Nation of patriots, nation of fandoms

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s schooling blog Sunday, Pelham City superintendent Jim Arnold explains his distrust of the Common Core, referring to old patriot Thomas Jefferson:

Common Core is a standardized national curriculum. Why is this problematic? From an historical context, a centralized school curriculum serves the goals of totalitarian states. Jefferson warned us about that.

I cringed when I read that paragraph. Not only did Jefferson not warn anybody about a centralized school system with a coherent curriculum, he proposed one!

A new nation, divisible with anxiety

In the late 1770s, Jefferson’s allies in the Virginia legislature repeatedly pushed his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, an attempt to establish a coherent, hierarchical system of education in the state, starting with three years of free primary schooling (for free children only) and scholarships for the brightest boys to go on to grammar school and William and Mary College. In it is a clear prescription:

Section VI. At every of these schools shall be taught reading, writing, and common arithmetick, and the books which shall be used therein for instructing the children to read shall be such as will at the same time make them acquainted with Graecian, Roman, English, and American history…

That looks and smells like a curriculum mandate.

Since we are celebrating Jefferson’s words today, maybe a few additional words are in order about his ideas on education and their context.1 That celebration may seem a bit odd to those who have taken history of education courses, because it is out of sequence with the standard story of public education as an entity beginning in the 19th century. For example, this summer, many are rightly celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first Morrill Act, which gave land to states to establish public colleges. There is a quaint belief among some that 1862 marked the start of public higher education, though the University of Virginia predated the Morrill Act by several decades.2 It is correct to point to the Morrill Act as one important point in expanding the federal role in public higher education, and more generally to the underestimated role of the Civil War in establishing broad national ideals of education. This was true not only in higher education but also in K-12 schools with the role of schools in the wartime Port Royal experiment,3 the direct support of schools through the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the postwar revision of Southern state constitutions that helped shift the political landscape of education in the South.4 The Civil War did not create the idea of state school systems, but it certainly nationalized the idea.

But at the time of the Revolutionary War, there was no such thing as a system of schooling in the colonies, and Jefferson’s bold proposal for a state school system repeatedly died in the Virginia legislature.5 Jefferson was in good company, as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and a number of others argued in favor of some system of education to knit a nation out of former colonies (or colonies in rebellion, at the time Jefferson first proposed a school system). In his 2009 book The Making of Americans, E.D. Hirsch used this history to argue for the nation-building benefits of a common curriculum. But like Arnold, Hirsch also misunderstands Jefferson’s proposal. The truth is that there was no consensus in the late 18th century about the best curriculum for the new nation, and no successful proposal for any state to create a system of schooling. Each of these proposals had radically different ideas about what the new nation required and what children should be learning. Noah Webster thought a common language was critical, down to spelling and pronunciation. Benjamin Rush thought that the purpose of school should be to create a nation of humble Christians. And Thomas Jefferson wanted a nation of (white) citizens able to defend their liberties.

The different treatments of Biblical scripture as potential text illustrates these different visions of schooling. While Rush welcomed an explicitly Christian education, and Webster saw Biblical texts as wonderful fodder for more general moral education, Jefferson thought it would be a mistake to use the Bible in schools:

Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history. (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82, p. 273)

Instead of Hirsch’s myth of founders with a consensual view of the benefits of school, each had different proposals for school systems, none of which were given the slightest heed by early state legislatures!

Hirsch, cultural patriot and surveyor of fandoms

Back to the present, or near-present. The guiding light in the effort to create a national curriculum has been E.D. Hirsch and his book, Cultural Literacy and its sequels. In the three decades since Hirsch has been pushing a core curriculum, he has made two arguments. One is a plausible argument about background knowledge: readers not only can get a better immediate grasp of material if they have some background knowledge, but they learn more as well. I will defer to educational psychologists on the legitimacy of Hirsch’s claim here, except to note that Hirsch never published anything from the curriculum work he has occasionally referred to as the basis for his thoughts on the matter. For now, I assume that Hirsch’s assertion is at least partly true.

From that plausible supposition, Hirsch made a dramatic leap in logic: if some background knowledge is useful, then a common set of background knowledge is essential. Generally, this claim has has been twofold: a critical mass of material in English relies on a cultural canon, and access to this symbolic and intellectual capital is essential for success in this society (e.g., Hirsch, 1987). He added the nation-building assertion in his 2009 book. The assumption in all of these assertions is that there is a coherent critical mass of cultural material that in itself makes a crucial difference in learning, in future success, and in knitting together a society. At various points, he and others such as Robert Pondiscio have wavered in this assertion of a central critical mass of cultural material. No, it is not essential to have Hirsch’s exact curriculum; stuff will do as long as it is substantive enough. But then Hirsch wandered back to the argument of a single core in The Making of Americans.

Even if we take the first assertion (the importance of prior knowledge) as the absolute truth, there are several problems with the assertions of a single critical mass of culture that everyone must know. First, there is no research base to support the assertions that any unique critical mass of cultural material provides a material advantage over any other set of cultural material. Imagine the research design that would be needed to make this assertion. In general, the (weakly-designed) research I have seen along these lines is not Cultural Material Set 1 vs. Set 2 but “some curriculum” vs. “no curriculum.”

Second, Hirsch’s own method for selecting his preferred material back in the 1980s leaned in a very different direction: ask college-educated Americans at the time what they thought was important. What came out of that exercise was a plausible set of stuff that is good to learn about but not a unique set of materials–any alternative collection of surveyed individuals would have generated a different set, overlapping but not coincident with the list Hirsch published. How do you think people respond to this sort of question: what information is necessary for someone to be considered a literate American? They think back to the material they learned that they found valuable, or important, and given standard availability bias, most commonly the stuff they love and evangelize about. In other words, the nominations of essential knowledge would inevitably come because one of those surveyed is a fan of the material, something so beloved you have to get your friends to read it.

Hirsch transformed that set into the opposite of fan love: a catalog of required material. You must read an English translation of the Bible so that you can get literary references in other material. You must read Shakespeare because of all the references to his plays. You must know everything so that you can get the references to that material in other places. Maybe people read their sacred scripture for religious purposes, or Shakespeare because the plays are entertaining, but that is not the point of cultural literacy. In this view, the main purpose of reading the Odyssey is so that one could later read Ulysses and catch the references.

Nation of fandoms

I don’t believe for one second that Hirsch really believed this circuitous argument in favor of picking one’s reading for its potential later referential purposes, at least not in his own life.6 Like most high school and college graduates, he loves reading some works a second or third time, and not because he believes he will be reading something later that refers to it. (He’s an emeritus English professor who wrote extensively on Romantic poets, for goodness’ sake!) Some books or poetry he read because a friend insisted he read it, or because everyone in his circle of friends was reading it, and he figured he should see what the fuss was about. Maybe he’s a fan of Star Trek or Monty Python, and he has probably heard of fan fiction, even if he hasn’t read slash fiction (the soppy fan fiction that imagines romantic relationships between characters who weren’t involved in the text). Or maybe, like Michael Bérubé, he is a fan of hockey even though the games are all the same.7 In other words, like every other American he is embedded in a set of social networks that consume and rework all sorts of material, a nation of fandoms that work by the interaction between the social and the cultural.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush crafted their own proposed curricula by suggesting what they were fans of, and we have done the same ever since, with definitions of “the canon” changing in every era (Levine, 1996). There is no basis for asserting that there is a single core mass of cultural material everyone must learn. In the end, all preferences for reading material and curriculum based on literature, art, and other cultural artifacts are in turn based on fandoms, a social network of people who think that the material is important, beloved, or great. Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards are framed in a way close to acknowledging we are a nation of fandoms. The 11th/12th grade English language arts standards refer to reading at least one Shakespeare play, but not which. If we all must have the same knowledge, the whole country should read Hamlet, or Henry IV Part I. Or maybe Twelfth Night. But a pick-your-own Shakespeare? A much healthier way of looking at a language-arts curriculum is to acknowledge its inevitably arbitrary nature, the collection of material by fandoms. Some of them will overlap with the stuff Thomas Jefferson was a fan of, but most will not.

Further readings

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (2009). The making of Americans: Democracy and our schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jefferson, T. (1779/1904). A bill for the general diffusion of knowledge. In P. L. Ford, ed., The works of Thomas Jefferson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Jefferson, T. (1781-82/2000). Notes on the State of Virginia [electronic]. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. Retrieved from

Levine, L. (1996). The opening of the American mind: Canons, culture, and history. Boston: Beacon Press. Retrieved from

Pelham, J. (2012, July 1). Are the new national academic standards rotten to the (Common) Core? [blog entry]. In M. Downey, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Get Schooled. Retrieved from

Rush, B. (1808). Essays, literary, moral, and philosophical (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford.

Webster, N. (1790). A collection of essays and fugitiv writings. Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews.


  1. This blog entry is not making an argument about the validity of a common curriculum but providing some perspective on the ways advocates and critics of a common curriculum misuse the history of education, in this case Jefferson’s views on education. []
  2. Part of my reflection on Jefferson here is prompted by the recent resignation-and-rehiring of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia. []
  3. See Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction. []
  4. See W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, chapter 15, for Du Bois’s argument about the importance of Reconstruction for education and the promise of schools if not their fulfillment. []
  5. A pale version of it finally passed in 1796, but its permissive structure had little effect. []
  6. Referentiality is an important concept in literature, but that is separate from Hirsch’s claims about prior knowledge and cultural literacy. “I recognize that line!” is the joy of a fan, but Hirsch’s argument feels more a brief in favor of grinding one’s way through all the footnotes in an annotated Hamlet without enjoying the play. []
  7. The only way you will understand this reference is by having read Bérubé’s blog. Feel left out yet, or do you just feel as if I’m a jerk for not explaining it? []

2 responses to “Nation of patriots, nation of fandoms”

  1. Glen S. McGhee, FHEAP

    I cringe every time the past is used as a point of reference because it must first be decontextualized to be of any use to the present. We unavoidably recast the past in terms of the present, unknowingly, and unconsciously. But this is a diservice to the past.

    Mary Douglas argues that the rhetoric of power and dominance succeeds because it fashions itself into an extension of nature by way of analogy. It is, the order of things. This includes the past, and our popular myths about it.

    Given Jefferson’s issues with the Bible, his remarks just cited come as no surprise. Thank you for the reference.

  2. Diana Senechal

    Thank you for this fascinating piece. I think you are reducing Hirsch’s argument, though. There is great compatibility (as well as conflict) between (a) the idea that one passes on what one loves and (b) the idea that one passes on what is referenced. What are references if not signs of love, or at least of need? Why does so much literature draw on Job? Isn’t it because Job is beautiful and strange and close to us?

    The CK curriculum has this combination–the enthusiasm over the material comes through, and so does its rationale,

    Of course people won’t always be in agreement about what’s beautiful and important, and those disagreements help us, too, if we understand the subject at hand.

    One reason I support some kind of common curriculum is that it can actually foster individual thought. You get people in a room together who have read Hamlet, and they can challenge each others’ understanding of the play and refine their own.

    As I remember, HIrsch also acknowledges that the Founding Fathers did not hold identical views on education. I’m away from home and don’t have The Making of Americans on hand, but I remember a passage that discusses this.

    In any case, a common curriculum need not be fixed and rigid, and it can combine principles of “fandom,” cultural importance, individual thought, and commonality (without losing meaning or trying to be everything at once).

    All that said, I found your piece thought-provoking and will be coming here more often.