Bruno: Hirsch's Insights Both Obvious & Underappreciated
E.D. Hirsch had a big, well-read piece on the importance of vocabulary building recently, but Bob Somerby read it and complains that he's "fuzzy" on what Hirsch's point is supposed to be even after reading Hirsch's Wikipedia entry.
Somerby's objection is that the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension is so obvious that Hirsch couldn't be famous if that's really his "key discovery".
Somerby's confusion is understandable in part because Wikipedia isn't as clear on Hirsch's thinking as it could be and in part because Somerby is right: what Hirsch is saying should be extremely obvious.
Yet what is striking about American reading education is that we often do not talk as if we believe Hirsch. Instead, we talk at great length about - and devote large quantities of instructional time to - alternative conceptions of reading ability that emphasize context-dependent skills (like "making connections") rather than background knowledge.
To see how poorly the education world has processed the "obvious" importance of broad background knowledge, consider the subtle ways our language denies its relevance. For example, we routinely administer "reading assessments" to students to identify them as "good readers" or "poor readers".
Attempting to assess "reading skills" per se makes little sense on Hirsch's account because one's reading ability will vary greatly depending one's knowledge of the text's subject matter. This may seem obvious upon reflection, but it is in fact a subtle point easily forgotten by relatively knowledgeable educators who find themselves able to move from text to text with little variation in difficulty.
In truth, Hirsch probably shouldn't get credit for "discovering" these ideas so much as working hard to popularize them. That in itself is a major contribution, however, when you realize how much resistance these ideas face from educators. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)