E.D. Hirsch: breaking into elite circles—core knowledge as power

In contrast to Bourdieu and Freire, Eric Donald Hirsch, professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, is a conservative who for years has defended the old idea of education as the transmission of knowledge, more particularly a canon of literature and humanities in the Western world, arguing that students need to understand a core of knowledge that has currency in order to become part of cultural and literary circles.

Hirsch has been critical of what he considers failed Romantic educational strategies that put the student at the centre and focus less on knowledge acquisition and more on skills development. Although Hirsch does not describe himself as an elitist and actually situates himself firmly as a Democrat, he argues that “educational traditionalism” (Moore, 2010) that espouses cultural literacy is necessary to empower young people entering the world of references and canons.

In this regard, his ideas are not unlike those of Gramsci, who, despite believing that an “organic” class of intellectuals needed to be developed in society to counter the ivory tower of institutionalised, elitist intellectuals, his prison notebooks show clearly that he believed that the path to intellectualism was through a highly canonical approach to the humanities and literature. Another educational theorist who has married left-leaning social views with a conservative (what some might call elitist) approach to knowledge, is the English sociologist Michael Young (2007), who advocates for a strong knowledge-based curriculum as a way of empowering marginalised classes.

Hirsch’s position on education is useful when discussing elitism and education as he bridges cultural conservatism (and what could be seen as elitist proclivity for an overtly canonical knowledge-based education) and socioeconomic egalitarianism (the need to empower those outside cultural circles with such an education). This complex bridge between cultural conservatism and social transformation runs across my analysis of elitist constructs in education as we look at schools, universities, questions of access and quality and all the heated arguments they bring with them.

One of the nuances of the discussion on education and elitism is that meritocracy and plutocracy have a complex, intertwined relationship with one another. At times they stand in opposition to one another and at others they coalesce.

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