Hirsch’s Theory

Published 05 Jan 2017

Hirsch’s Theory of Schema and Its Role in Cultural Literacy

In a general sense, a schema is an underlying framework or pattern. In Hirsch’s theories of reading and cultural literacy, the idea that people find it necessary to filter information through schemata is central to his contention that common cultural precepts are necessary for effective communication. In this context, a schema is a “unified system of background relationships” that allows the reader to make sense of the “surface meaning” of a text (Hirsch 54). In order to understand the significance of schemata, it is first necessary to establish certain principles of human consciousness and the reading process.

Reading involves much more than simply identifying words and phrases. In order to understand the context of what is being read, the reader’s mind is “constantly inferring meanings that are not directly stated” (33). The text’s surface meaning is only “the tip of the meaning iceberg” (54). As the reader moves through the text, he or she is constantly converting phrases into meaningful contexts. Hirsch uses the sentences “The punter kicked the ball” and “The baby kicked the ball” to illustrate how the reader creates two vastly different contexts, namely football and child’s play, around scant surface meaning (52). As the reader moves through a text, he or she must rely on these contexts because of the fleeting nature of short-term memory.

The reader is unable to keep the details of the context in mind for a longer period of time. The reading process is, therefore, one of “chunking,” in which the reader puts words into clauses, clauses into phrases, and arranges phrases into meaningful parts long after the details have been forgotten (34). The reader only takes away the general idea of a text. Human cognitive life takes place through the “small window” of short-term memory (48). A schema is the “mental shorthand” a reader uses to make meaningful contexts and coherent associations, to form an idea of a larger work (57).

The reader keeps “exemplars or prototypes” of category words, such as the prototype “pigeon” for “bird,” in order to maintain schemata that can be quickly and efficiently applied to a text. Schemata that have been useful in the past are retained. So if “pigeon” has habitually been useful in carrying the meaning of “bird,” the reader will keep it. If “chicken” has, in a certain cultural context, been better at carrying the meaning of “bird,” the reader will make that schematic link instead. But the process is more complicated than just making schematic links. As the reader moves through the text, a “two-way traffic” between the schemata and the text is being established (53).

The reader adjusts the schemata he or she applies in the reading process as new words suggest new contexts. These adjustments are not made consciously, and as the earlier sentences about the punter and the baby show, readers are extremely “context sensitive” (52). And so the most meaning is created not by the surface meaning of the text but by the schemata the reader applies to the text. Moreover, our memories are “freshly constructed from our habitual schemata” through a process whereby we add and subtract information in order to make out memories match our schemata (55). Though they are merely the associations in the reader’s mind, schemata have the power to create the past and present meaning.

It is because of this power that Hirsch contends “Successful communication depends on shared associations” and that common schemata allow readers to understand a text (59).

Hirsch’s thoughts for a reformed curriculum in schools are based on the idea that reading cannot be taught as a skill alone. He asserts that once a specific knowledge is learned, “the skill follows” (59). He disputes romantic and utilitarian teaching methods that focus on teaching language arts and advocates for a curriculum comprised of “traditional facts” and “a common core of cultural information” (127). Hirsch provides certain guidelines as to how the student should be acculturated and then fleshes those ideas out with a list of specifics.

It is important here to draw a distinction between schemata and the information that informs these schemata. Hirsch is very careful to avoid saying that schemata can be taught. Only the information that informs schemata, the curriculum, can be taught. Schemata are mental constructs that each individual devices in response to the information he or she receives. In essence, a scheme is a system by which the individual understands information. Hirsch hopes that by teaching certain curricula, Americans will develop schemata that are similar enough to allow for effective communication.

Hirsch devised three groups of curricula to this end: the American civil religion curriculum, the extensive curriculum, and the intensive curriculum. The first curriculum informs the student’s national-culture schemata. The latter two curricula inform the student’s cultural vocabulary, more general schemata pertaining to traditions of the English-speaking world. The distinction between schemata and curricula is important not only in understanding Hirsch’s idea of what Americans need to know but in considering the weaknesses in Hirsch’s arguments. Because schemata cannot be taught, as they are the result of each person’s mental processes, it is very likely that two students will experience the same curriculum and come away with two different schemata.

An African American girl who attends public school in Oakland, California will form different schemata of American history than a more affluent white student attending a prep school in New Hampshire. They will form different schemata even when they are taught the same curriculum. Hirsch hopes that by teaching a common curriculum, the student in Oakland and the student in New Hampshire will form schemata of American history that will be similar enough to allow for effective communication. The task of acculturating and educating students would be much simpler if the schema itself could be taught, but it cannot.

The teacher cannot simply teach “understanding” but must teach information. The teacher cannot provide a text of “art understanding” but she can provide a text of art history or reproductions of works of art and help the student to form his or her own understanding, his or her own schema. The curricula Hirsch discusses will help students to form similar schemata.

A primary schema needed for people in the United States to communicate effectively involves a thorough knowledge of “American civil religion” (99). Hirsch hopes that by teaching the traditional materials related to this civil religion, the students will be allowed to form common schemata of American civic life. Hirsch posits that “the connection between literacy and national culture is a general principle of modern times” (70). Therefore, Hirsch advocates for a bible or canon of American political literature in which the Declaration of Independence might serve as the book of Genesis (100).

Among many other works, this bible would also include the Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Bill of Rights. This canon would also contain a great deal of folklore such as the “Washington and Lincoln legends” (90). Though some core texts would always remain in the canon, there is room for change and amendment. As Hirsch says, “Cultural revision is one of our best traditions” (101). But this canon would be fairly conservative in its view toward change in order to impart to students a consistent picture and a shared schema of the “civil religion” over generations.

Less related to the civil religion that allows Americans to effectively participate in a political discourse is a national culture based on “the traditional materials of literate culture” (113). In the United States, this literate culture is comprised mainly of the history and literature of the English-speaking world. Hirsch makes a compelling case for the impossibility of a multilingual national culture and positions the literate culture in the United States as an “instrument of communication among purse cultures” (104). Hirsch establishes two methods of teaching this literate culture: “extensive curriculum” and “intensive curriculum” (128).

The list of 5,000 words, dates, and phrases at the end of Cultural Literacy make up much of the extensive curriculum Hirsch wants to be taught to people. A vague knowledge of the terms on this list and the associations between them is necessary for cultural literacy. The list ranges from items like “1066” to “Stoicism” to “Emile Zola.” The list is made up of the “factual information and traditional lore” of English-speaking people and the western world more generally (140). The breadth of the student’s knowledge is important in teaching the extensive curriculum but a general knowledge of the relationships between the terms is also needed. For example, knowing that Plato came many centuries before Oscar Wilde did is essential.

This knowledge teaches a general scheme and ensures that the reader will have the facts necessary to understand a text written for a general audience. Though it might be tempting to pick out a few of the 5,000 terms and dates on Hirsch’s list, this would miss the point of what Hirsch wants the extensive curriculum to convey. Hirsch is especially clear that the relationships between the items on his list, even a vague notion of those relationships, are important for the student to understand. An understanding, for example, that ancient Hebrew text carries a tradition of learning that was revised by Greco-Roman texts, a tradition that was then in turn revised by the New Testament canon and medieval philosophy, would help the student form a schema of western thought.

The process of acculturation would be far easier if a “Greece and Rome” schema or a “Western Thought” schema could be taught, but the best that can be done is to teach the general information that might inform these schemata, to hope that students devise a common understanding. It is Hirsch’s hope that through this curriculum, students’ schemata relating to western thought and other aspects of the western tradition will be similar enough to allow them to communicate using terms like Genesis, Plato, Ovid, and Boethius.

Hirsch’s intensive curriculum involves a deeper knowledge of a few, more representative works of the traditional literate culture. For example, it is not important that the student has a deep knowledge of Romeo & Juliet but it is important that the student knows at least one of Shakespeare’s plays (128). A thorough understanding of Richard III will give the student a working knowledge of renaissance literature, of British court life, and what it means to be “Shakespearian.” The same approach can be taken to history. As Hirsch says, “Almost any battle will do to gain a coherent idea of battles” (129). The student might learn as much about the nature of war from studying the Civil War as he or she would from studying the Napoleonic Wars but a thorough knowledge of a specific war is necessary.

An essay about this deep understanding of a certain work or historical event can be extrapolated out to gain a greater understanding of the events and works the student only vaguely knows from the extensive curriculum. For example, when the student reads an account of the horrors of World War II, he or she will be able to understand the significance of those horrors from his or her deep knowledge of the Civil War. The schema Hirsch hopes the student will develop from the intensive study might be called a schema of understanding, though Hirsch never gives a name to any of the schemata students might form. His aim is to define the curricula. A deep knowledge of a certain work or event creates schemata of a narrower scope than those learned in the extensive curriculum.

It is easy to imagine that a student with a thorough knowledge of The Iliad and the Trojan War, both of which appear on Hirsch’s list, would form a schema of war that would allow that student to understand any other war in history. When a student has a deep understanding of the American Civil War, he or she will be able to understand and empathize with another student whose schema has been developed from a deep understanding of the Hundred Years’ War. This common understanding is possible because, at a deep level, wars are similar and Hirsch hopes an intensive study of a particular war will develop similar schemata of war in students. Taken together, the extensive and intensive curricula endow the student with the schemata needed to correctly interpret and create a text. Ultimately, these curricula make for a culturally literate person.

Work Cited

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Did it help you?