What is Core Knowledge?
The Common Purpose of Core Knowledge and Classical Education
The parent-principal discussions of E. D. Hirsch’s The Making of Americans showed us that the founder of Core Knowledge now posits a purpose for a Core Knowledge education. The Making of Americans, more so than his previous books, reveals an intellectual kinship between Hirsch and classical education. In my reading, Hirsch has done more than adding logic and rhetoric to the grammar of Core Knowledge: He has joined the academic trivium to its moral, civic purpose. Aiming for intelligence and character is what sets classical education apart from a well-executed Core Knowledge education. The Making of Americans presents the good citizen as the goal of American K-12 education. Citizenship is our public virtue; character our private. Together they create a life worth living for the individual and her society. Together they provide the trivium’s academic excellence with a civic purpose.
The Grammar Stage
The Core Knowledge sequence functions as the grammar stage of classical education’s trivium (the “three ways” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). In the grammar stage, learners acquire the vocabulary of a discipline. This grammatical learning is not restricted to certain age-groups; whenever we learn something new, we have to understand its grammar. In biology, we need to know what a cell is before we can learn what cells do. In history, we need to know the words of the Gettysburg Address before we can debate its merits. Education has a grammar: Here, I’m trying to explain the ideals of classical education by drawing on your understanding of Core Knowledge. Even baseball has a grammar: Just try explaining to a foreigner what “walking” a star player means. Every discipline, every form of life, has a grammar. Without it, we are excluded from that discipline or form of life just as a stranger from an inside joke. Ridgeview students—as well as Core Knowledge students elsewhere—slowly (“glacially slow,” according to Hirsch) learn the grammar of their academic subjects and are thus given entrance to many ways of knowing the world. It is in the grammar stage that our academic houses are built on rock or sand depending on the quality of our teachers and our curriculum.
The Logic Stage
Classical education then builds on the grammar of Hirsch’s sequence. (Ridgeview does so in his spirit: The Core Knowledge website has a link to ridgeviewclassical.com in an article about where to go after CK.) When students know the grammar of a subject, they can engage it with logical questions. Why do some cells’ mutations cause diseases, others benefits? What is “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”? What is wrong about saying that “there were grammatical differences between Dr. Hirsch and I”? The Socratic “What is?” challenges us to explain the knowledge we think we have. The logical testing of grammar lets us know what to think of it. The logic stage thus follows quite naturally on the grammar stage, because we are curious and ask questions about what we learn. The trivium accounts for this human inquisitiveness. Every class at Ridgeview takes students from grammar to logic. Already kindergartners ask questions about the things they learn and few Ridgeview teenagers just accept information without testing it.
The Rhetoric Stage
In their senior theses, Ridgeview seniors articulate their view of a good life. Their judgments are based on the grammar they learned at Ridgeview, the many questions they have asked, and the many arguments they’ve had. This articulation of a thesis is the rhetoric stage: It is an argument about the grammar one has learned and logically tested. Our senior thesis is the final goal of a Ridgeview education, but many prior classes include rhetorical elements in the form of papers, exams, and presentations. While mastery of grammar and conversing about and testing this grammar is the bedrock of a classical education, the final goal is to arrive at reasoned judgment. And while many classes in a K-12 school can hardly claim to produce students who have prudential judgment, each class knows it is trying to move students towards this end.
The Continual Cycle through the Trivium
Each stage, therefore, needs the others. Grammar without logic and rhetoric is information without judgment. Computers possess a vast amount of grammar, but we wouldn’t call a computer prudent. To ask “What is?” without grammatical knowledge is a meaningless, though popular, exercise. Rhetoric without tested knowledge works for stand-up comedy but not for the more serious parts of our lives. One of the misunderstandings regarding classical education is to assign grammar to elementary, logic to middle, and rhetoric to high school. As parents well know, very young students ask lots of logical questions and grown-ups are in desperate need of grammatical knowledge about many things. The trivium is a process that goes on in all learning, all the time. I might be in the rhetoric stage regarding classical education, but I’m in the grammar stage regarding late antiquity or modern baseball. Students here and learners everywhere continually cycle through the trivium. Classical education understands that every effort in the classroom is a step on the trivium’s long road towards rhetorical mastery of a subject. Kindergarten teachers need to know what kind human being they want to graduate and high school teachers need to know where their students come from. No class takes place in isolation and without the vision of the whole. Classical education is teleological.
From Trivium to Character and Citizenship
The trivium is one of the paradigms of classical education, but without a moral purpose it only aims at intelligence. While Core Knowledge without a civic purpose is still much better than anti-curriculum, anti-intellectual, anti-traditional education, it is like a powerful engine without a steering wheel, a great athlete without a competition: It lacks a destination. Hirsch’s The Making of Americans knows where it is taking Core Knowledge. Intelligence, gained by studying the Core Knowledge sequence, needs to be coupled with character, gained by learning what it means to be a good citizen.
Ridgeview’s founders drew extensively on Hirsch’s first two books to realize their dream of a classical school. Now we can proudly see him return the compliment as he writes that our “success stands as a sharp rebuke to the dominant anti-intellectual pedagogy of most American schools.” Dr. Hirsch and Ridgeview have become educational soulmates, united by the shared purpose of making Americans.
Mr. Hild, Principal
From the Core Knowledge Website
Core Knowldege is
An Idea . . .
that for the sake of academic excellence, greater fairness, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need a solid, specific, shared core curriculum in order to help children establish strong foundations of knowledge, grade by grade.
A Guide to Specific, Shared Content . . .
as outlined in the Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence and the Core Knowledge Sequence (K–8) (a grade-by-grade guide to important knowledge) and supported in Core Knowledge resources, including the What Your Kindergartner – Sixth Grader Needs To Know book series.
A School Reform Movement . . .
taking shape in hundreds of schools where educators have committed themselves to teaching important skills and the Core Knowledge content they share within grade levels, across districts, and with other Core Knowledge schools across the country.
Core Knowledge Is:
Four S's - Solid, Sequenced, Specific, Shared
Many people say that knowledge is changing so fast that what students learn today will soon be outdated. While current events and technology are constantly changing, there is nevertheless a body of lasting knowledge that should form the core of a Preschool-Grade 8 curriculum. Such solid knowledge includes, for example, the basic principles of constitutional government, important events of world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.
Knowledge builds on knowledge. Children learn new knowledge by building on what they already know. Only a school system that clearly defines the knowledge and skills required to participate in each successive grade can be excellent and fair for all students. For this reason, the Core Knowledge Sequence provides a clear outline of content to be learned grade by grade. This sequential building of knowledge not only helps ensure that children enter each new grade ready to learn, but also helps prevent the many repetitions and gaps that characterize much current schooling (repeated units, for example, on pioneer days or the rain forest, but little or no attention to the Bill of Rights, or to adding fractions with unlike denominators).
A typical state or district curriculum says, "Students will demonstrate knowledge of people, events, ideas, and movements that contributed to the development of the United States." But which people and events? What ideas and movements? In contrast, the Core Knowledge Sequence is distinguished by its specificity. By clearly specifying important knowledge in language arts, history and geography, math, science, and the fine arts, the Core Knowledge Sequence presents a practical answer to the question, "What do our children need to know?"
Literacy depends on shared knowledge. To be literate means, in part, to be familiar with a broad range of knowledge taken for granted by speakers and writers. For example, when sportscasters refer to an upset victory as "David knocking off Goliath," or when reporters refer to a "threatened presidential veto," they are assuming that their audience shares certain knowledge. One goal of the Core Knowledge Foundation is to provide all children, regardless of background, with the shared knowledge they need to be included in our national literate culture.
Copyright ©2002 by the Core Knowledge Foundation; used by permission, all rights reserved.