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The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools
E. D. Hirsch Jr.
Yale University Press, 2009
288 pp., $25.00

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Alan Wolfe


In Defense of a Common Culture

Back to the fray with E.D. Hirsch.

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Rather than homeschooling their children, many religious parents will send them to religious schools. But such schools, once again, are not part and parcel of the common culture. Even if they are not narrowly sectarian, they still teach from a particular point of view. In doing so, their insistence on Christian or religious ways of knowing borrows from advocates of identity politics in the secular realm who insist that women or racial minorities have voices that must be heard in a multicultural curriculum. I for one do not believe that there would have been a religious revival in the 1980s without the countercultural revival of the 1960s as a model. If our common culture is fractured, religious communities must share the blame.

Just as many religious Americans rely on a secular notion such as choice, so many progressives become religious in their zeal. Hirsch characterizes those progressives who question traditional pedagogy as an "anti-curricular movement," and he writes that this movement's "sense of righteousness, of being in possession of ethical rectitude and privileged truth often has a religious flavor." Those on the Left side of the school wars debate can trace their intellectual heritage back to Rousseau and the romantic movement. Let students learn the right technique and providentially students will grasp what they need to know—or so runs the theory. In practice, educational reformers frequently become otherworldly, replacing an insistence on fact and measurement with hope for a better tomorrow.

The truth is that Americans of all persuasions need more factual knowledge. The cause of religion is not well served by religious illiteracy; good citizenship requires a solid ground in history and politics. The rigorous education Hirsch champions—and his unapologetic insistence on common American values—would be as suspect to a self-styled populist like Sarah Palin as they would be to a new age therapist. I wish Hirsch's book would be taken seriously among Pentecostals and megachurch enthusiasts, people who in general set a higher priority on the power of the spirit than the life of the mind. I doubt that it will be.

We have many different religions but only one country. It is perfectly appropriate that people of one particular faith verse themselves only in their own tradition, although one hopes they'll show the curiosity to learn about others as well. The problem in our religious life is not that Christians need to know more about Muslims; it is that Christians know too little about themselves.

When it comes to schools, by contrast, anyone who would use them to promote only their ideas and the wisdom of their own faith would be seriously out of bounds. Many religious parents think our schools all too often ignore religion and in that they are correct; to leave religion out of our common experience as Americans is to shrink the meaning of Americanism. But having said that, it is also true that the schools must teach all facets of our common life, not only those shaped by one tradition. If we are religiously pluralistic, we are, or we should be, more politically united. As people of faith, religious Americans are entitled to have their voices heard. As Americans, they are obligated to hear the voices of others.

E.D. Hirsch is an antidote to our culture wars, our polarization, our taste for demagoguery, our feel-goodism. Reading him always reminds me of this country's great potential. That is what makes him such a great American.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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