p. 6). As Gramsci put it in his book Education:

    The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of “mechanical” by “natural” methods has become unhealthily exaggerated. Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order. The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that the new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallize them in Chinese complexity. (p. 6)

    Startlingly, Hirsch adds that at the time it was “Il Duce’s educational minister, Giovanni Gentile, in contrast to Gramsci, [who was] an enthusiastic proponent of the new ideas emanating from Teachers College, Columbia University, in the United States” (p. 6).

    What Gramsci saw, Hirsch continues, was that

    to denominate such methods as phonics and memorization of the multiplication table as “conservative,” while associating them with the political right, amounted to serious intellectual error. . . . Gramsci held . . . that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism. The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority — the ability to read, write, and communicate — and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them. Children, particularly the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish “naturally,” which would keep them ignorant and make them slaves of emotion. They should learn the virtue of hard work, gain the knowledge that leads to understanding, and master the traditional culture in order to command its rhetoric.” (pp. 6–7)

    As Hirsch sums up his own and Gramsci’s views, “Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the status quo, whereas the best practices of educational conservatism are the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition” (p. 7).

    More and more progressives agree with Hirsch’s and Gramsci’s point as stated above. Examples include the politically liberal founders of Mathematically Correct, the nationwide organization of distinguished scientists and math professors, who promote rigorous teaching of traditional mathematics and rage at fellow liberals for patronizing and shortchanging poor children. Similarly, other liberal educators join in actively urging restoration of explicit phonics in teaching reading, as the calamitous results of whole-language teaching come to light. Hirsch himself is an ultimate example of a lifelong political progressive, much of whose entire purpose is greater social equity. And even his frequent adversary, leading progressive educator Howard Gardner, recommends for that purpose a core curriculum such as Hirsch’s in his latest book, The Disciplined Mind. “Especially for disadvantaged children, who do not acquire literacy in the dominant culture at home,” Gardner writes, “such a prescribed curriculum helps to provide a level playing field and to ensure that future citizens enjoy a common knowledge base” (p. 107). This is pure Hirsch, and Gramsci.

    Kristen Buras’s determined avoidance of this portion of E. D. Hirsch’s book indicates a rigid ideological orthodoxy that impoverishes what might have been a more stimulating discussion.

    Louisa C. Spencer
    School Volunteer, P.S. 198
    New York City


    Buras Replies

    In 1979, Harold Entwistle published the book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics. Despite Gramsci’s “revolutionary political and social theory,” Entwistle argued, “his prescriptions for curriculum and teaching method are essentially conservative” (p. 2). Significantly, Entwistle’s book received tremendous criticism. In a review symposium by Henry Giroux, Douglas Holly, and Quintin Hoare (1980), Entwistle is admonished for misreading and misrepresenting Gramsci’s work as well as failing to contextualize Gramsci’s educational ideas either historically or with respect to Gramsci’s overall body of thought. Regarding Entwistle’s intentions, Holly contends, “The book will be seen by sophisticated readers for what it is — a polemic against ‘neo-Marxism’ and ‘the new sociology [of education]’. Others, however, will not be so discerning. Real conservatives will derive much amusement out of a communist endorsement of their ideology” (p. 316). One of the less discerning, E. D. Hirsch (1996), credits Entwistle’s book as being one of the primary texts providing him with “insights into Gramsci’s ideas about education” (p. 274, n. 9). It may interest readers that such uncreditable and reactionary scholarship informed Hirsch’s discussion of Gramsci (pp. 6–7) and contributed to the misappropriation referenced by Louisa Spencer.

    I am disturbed by efforts to represent Gramsci as an educational conservative. Endeavors that decontextualize and misappropriate his work as a way of disciplining leftist educational initiatives do not constitute a serious engagement with Gramsci’s life history (Fiori, 1965) or writings (Forgacs & Nowell-Smith, 1985; Hoare & Nowell-Smith, 1971). Thus, the remainder of my response entails a brief effort to counter Hirsch’s claim that a correspondence exists between his own views (see Buras, 1999) and Gramsci’s.

    As a revolutionary in early twentieth-century Italy, Gramsci’s vision of social justice required the radical transformation of civil society’s cultural institutions, takeover of the state, and absolute destruction of the capitalist economy. Even in the midst of Fascism, Gramsci never supported “bourgeois democracy”; rather, he strategically advocated its defense as a means to fend off dictatorship and only as an intermediate step in the ultimate conversion to communism (Fiori, 1965). In contrast, the central concern underlying Hirsch’s work is a desire to promote “social equity” by having children passively absorb hegemonic culture (“common culture”) in order to later participate in the capitalist economic relations (“marketplace”) that Gramsci spent his life condemning. Clearly, Gramsci’s revolutionary stance is at odds with Hirsch’s emphasis on social stability and defense of the status quo.

    Beyond conceptualizations of social justice, Gramsci and Hirsch also hold disparate views on the institutions of civil society, including schools. Gramsci stressed the involvement of such institutions in the production of hegemony — that is, their connection to the maintenance of bourgeois power through the generation of widespread “consent” for dominant worldviews — and he recognized the need to fight a “war of position” if alternative cultural forms were to acquire power (Hoare & Nowell-Smith, 1971). Hirsch understands the school as a “technical” institution involved in the transmission of a “shared” culture that has been wrongly associated with “Eurocentrism” and other forms of dominance and power. For him, schools are not sites of cultural struggle.

    In terms of intellectual activity and possibility, as well as the recognition of nondominant forms of experience, knowledge, and culture, the positions of Gramsci and Hirsch are divergent. Gramsci held that:

    Each [person] . . . carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, [s/he] is a “philosopher,” an artist, a [person] of taste, [s/he] participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought. (Hoare & Nowell-Smith, 1971, p. 9)

    Referring to this milieu as popular or “folkloristic,” Gramsci recognized working-class knowledge as valuable while avoiding its romanticization. It was essential, he believed, to distinguish “various strata” within it, thereby separating the “conservative and reactionary” elements while building on those “which consist of a series of innovations, often creative and progressive, . . . and which are in contradiction to or simply different from the morality of the governing strata” (Forgacs & Nowell-Smith, 1985, p. 190). In fact, the role of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” was to assist in the “critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone,” thus facilitating the development of a lucid counterhegemonic perspective (Hoare & Nowell-Smith, p. 9). Most importantly, organic intellectuals could only accomplish this task by maintaining ties to their class origin (proletariat). Loss of these ties meant co-optation by the dominant hegemony and betrayal of the needs of their class. In contrast, Hirsch views those from nondominant groups as “deficient” in knowledge and in need of “compensation” by dominant culture. His goal is to disassociate them from their class of origin (“less-good-home school” or “local” surroundings) and to integrate them into the existing hegemony.

    With respect to the place of dominant knowledge — in society generally as well as within schools — there is little coherence between their positions. While it is true that Gramsci did, to some extent, value the mental “discipline” he believed a traditional humanistic education could impart (a sort of discipline needed for the struggle), he strongly held that the proletariat should command dominant culture only to critique and transform it. For Gramsci, examining “folkloristic” conceptions against those of “national-popular” culture enabled a deeper comprehension of hegemony. “Folklore” he believed, “should . . . be studied as a ‘conception of the world and life’ implicit to a large extent in determinate [subordinate] . . . strata of society and in opposition . . . to ‘official’ [dominant] conceptions of the world” (Gramsci, quoted in Apitzsch, 1993, p. 140). Only this way could subaltern classes seek to untangle the complexities of intellectual domination and thus forge “a new common sense and with it a new culture . . . rooted in the popular consciousness” (Hoare & Nowell-Smith, 1971, p. 424). Far from adhering to Gramsci’s view of “official” knowledge, Hirsch desires that all citizens command dominant culture because he sees it as universal, believes it contributes to continual social cohesion, and contends that its alternative is the absence of culture itself.

    Regarding pedagogy, too, their positions are dissimilar. Gramsci’s pedagogy was based on the collaborative development of consciousness. He viewed the revolutionary party and other proletarian organizations as pedagogical in nature. For example, Gramsci insisted that organizing cultural associations for workers “would deal a fierce blow to the dogmatic and intolerant mentality created in the Italian people by Catholic and Jesuit education.” Alternatively, “love of free discussion, the desire to discover the truth with uniquely human means” would be instilled (Forgacs & Nowell-Smith, 1985, p. 23). Juxtaposing such cultural associations with “Popular Universities” offered by the bourgeoisie to the masses, Gramsci emphasized, “It is not the lecture that should interest us, but the detailed work of discussing and investigating problems, work in which everybody participates, to which everybody contributes, in which everybody is both master and disciple” (p. 25). By contrast, Hirsch’s pedagogical ideal includes teacher-centered instruction focused on transmission of predetermined facts.

    Ultimately, one must understand Hirsch’s misappropriation of Gramsci for what it is: a crude attempt at disciplining the Left. Nearly twenty years ago, Holly (Giroux et al., 1980) concluded his review of Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics by stating, “We would do far better to read Gramsci than Entwistle” (p. 319). In the present moment, the same may be said of Hirsch.

    Kristen L. Buras
    Teacher, New York City

    Stefanakis Comments

    To the Editors:

    In its Spring 1999 issue, the Harvard Educational Review included a Book Note on my book, Whose Judgment Counts? Assessing Bilingual Children, K-3. As the author of this book and of this important study, I feel the Book Note overlooked key aspects that I would like to elaborate on in this letter. Despite the rising number of bilingual students, few educators have been trained to make sense of these students’ learning and language differences. Consequently, bilingual children are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed as learning disabled by educators, when in reality they are limited in English-language proficiency. My book offers the educational community skills they need to make informed assessments of bilingual children, examining the cultural and language issues first, and then focusing on the learning. It is on exactly this point that the Note may have mislead your readers.

    The HER Book Note claims that my text “does not provide information about standardized testing of bilingual children.” This claim ignores the purpose and the title of the book, Assessing Bilingual Children, K-3, where national policy warns against standardized testing of young children, especially those who are bilingual (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1993). In chapter two, I do provide information on standardized testing, reviewing current bilingual assessment research and noting the uses and limitations of the tests available, and of those in translation (pp. 9–11). My review concludes that there are no valid and reliable standardized tests for assessing bilingual children. It is considered educational malpractice to recommend standardized testing for them for any educational decisionmaking using tools normed on monolinguals (p. 14). Readers should consult Guadalupe Valdés and Richard Figueroa, Bilingualism and Testing: A Special Case of Bias (1994), for more in-depth coverage of the research and legal challenges in discriminatory assessment practices.

    Overall, my book clarifies the fact that evaluation and assessment are not interchangeable terms, as the Book Note suggests. To assess literally means to “sit beside the learner” to understand the capabilities — not the disabilities — of individuals. For bilingual learners, my book recommends combining formal and informal assessments in the first and second language to capture an individual’s dual language abilities. In chapter one, I offer a clear introduction to the issues involved for bilingual learners and the role that classroom assessment plays in their school experiences. Based on my research (ch. 2), I provide case studies of a group of highly skilled teachers assessing bilingual students (ch. 3–6). These success stories capture the intricacies of classroom assessment and provide real-life examples of how effective teachers informally assess bilingual children. My message is to urge teachers never to stop looking, listening, and asking questions or compiling the work of young children. Only then, do I believe, can we fully understand who our students are and what we, as educators, can do for them.

    I do hope that the readers of HER have a chance to learn about my book’s contents and to focus on issues outside of standardized testing. Considering the talented teachers I chronicled, I invite today’s educators to consider ways to actively engage in nondiscriminatory alternative assessments where teachers’ judgments, not scores, are the judgments that count!

    Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, Ed.D.
    Lecturer, Harvard University Graduate School of Education
    Program Associate, Programs in Professional Education

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    Winter 1999 Issue


    Literacy Learning and Economic Change
    Deborah Brandt
    Writing Development
    A Neglected Variable in the Consideration of Phonological Awareness
    Sofia A. Vernon, Emilia Ferreiro
    In His Prime
    Dirk Jan Struik Reflects on 103 Years of Mathematical and Political Activities
    Arthur B. Powell, Marilyn Frankenstein

    Book Notes

    Boarding School Seasons
    By Brenda J. Child

    Sharing Words
    By Ramón Flecha

    White Reign
    Edited by Joe L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg, Nelson M. Rodriguez, and Ronald E. Chennault

    Country School Memories
    By Robert L. Leight and Alice Duffy Rinehart

    Country Schoolwomen
    By Kathleen Weiler

    The Incredible Journey to the Planets
    By Nicholas Harris

    The Art and Science of Portraiture
    By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.