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Big Idea: We Can Measure Educational Value in Words

The great benefit of education, “the key to increasingly upward mobility,” is expanding the vocabulary of students.

E.D. Hirsch (the cultural literacy guy) has, I think, written the most important article on educational “outcomes” in a long time.  The great benefit of education, “the key to increasingly upward mobility,” is expanding the vocabulary of students.  Why is that?

1. Hirsch observes that “vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, and listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts.”  People have large vocabularies because they know a lot.  They know a lot, because they’ve read a lot—that is, many, many challenging books and articles and such.

 2. The military has discovered that the Armed Forces Qualification Test “predicts real-world job performance most accurately when you double the verbal score and add it to the math score.”  That’s because those who have the big vocabularies actually know more about the real world.  And it’s also true that “knowing more words makes you smarter,” because language is the main tool we have for understanding the world.  Not only that, a large vocabulary increases your “working memory”—that part of your memory actually available to you for solving problems.  Studies show that when people know fewer words, they’re less smart, and they become less able to be productive.  And sadly that’s what’s happened to “a big segment of the American population since 1962.”

3. We know, of course, that expanding vocabulary doesn’t occur through studying vocabulary words.  It occurs unconsciously as the result of using reading (mainly) as a way of “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”  It occurs as the byproduct of “content-based instruction.”  It occurred well under the old French system that “followed a very specific sequential curriculum,” through “curricular coherence” that brings together “a wide range of domains.”

4. To make Americans smarter again and come closer to equal educational opportunity for all, we in our country have “to undo the vast intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s.”  The dumbest of our dumb ideas—one that we still think is innovative but is actually discredited and worn out—”is how-to-ism—the notion that education should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge.  These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknown future.”  Although Hirsch’s article deals with primary and secondary education, it’s clear to me that  dumb-and-dumber how-to-ism has permeated higher education.  So we want to assess our programs in a content-free way—as being all about the abstract skills such as critical thinking and analytical reasoning.

5. “How-to-ism has failed,” Hirsch explains, “because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball.”  The how-to-ists understand people, you might say, as productivity machines.  They don’t account for the distinctive capabilities and joys of the being given speech, the being with a name who can name.  It’s through naming people and things with increasing precision and enjoying the pleasure of sharing what we can know in common through words that we come both to know more and to think better.

6. So it seems that what our schools—from pre-K to college—really need is a well-developed, common, content-rich curriculum, with a “strong focus on subject-matter knowledge” and a quite intentional awareness of “the critical importance of factual knowledge.”

7. Hirsch reminds us of the success of the old Catholic schools in raising up quite ordinary kiids from working-class families to high levels of vocabulary expansion and conceptual sophistication, despite deprivations and misconceptions most schools don’t suffer from today.  We might tentatively say that they were animated by the loving confidence that the truth is available us all and sets us free, and it’s found in complicated texts full of beautiful, old-fashioned words.


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