Hirsch was taken by some critics to be a political conservative because he argued that cultural literacy is inherently a culturally conservative enterprise. It looks backwards. It tries to preserve the past. Not surprisingly, Hirsch later became a fan of the Common Core standards, which, whatever their cross-partisan political toxicity today, were intended in earnest to lay down basic categories of knowledge that every American student should learn.
But those who demonized Hirsch as a right-winger missed the point. Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change. Indeed, in a notable example of the application of cultural literacy, Hirsch quoted in his book from the 1972 platform of the Black Panther Party:
10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE’S CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.He cited another passage, from the Black Panther newspaper:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
In this land of “milk and honey,” the “almighty dollar” rules supreme and is being upheld by the faithful troops who move without question in the name of “law and order.” Only in this garden of hypocrisy and inequality can a murderer not be considered a murderer—only here can innocent people be charged with a crime and be taken to court with the confessed criminal testifying against them. Incredible?These samples demonstrated for Hirsch two important points: First, that the Black Panthers, however anti-establishment, were confidently in command of American history and idiom, comfortable quoting the Declaration of Independence verbatim to make their point, happy to juxtapose language from the Bible with the catch phrases of the Nixon campaign, wholly correct in grammatical and rhetorical usage.
And second, that radicalism is made more powerful when garbed in traditionalism. As Hirsch put it: “To be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”
Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987.
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