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The Trivial Pursuit Approach to Education
on 17 February 1999
Hirsch, in his Introduction, argues that a four-word Shakesperean quotation, "There is a tide" (from "Julius Caesar," meaning "Act now!") would be a more apt business communication than providing a business audience with "lots of examples" and "reasons" to support the argument that it's essential to take action. Therein lies the problem, as Hirsch prefers canonical, elitist allusion to real argument. Hirsch's list of 5,000 items "that every American needs to know" is a fascinating collection of information that--it's clear--Hirsch *himself* has learned over the years. Whether WE need to know--for example--that cutting the Gordion knot means to "solve any complex problem quickly" is clearly debatable. One can't study Hirsch's list without feeling as if he's entered a time warp, as contemporary culture is almost wholly slighted (as are women and minorities, not surprisingly). There are few, if any, computer terms, only a handful of sports items--in a culture dominated by sports--and a list of musical performers that ends chornologically with The Beatles. Hirsch readily admits that he's advocating a "hazy, superficial" understanding of the terms on his list, but that doesn't stop him from positing that a recognition of those same items makes one culturally literate (and thus educated). No matter that each of us would create a different list of items that we think Americans should know. As the old joke goes, learning the items on Hirsch's list allows you to talk about anything for five minutes and nothing for ten. Nevertheless, this is a seminal work for understanding the thinking of those who've uncritically accepted the failure of public schooling in America. And it makes watching "Jeopardy!" a lot more fun.