I had just finished reading E.D. Hirsch’s “A Wealth of Words” in City Journal when I learned our newly installed governor, Pat McCrory, had appeared earlier in the day on Bill Bennett’s radio show to talk about his plan for higher education. McCrory said he had directed staff to draft a plan that would fund schools “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” And he bantered with Bennett about academic disciplines they dislike, deftly playing Bennett’s easy lob: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
Stuff like this makes it difficult for me to connect with my inner conservative. I was a fairly straight-laced, pious boy until high school, but even though my political ideals leaned left, I have been Culturally conservative all along. The capital is deliberate. I was slow over the years to accept some commonly held “liberal” beliefs of the small-c cultural kind, but here I mean my jealous clutch on Western Culture. I applaud its plural cultural subsets, but I have a problem, one I share with many conservatives, with entire disciplines of cultural studies, including cultural studies itself. My concern stems from my distrust of specialization, in education, business or society — I think everyone, or at least anyone who earns a college degree, ought to have a deep feel for the general culture they inhabit. That will, and should, expand and reshape itself over time as it absorbs influences, but the Western tradition, for all its faults, abides and has much to offer as a framework. I’ve never been against cultural studies, and in fact find some of its tactics of inquiry useful. I just see it more as a tool to deploy in traditional disciplines, just as I see gender studies, to seize Bennett and McCrory’s bête noire, as a valid area of study within disciplines.
That’s partly why I was reading Hirsch’s article. He has been a darling of Cultural conservatives, and of the small-c kind, since he published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know in 1987, which was wildly successful, nesting awhile at number 2 on The New York Times Bestseller List behind Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. For City Journal, a quarterly of somewhat conservative bent, he argues a long-held assertion that liberal education policies that arose in the 1930s and became settled fact in the 1960s have resulted in a decline in knowledge. Hirsch here ties this reversal to a loss of vocabulary. “Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.”
He makes a fairly convincing case, citing SAT scores and cognitive research, that teaching kids reading in an atomized-topics way has contributed to the loss of vocabulary. It’s a problem I deal with every day as a journalism instructor — not only my students but it seems the top people in the trade have vocabularies tabulating in the tens. I teach them to write simply, with conversational ease, as journalists should, but $10 words are not the issue, usually. It’s getting students to conjure synonyms for “amazing.” And everything I’ve read and learned about writing has confirmed for me a correlation between language and other skills. The more words you have, the more contexts you understand, as Hirsch shows.
I suppose I was eager to buy into Hirsch’s theme, too, because the one way I am a small-c conservative is in believing that we should all work harder on embracing our American identity — not shelving but subordinating our other identities. I know and accept the arguments against the old model, that it reflected and buttressed a racist patriarchy, but for some reason hold hope we might devise a curriculum that tells the American story coherently and responsibly, thus providing the sort of model Hirsch advocates. As it happens, he’s shown it works. A curriculum devised by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation led to “significantly higher” reading scores than New York’s “balanced literacy” curriculum, among second graders followed since kindergarten.
Then along came dreadful ideological company, Bennett and McCrory blasting the liberal arts. The new governor’s office tried to mitigate his statements but it’s hard to find cause for optimism. McCrory completes the masterful and well-documented GOP takeover of North Carolina. Even if he proposed a relatively temperate version of what he chatted up Bennett about, the legislature could override his veto of their intemperate version. So it’s not a happy time in public higher education. State support has been cut consistently since the recession started and tuition has gone up. Students quite rightly expect to find jobs. The shedding of jobs over the last five years or so has stabilized and even improved a little lately, which gives me hope. But I’m not sure my trade is one the governor wants to put more butts in.