Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help

I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My mother tells me that she’d first thought I memorized certain Dr. Seuss stories, and it took her a while to figure out that I could read independently. I was 3.

My father’s IQ is probably less than 100, but not much. He has exceptional conversational fluency in languages; put him anywhere in the world and he’s exchanging stories with cab drivers and waiters in less than a week. He’s an equally fluent and improvisational musician. When he learns something it stays learned: he spent two hours explaining to nine-year-old me how airplanes flew and to this day, that’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten. Ask him about any major plane crash that occurred before 2000 (the year he retired after 45 years in airline operations) and he can tell you exactly who was at fault, why, and what changes were made to reduce the risk of reoccurrence. Unlike my highly concrete father, my mother is a better abstract thinker. She mastered technology easily, moving from shorthand secretary to working with faxes and computers in the 70s and 80s,and moved up the ladder from temp secretary to executive secretary for bigwigs at a major technology company, to network support technician for her last few years when she got tired of secretarying. She has a somewhat higher IQ but none of the improvisational fluency of my dad; you can see this best in their individual approaches to cooking, at which they both excel. Dad never uses recipes, Mom rarely ventures off without a cookbook, both of them produce meals you’ll remember forever. Dad’s second wife got a college degree in her 30s and made the Dean’s list but works as a skilled technician in the same job she had before college; Mom’s second husband has two doctorates from a top ten university, spent his life in a high-octane brain job, but his real love is carpentry and gardening, which he did as a side business before and during retirement. Politically, Dad is a blue-collar Democrat, Mom a hippie-dippie liberal.

At no point did my blue-collar parents take any steps to develop my intellect, even though they were fully aware that I was at or near genius IQ. My mother refused to allow me to move up a year in school because she’d been advanced and didn’t like it. My parents could have sent me to Phillips Academy, all expenses paid; they decided not to. They saw no difference between my going one of the top public universities schools in the country and a local state college except cost, although they did think I should “major in business” (hey, it was the early 80s). I went for cost and in those days, that was a terrible call. In my twenties and thirties, I resented their decisions which seem inexplicable today. However, two master’s degrees at top-tier universities (which took up a lot of my 40s) have convinced me that the only thing I would have gotten from a better education is more amusing stories about how much trouble I caused the schools and how glad they were to get rid of me.

Anyway. Up to a few years ago, I said I was a book and TV lover. Now I know I’m just an obsessive who needs to keep a busy brain. Regardless, I consumed information reflexively as a result of keeping my brain busy. I grew up overseas with no TV, but when we came home for summers I was literally glued to the set. I watched game shows, Bonanza, Medical Center, SWAT, and Scooby Doo until age 10, when I discovered movies and stayed up late to watch whatever was on. (I discovered Star Trek reruns at 12).

TV-watching never interfered with my reading; I read 2-3 books a day (1000 WPM, clocked and reclocked), before, during, and after TV. On weekends during the year when I had no TV, I’d easily go through 5-7 books. I quickly read through the school library. No public library overseas and no English bookstores in that country, and I could only talk my parents into buying me five or six books at airport bookstores, which I ran through in a couple days. I read the back of cereal boxes and Clorox bottles, which was convenient when my baby brother appeared to have taken a swig from the jug. (Unfortunately, we lived in a place that didn’t have ready access to milk, the recommended remedy. But he survived.) My grandfather, bless his heart, used to send me a huge box of paperbacks, picked at random from the general and genre fiction section, which took me a bit longer to run through than books for kids my age—and they had far more interesting plots. So when I ran through Gramps’ gift, I turned to my parents’ books; I know everything there is to know about the works of John D. McDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis. Just ask me.

Some early reading memories:

  • The Middle Sister, age 5—odd little book, but I’ve found that many remember the plot, if not the story. One of my earliest memories of a “chapter” book; an older cousin was reading it. Most of my reading at this age were junior high basal readers that I stole from school. I hadn’t figured out I could read my parents’ books, and everything else I’d ripped through a year or more earlier, apparently.
  • The Trojan War,age 6: Not until years later did I learn that The Iliad didn’t have the Trojan Horse scene in it, but ended with Hector’s death. I found parts of the story confusing. Not the gods, I figured out what was going on, there; the gods had magical powers and subdivided areas of interest. (An agnostic from birth, best I can tell, I had no bias for or against polytheism. The Greek pantheon seemed an entirely reasonable way of explaining things. But then, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between God and Santa Claus.) No, what confused me was why all these battles seem to happen one at a time. What was everyone else doing while Hector was killing Patroclus or Achilles was killing Hector? How did the Greeks have time to discuss who got Achilles’ armor? Where were the Trojans while the Greeks were building the horse? I developed this confused idea of an arena, with the kings watching each scheduled battle—I must have seen a gladiator fight on TV. One thing I was clear on, though: everything was Paris’s fault.
  • King of the Wind, age 7–I am the opposite of artistic, but this image fascinated me. I read every Marguerite Henry book I could find, but I only enjoyed Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Born To Trot.
  • Madame, Will You Talk?, age 7—we were in an isolated European village, and I’d run through my dozen books. Desperate for something to occupy my brain, I picked up this romance-thriller when my mother had finished, thus meeting my earliest genre title. I didn’t quite understand the plot, which had something to do with Nazis and Jews and getting revenge for a Jew that was killed—apparently, Nazis killed Jews? I looked it up later when I got home; it may have been my first intro to WW2 and the Holocaust, although I can’t be sure. I suddenly understood a lot more of Hogan’s Heroes, though. I read Airs Above the Ground a year later, because it had a teenage boy in it and not as much love stuff. Mary Stewart, by the way, is still with us at 96. Holla!
  • David Copperfield, age 7—Suddenly Dora’s gone. David’s sad. What the hell happened to Dora? I had barely figured out what happened to Emily. Something dire with Steerforth. But where did Dora go? I had to read “Another Retrospective” three times before I realized that “Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me?” meant Dora was dying and when Agnes was sad, she’d died. Wow. Couldn’t you be more specific? I read fast, I miss things.

    Years later, I was quizzing my son on A Tale of Two Cities, which I hadn’t read, and asked him what happened to Madame Defarge. “I don’t know; she just disappears.” “Naw, that can’t be true. I’d have heard if she just disappeared.” So I leaf back through the book. “Oh, here it is. Miss Pross kills her.” “What? Miss Pross? No way? How’d I miss that?” “The bastard buried it in the middle of a paragraph, like he always does.” “That’s annoying.” “Tell me.” (My son’s ACT reading score: 36.)

  • The Black Stallion, age 7—This was the kind of stuff I was looking for when I read all those Marguerite Henry books! Unfortunately, he just kept writing about the same damn horse. But the first one is an awesome read. Still. I tried nibbling seaweed a few times, but ick.
  • Oliver Twist, age 8—I figured out that Nancy died. In fact, I think this was the first time I saw the word “corpse”. But how? He just hit her. You could die from people just hitting you? It didn’t take a gun or a knife? Or a car? Or jumping off a cliff like in Snow White?
  • The Happy Hooker, age 8 or 9—She didn’t seem very happy. But I wasn’t clear what a hooker was. When I figured out it was linked to prostitution, I looked that word up. Still not entirely clear. I had a vague idea that Nancy in Oliver Twist did something like that, but again, not happy. Hmmm.
  • The Quick Red Fox, also age 8 or 9, after The Happy Hooker—ah. Some women don’t charge, some women do. I wasn’t quite sure for what, but McDonald was actually much more informative on this point than the Hooker lady. I wasn’t sure which McGee thought was preferable, although he never seemed to pay.
  • Nerve and Enquiry, age 9—I read Dick Francis books from 1971 until 1999 or 2000; I think the last one I read was To The Hilt. I have fonder memories of him than any other writer, and not just because of his unreasonably perfect heroes (which made much more sense when I learned that his wife wrote most of his books), but because he was a living writer in my life for nearly 30 years. From these first two books, I learned that horseracing wasn’t just about who ran the fastest, but about “steeplechasing”, which involved jumping over fences and mud pools. With the horse. I also learned that marrying first cousins was a bad thing, and that jockeys were a lower “class” than trainers. But I wasn’t sure what “class” was. Not the school kind.
  • Cards on the Table, age 9—I’m reasonably certain this was my first Christie novel. Death on the Nile was second. I didn’t realize it was a bad idea to peek at the end until I was 12, and by then I’d read the entire Christie canon. All those endings, spoiled. But I learned more about this “class” thing, which also had something to do with “titles” (not books). I thought “class” complaints were restricted to the English until a distressingly short time ago. I also became familiar with a number of poisons and confirmed that yes, just getting hit on the head could kill you.

Not a complete list. I know I read Madeleine L’Engle and Laura Ingalls Wilder during these years, and all the Hardy Boys canon. (The Twisted Claw was the bomb.) I read Little Men at 7 or 8, and eventually Little Women. I also read a lot of history books and almanacs. And some really strange books that I can’t remember clearly which is extremely annoying. But these are the memories that seem relevant.

What’s my point? As I’ve mentioned before, my measured vocabulary has spiked hard to the right side of the bell curve, leaving the 99th percentile in the dust since I was first tested at 8. And my vocabulary is far weaker than my analytical reading skills. While I scored a 730 on the SAT (which at that time was 99+ percentile), I scored an 800 on the English Lit Achievement Test (known now as the SAT subject test), which even now is a rare achievement, and much less frequent back then.

And yet, as I hope this little tale has revealed, I did not live the life of a middle class child with that literacy-rich environment that gives children the background content knowledge. Or, based solely on my story, E. D. Hirsch has it wrong:

[Students learn new vocabulary] by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that “annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,” he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.

I am living proof that “understanding the gist” does not require background knowledge, that some people, like me, acquire content knowledge through the books that they read and TV that they watch. In fact, it’s clear that I, god save me, constructed my knowledge of the world through the books that I read. If you were to go by me, the progressives have it exactly right—teach them to read, and knowledge will follow. But you know, progressives are never right about their idealism, so let’s laugh off that possibility and return to Hirsch, who is right, but for the wrong reason.

Hirsch isn’t the only one emphasizing the importance of specific instruction in content knowledge because of poor environment. Lately, advocates on all sides of the debate have been focused on Hirsch’s argument (aka the Core Knowledge solution) “knowledge-rich” environment of the middle class and higher kids, the “language deficient” environment of low income kids, and how the latter group is starting behind.

One might think that these guys think academic achievement is purely a matter of environment, that individual ability has nothing to do with it.

But then, this essay is long enough. More later.

Update: One of the more idiotic commenters I’ve ever run into on this site argues that what I describe is a typical, middle class knowledge-rich environment. Sigh. I called her an idiot. But I’ll update with a bit more information, just in case there’s other zealots who think they’ve got a point.

My reading was considered incredibly weird by everyone who knew me. I was teased constantly. I was “grounded” by losing access to any reading material; my father once upset me terribly by pretending to throw my book out the window of a Greek hotel room when I wasn’t in bed by 10:00. (He hadn’t, but he didn’t let me have it back for a day.) My parents did not have a lot of books, they bought books to read on planes when four kids allowed them the time. They did not read otherwise, but (like me) rarely threw things away, so there were ten years of books lying around the house. The Dickens books were from the library. I was far better-informed than my parents were in a distressing number of subjects, but granted them total expertise on cooking, music, sports, and airplanes—and would accept their knowledge of current and recent events as somewhat reliable but needing confirmation. I was, undoubtedly, incredibly annoying.

As for the traveling, we travelled on passes as an employee benefit. My parents were, and are, extremely adventurous (particularly my mother, who just came back from a month in South Africa). We traveled everywhere and saw everything on the cheap. I hated it a lot of the time, although I’m glad now I did it. I did not gain any content knowledge from the travel, although I learned flexibility and patience.

About educationrealist

53 responses to “Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help

  • wastingtimeinschool

    When progressives say that kids construct knowledge, they don’t mean “absorbing knowledge by reading lots of books.” What they rather seem to mean is sitting around in a circle in a classroom, supposedly discussing what a hypotenuse is with other kids who don’t have any idea either (but in reality discussing other things until the teacher wanders by).

    • educationrealist

      That’s complex instruction. Relatively new–about 20 years old. I’m talking about much further back than that.

    • wastingtimeinschool

      OK, what they mean by “constructing” knowledge is being told “think about the sides of a triangle” without anything more, and then figuring out for yourself that any two sides always have to be longer than the third side.

      Maybe that’s not quite right either, but one thing they do NOT mean by constructivism is reading lots of books.

    • Mary Porter

      Comprehension of text or experience is the reduction of uncertainty, which has to be created in our own minds, and which we call wondering. It isn’t an unpleasant uncertainty, and isn’t synonymous with confusion. Constructivism examines how people actively construct knowledge by wondering things, exactly as educationrealist describes himself doing, again and again, when he reads.

      In this sense, the “knowledge” inside your head is the result of a creative act on your part. I teach it to my chemistry students by giving them rich and beguiling experiments, with options to “play” with the outcomes. Afterwards, we talk about what it feels like when we wonder. I suggest they are constructing something in their own minds, like imagining the shape of a missing puzzle piece. When they’ve done the experiments that their own minds have suggested to them, the knowledge in their minds has that shape, even if no puzzle ever existed before they wondered.

      Obviously, they aren’t going to hit on Gibbs’ Free Energy by playing around in the lab, but direct instruction doesn’t work unless we build in opportunities for students to wonder, so they can create actual knowledge. The gift for wonder isn’t evenly distributed, so sometimes I have students who just draw a blank. Other times, I have gifted kids who have succeeded in school (they thought) by putting their heel on their own throats, and reigning in their own wonder to win higher grades. I encourage them by saying, “The flash cards are like a kick board. Let go of them and swim. At first, you may feel weaker, like you’re floundering, but you will find your power stroke when you reach for it.”

      Yes, travel, libraries and books lying around constitutes an information-rich pond, and you’re a funny fish, like most of us constructivists.

      • Hattie

        “and which we call wondering…Constructivism examines how people actively construct knowledge by wondering things…Afterwards, we talk about what it feels like when we wonder…even if no puzzle ever existed before they wondered…but direct instruction doesn’t work unless we build in opportunities for students to wonder…and reigning in their own wonder to win higher grades…

        “The gift for wonder isn’t evenly distributed, so sometimes I have students who just draw a blank.”

        Let’s leave aside the fact that I had teachers like you, and I hated every single one of them.

        You’re proving ER’s point, except that instead of talking about “ability”, you talk about “wonder” – the ability to figure stuff out even when the teacher apparently find it against their religion to, y’know, explain things to their pupils.

        Go to the last sentence I quoted: you could replace “wonder” with “ability”, or “intelligence”, and it would work a lot better, and I suspect that it would be closer to what you mean. Where exactly do your pupils lie on the Bell Curve?

      • Mary Porter

        There are several issues tangled here. “The bell curve” doesn’t actually exist. Whatever instrument is used to spread performance along a scale, the curve generated is always skewed or even bimodal. Some normative function has to be applied to get the data to appear Gaussian, but there isn’t any underlying feature of human cognition that actually falls out that way, so far as I know.
        Here’s one classic discussion you might actually enjoy,

        The measure of cognitive function can have important and appropriate applications, as long as we’re mindful of what we are (and aren’t) measuring. Here is a riveting example of a contemporary application

        I also had the experience, beginning at age 8, of getting that column of 99%* scores back, right in front of everybody. I’ve thought a lot about where it comes from, and what it means, for me and for all the people I love. I know enough to know we don’t understand human cognition, after all these decades. If a 99* or a three digit number correlates to the gift of clarity and architectural flexibility I feel inside my own mind, I wouldn’t trade it away. It makes me sad if anybody wants it, and can’t have it. It makes me sad if people who do have it are hurt, resentful, or broken. But when people go forward with the minds they seem to have, despite their assigned numbers, I can’t really see much difference among us.

        Second, my students include mainstreamed adolescents (10th and 11th grade) who struggle with some severe processing, memory, and cognitive problems. It was to some (not all) of them I referred. They do say mine is their most comfortable class, year after year, and counselors send them to me for that reason. Your projection about teachers who “apparently find it against their religion to, y’know, explain things to their pupils”, is off the mark. Engaging a student’s intuition is part of any explanation, and I love to explain and explore and interact with all my students.

        I’m sorry you had bad experiences with some teachers (so did we all). There was a burst of very badly supported “constructivist” methodology in the seventies that I hated, too, but it was only toxic in the hands of a jerk. I remember one nice young math teacher who put a matrix up on the board, and invited us to speculate how we might do basic operations on it. My first suggestion was, “Let’s pretend the numbers are the coefficients of a set of simultaneous equations.” She was very upset that I’d ruined her lesson.

      • educationrealist

        Oh, lord. A religious zealot!

        Newsflash: The only real question about Gould is whether he lied, or was merely irresponsibly ignorant.

      • Mary Porter

        All that self-made erudition, and then you write in newsflashes and talk-radio put-downs? Okay.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, erudite people can think progressives and liberals are fools. Go figure.

      • Mary Porter

        Hattie, there’s a lot that can be unpacked from your concern about over-reliance on “the ability to figure things out” in education. I had kind of hoped educationrealist would do some of that, because he’s written a column celebrating it in himself.

        Here’s the “working definition” of intelligence, from the Nesbitt et al journal review posted on this site:
        “[Intelligence] . . . involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—“catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.

        One controversial line of inquiry is the effort to quantify (and rank) elements of “practical intelligence” which elude current IQ instruments. Nesbitt notes:
        “Sternberg and his colleagues maintain that both practical
        intelligence and creativity can be measured, that they correlate only moderately with analytic intelligence as measured by IQ tests, and that they can predict significant
        amounts of variance in academic and occupational achievement over and above what can be predicted by IQ measures alone.”

        There is surely tremendous variation in the cognitive resources available to children at different times, and under different circumstances. Even if nobody ever correctly characterizes an axis of problem-solving, creative, and constructive capacity, teachers need to find every strength in the students in front of us, and help them grow it.

      • Pincher Martin

        Mary Porter appears not to know that Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man has been discredited. In particular, Gould’s analysis of the 19th-century scientist Samuel Morton’s work with skulls was recently found to be, if not dishonest, than certainly a case of “bias influencing results”. At the risk of being accused of using a talk radio putdown, I would suggest Ms Porter use something other than a pop science book published nearly three decades ago, and which has subsequently been shown to be in error about many of its findings, when she wishes to spark a useful discussion. Gould was the fashionable go-to guy for liberals in the eighties whose knowledge of science came mostly from the New York Review of Books, but he’s considered something of a joke today whose strong influence on public attitudes was mostly wrong and harmful.

        Ms Porter writes, ““The bell curve” doesn’t actually exist. Whatever instrument is used to spread performance along a scale, the curve generated is always skewed or even bimodal. Some normative function has to be applied to get the data to appear Gaussian, but there isn’t any underlying feature of human cognition that actually falls out that way, so far as I know.”

        When Ms Porter claims the bell curve doesn’t exist, what she appears to mean is that she doesn’t want it to exist. At least not in this case. Gaussian distributions are commonly used throughout many of the sciences as a model for complex phenomena, including in biology, finance, the social sciences, and even to plot measurement errors in physics. So why can’t they be used to distribute intelligence scores? Any statistical model will have a “skew”, so Ms Porter’s stated reason is patent nonsense.

        Ms Porter’s gibberish about statistics aside, the acid test for IQ has nothing to do with modeling. It’s whether the results are generally consistent, predictable, and independently verifiable in matters outside testing. And they are. A longitudinal study in Scotland, for example, found that fifty years after being administered an IQ test in the 1930s, a surviving group of pensioners scored results which were remarkably consistent with their results half a century before. (The exceptions were those suffering from Alzheimer’s.)

        These studies have been confirmed so many times that no one really doubts them. Even good liberals like James Flynn and Richard Nesbitt say that IQ tests measure something real that we commonly associate with “smarts”. People who score well on IQ tests generally do well in finding remunerative work, for example.

        Ms Porter writes, “I also had the experience, beginning at age 8, of getting that column of 99%* scores back, right in front of everybody. I’ve thought a lot about where it comes from, and what it means, for me and for all the people I love. [?????] I know enough to know we don’t understand human cognition, after all these decades. If a 99* or a three digit number correlates to the gift of clarity and architectural flexibility I feel inside my own mind, I wouldn’t trade it away. It makes me sad if anybody wants it, and can’t have it. It makes me sad if people who do have it are hurt, resentful, or broken. But when people go forward with the minds they seem to have, despite their assigned numbers, I can’t really see much difference among us.” [My emphasis in bold.]

        Case closed. Ms Porter knows enough to know. And how does she come to that conclusion? By reading dated pop science books from the eighties and thinking a lot about her own experiences and “all the people she loves.”

      • educationrealist

        Pincher, that’s a great link. Thanks for bringing it in.

        On Gould and IQ, here’s another link from my sidebar, The Role of Intelligence in Modern Society:

        Although locating pimientos can be reduced from a problem in three dimensions to a problem in one dimension, the one dimension does not have to point exactly along the long axis of the hot dog. It could be rotated to any angle at all, excepting at a right angle to the long axis, and the pimientos could still be located with equal accuracy.

        This fact led one critic of the idea of general intelligence, Stephen Jay Gould (1983) to argue that factor analysis is not an appropriate way of defining the variables underlying test scores, because one solution is statistically as a good as another. Gould was wrong. There are statistical methods (which were well known to specialists at the time) that make it possible to compare the goodness of fit of one factor-analytic solution to another. When these methods are applied, investigators virtually always find a highly reliable first factor. The case for general intelligence, the unitary IQ score, is far from trivial.

        Another one here, which I will retype:

        Here I will only mention one typical point, made by Stephen J. Gould, a paleontologist with no background in psychology, whose wild criticisms of IQ testing in the book The Mismeasure of Man have been universally dismissed by experts in the field as instances of being economical with the truth.

        Citing Gould in any debate about I.Q. just makes you look like a moron. It used to be that all liberals cited Gould, but these days, only echo-chamber liberals haven’t gotten the memo.

  • A Lady

    Your opportunity to read craploads of complex books at young ages is the kind of background canonically middle class kids are exposed to. Your environment was in fact knowledge-rich. Everyone around you read and was not surprised you read. There was no expectation that your reading be limited to functional forms.

    You’re a fish saying you didn’t grow up in water.

    • educationrealist

      If you think what I described is a knowledge rich environment, or that my parents read a lot, then you didn’t grasp much. If you think the books I describe are “canonical” or that Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, or The Happy Hooker are “complex” reading material, then you’re an idiot.

      My parents grounded me if I did too much reading, and took books away as punishment. I was known as “the weird kid who read all the time.” Didn’t think I had to mention that. But then, you’re an idiot. So there, it’s spelled out.

      • Tim

        Love this comment and the post. I too had many books taken away as punishment. I remember being in middle school and having my mother, in one of her all too common apoplectic fits, tear ‘The two towers’ in half. I ended up taping it together myself. Interestingly she refuses to acknowledge that this ever happened. If I was still angry about it, I’d show her the book but I’m not, well maybe mildly annoyed.

        My mother was college educated and says she read to me a great deal when I was young but like you I soon didn’t need to be read to as I read on my own. I was (and am) highly talkative though so most remarks weren’t about how much I read but the big words I used in casual conversation. I really think insatiable curiosity is the driver. I just can’t have no new information and consequently am always seeking stimulation. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s a video clip, a blog, a research article or a piece of exquisite art. I say almost because there are times I crave certain things. I find it fascinating that you say you are not at all artistic because I most definitely am and the information hunger primarily serves as feedstock for my creative paroxysms.


  • Robert Pondiscio

    It’s not about a canon. It’s about exposure to a broad amount of background knowledge and the rich language of text, the simplest of which has more complex vocabulary than the speech of college graduates. If you’re “the weird kid who read all the time,” it happens almost inevitably. Love you, but Lady is right. You’re a fish.

    Nice pond.

    • educationrealist

      Why, thank you, Robert, for leading right into my next (or close to next) post.

      Apparently, kids in lower income brackets don’t read much. You have no proof of this at all. You just assume it, just as you assume that middle class and higher kids DO read. You have no evidence.

      Moreover, there are people who read a lot, but have weak vocabularies, and people who read very little and have strong ones. Both groups are rare, but they exist.

      So tell me, Robert, why did I read a lot? It wasn’t the environment.

  • mrtallhk

    ER, I came over here after reading your response to my comment on Agatha Christie over at Steve Sailer’s site. You’re absolutely correct about the encroaching dementia/Alzheimer’s, of course.

    And then I saw this post. I smiled throughout — your childhood was in many ways quite different from mine — my family never traveled; I grew up in one house in a small town on the Plains — but so utterly similar in essential ways.

    I didn’t start reading until I was taught in school, but in that I consider myself lucky: I can remember the very day I learned how to sound out words, and my feeling of exaltation in this ability to do something I found so remarkable still hasn’t left me.

    I commenced to read so voraciously I suspect it harmed me physically; I became severely nearsighted very quickly. I tore through whatever books I could find in our house (not too many), and demolished magazines, newspapers and cereal boxes. I ransacked the school library, and graduated to the local public library’s grown-up section well before it was good for me. I recall plowing through an entire shelf of Alfred Hitchcock compendiums of horror and crime stories when I was perhaps nine, and wondering, just as you did, what those ‘hookers’ were all about. I read the Hardy Boys openly, and Nancy Drew secretly. I discovered Tolkien when I was 10 or 11, and experienced what I can only describe as actual pain when, after finishing volume I, I rushed to the library to discover volume II had been checked out . . . . Like you, I was teased heavily for being such a bookworm, and I realize now I must have been a trial indeed for my long-suffering, noble parents. I don’t know how I would have endured me.

    Anyway, enough autobiography, except as a way to add my agreement with your rejoinder to the ‘canonically middle class’ comment. What I experienced as a child reader and self-educator also can’t be attributed to context. My family’s household was definitively working class. My father, albeit talented with machinery and tools, is not at all an intellectual, and worked at manual jobs. My mother, like yours, is more abstractly-oriented, but neither of my parents went to college, and I had no exposure to, or encouragement to engage in, the kind of intellectual body-building programs and cultural exposures so typical of real middle class parenting (something I discovered existed only much later).

    I’m a fan of Hirsch. I agree with some of your criticisms of his program, but I wonder if you’re writing off too much of his cultural literacy concept. You’re obviously exceptional: as you read as a child, you had the raw intellectual horsepower needed to make lateral connections between high volumes of new ideas and concepts, and the nimbleness (and curiosity) to follow allusions and references to their roots. You could handle this on your own. But how many people can do this? How many need more explicit background and connections laid out for them? That’s what I see Hirsch getting at.

    Anyway, I’ve been long-winded, so I’ll sign off for now with a thank-you for such an interesting and provocative site.

    • educationrealist

      Glad you like it! I’m a fan of Hirsch. I’m not dismissing it at all. It’s Hirsch who’s dismissing something.

      • mrtallhk

        Thanks much for the quick clarification. I know what you mean about Hirsch’s blind spot. He is a good liberal of the mid-20th-century type, and he simply does not allow himself to stray too far into questions of IQ and ability, at least in his published work.

        And I again second your reply to Robert just above; yes, indeed, why do some kids (poor or otherwise) live to read and learn, without any identifiable, reproducible, manipulable external influence? I’m looking forward to your next post.

    • educationrealist

      Oh, I meant to mention. My son, as I said, got a perfect score on the ACT reading section. He was completely uninterested in reading, and I never pushed it. I didn’t read to him (never liked it). He was also relatively non-verbal; although he put two word sentences together on schedule, he only had about 12 words at the time.

      However, at 6, he discovered the video game “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” and wanted to buy it. I told him no, I wasn’t going to read all those screens to him. He went to his summer school teacher and said he needed to learn how to read. He was reading in two weeks, and reading at 6th grade level within a year. He’s probably not 99%, but definitely 95%–and much better at math than I am.

      He also didn’t read much during his K-12 years. Again, I never pushed it. We bonded through movies; like me, his knowledge is encyclopedic. For his senior year Christmas, I gave him some books I thought he might be interested in (Ender’s Game, Sewer Gas & Electric, Killer Angels) and that was clearly the time to bring it up. He’s become an active reader while in college.

      • Tim

        Oh excellent. I have two sons. One is an avid reader of books and one is decidedly not. This helps me not to worry about the non reader as much (his math ability is spectacular, easily ahead of mine at his age). It’s not a huge worry, but it is something I think about. That said, both of my boys are information sponges. It’s just that today they get the information from youtube videos and other online content that wasn’t available when I was young. I worried about this until I sat through one of the videos my seven year old was watching about Minecraft. It was essentially a programming tutorial for building logic gate machines within the game. I wondered whether he could understand any of it but my son was happy to show me the ‘pig cannon’ he had constructed using the plans. The intellectually hungry will satiate that hunger one way or another.


  • Hattie

    Hirsch seems to have gotten it mixed up. It’s not that reading causes high verbal intelligence. It’s that high verbal intelligence goes stir crazy without being exercised. It’s like claiming that elite athletes are only that way because they practise so much. Wouldn’t at least part of it be that their innate ability pushes them to do something with it, or they’ll go crazy?

    I score about 95 on IQ tests, but your experience was so freakishly familiar, right down to parental strengths and weaknesses, that I have to stick my oar in. On an anecdotal level, my parents occasionally read, but most of what they did for me involved leaving me alone and not forbidding me from reading Patricia Cornwall at 11, even after they got calls from my teachers.

    I’m not sure what people like Hirsch think middle class (or lower middle/upper working, in my case) parents do, compared to their lower class counterparts. I honestly can’t think of a single thing that parents could do to increase their childrens’ innate ability.

  • AllanInPortland

    Well, obviously you’ve put in 10,000 hours.

    BTW, I’m still smarting over the missed Sinclair reference. Actually, this post rubs salt in the wound. That line was pure comedy gold: dry as a Bordeaux, self-deprecating, and obscure but without any claim toward pretentiousness. You should have got it. 😉

  • educationrealist

    I *hate* it when people don’t get my erudite asides, so I apologize again.

    • AllanInPortland

      Thank you. And that’s good… since I forgot to put the <sarc> tag on the above, I’ll trust you got it there as well. 🙂

  • Jokah Macpherson

    I found this post very interesting, especially the end. Like you, I cannot remember not knowing how to read. This led the parents of my peers to resent my parents because they had “taught” me to read at an early age, even though they hadn’t really done anything out of the ordinary for parents. One even invited everyone in my 1st grade class to her daughter’s birthday party except me out of spite (I only found this out later on as an adult).

    My mom never punished me for reading too much but she did encourage me to read less in middle school so as not to seem too weird.

    • educationrealist

      Wow, the parents of peers resented you? You must be younger than me by a lot. I can’t remember anyone caring whether I read or not.

      By late middle school, I had started faking “less smart” or even “stupid”, as needed.

      • Jokah Macpherson

        I’m 29. It’s impressive that you can tell. I guess parents a generation earlier were a little more laid back.

  • J

    What makes you think your father’s IQ was below 100? I’ve never heard people with below average IQs be able to talk at length in detail about much of anything, much less how airplanes fly.
    I used to think the same thing of my mother, because my siblings and I are much brighter than she is. However, later in life I realized she isn’t really below average, my family is just pretty smart. She probably has an IQ of around 120, in actuality.

    • educationrealist

      Well, I have his school records and he was tested more than once–it was normal back then. He routinely tested in the 90s.

      Muhammed Ali’s IQ was 75 back when he was in high school.

      It’s more than possible for people of low IQs to be able to learn and master information if they can see how it relates to something concrete.

      • Hattie

        What about the Flynn effect?

      • Hattie

        No, wait. I typed that out just as I was leaving for a trip. As soon as there was no way to get to a computer, it occurred to me how monumentally stupid it was.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

        Well, I have his school records and he was tested more than once–it was normal back then. He routinely tested in the 90s.

        Hmmm, perhaps he was smart enough to sandbag.

        What was his explanation for lift?

      • educationrealist

        Yes, that’s right. You apparently think that IQ tests are worthless, that intelligence is inheritable, yet blindly believing that smart kids can only be born to smart people.

        Let me know when you’ve achieved coherence.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

        Heh. Offspring tend to regress to the parental average.

        Of course it is possible for the offspring to get all the breaks, but the likelihood is low.

        Moreover, it seems unlikely that someone who had a good explanation for lift had an IQ below 100.

      • Hattie

        @The fourth doorman:

        “Hmmm, perhaps he was smart enough to sandbag.”

        What possible reason would he have for sandbagging?

      • Pincher Martin

        A few traits that resemble intelligence, and may in some cases be partially correlated with intelligence, often are mistaken for intelligence: for example, an ability to make people laugh, high sociability, a gift for mimicry, etc.

        Take comedy. When you watch a great stand-up comedian in action – Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jim Carrey, Bill Hicks, etc. – it’s difficult to avoid concluding that you’re watching a very smart man with insights into human nature that he’s able to deliberately make funny with a slightly skewed perspective. So he must be really smart, right?

        Probably not. Comedy is about timing, verbal quickness (but not mental quickness), mimicry, and the guts to say shit other people aren’t willing to say (but often think about). There’s no evidence it requires high intelligence at all and it may not even require an average intelligence. I imagine many teachers here already recognize this. The funniest kids in class are rarely the kids with the best test scores and highest grades. Making people laugh is one area where the dumbest black kid frequently excels over the smartest Asian.

        The comedian Ron White has a funny routine playing on this simple truth that comedy ain’t brain surgery, pointing out that he had to go to continuation high school to get his degree. He claims his brain is only good at spitting out a new joke about once every two weeks. Other than that, he says, it shuts down. But watching him perform, it would be easy to mistake him for a guy who’s pretty sharp mentally.

        (BTW, I’m not claiming all stand-up comedians are dumb; I’m just pointing out that it’s an area of life in which a performer doesn’t need a high IQ to excel, and where when he does excel he often comes across as much smarter than he really is. I’m sure there are many sharp stand-up comedians of above average intelligence. Steve Martin and Bill Cosby, for example, probably qualify.)

        I imagine ER’s dad, while not a comedian, has similarly skills that misleadingly appear related to high IQ. From what we’ve heard, he’s sociable and not afraid of new situations and new people. He has a good ear. He can listen to new languages and quickly put them to use at a low level of functionality. Some of these skills are correlated with intelligence, but not as highly as you would probably think. Even the rudimentary use of multiple languages is something almost any untutored third-world villager can pick up in a multilingual environment.

        If I had to guess, I would say that ER’s dad probably heard several people talk about the concept of lift and then in the manner of a good journalist who reports on many things he doesn’t fully comprehend simplified it to a level that even his young daughter could understand. Why not? He worked in the airline industry. He was very sociable. He was a good listener. He was a good talker. Makes sense.

      • educationrealist

        That’s basically true except the last part. My dad has his FAA license. He had to understand the rudiments of flight. He had to study and learn it to a *functional*, not *theoretical*, degree, meaning he had to learn how it applied to the wings of a plane, how each component of the wing contributed to flight. That way, when he was fixing planes, he had a (literally) working knowledge of what each part of the plane did. (He had a similar knowledge of the rudder, thruster, etc). It was very concrete knowledge, extremely doable for someone who liked working with his hands, like knowing how things were put together, but had no interest and ability in theory. So my dad’s explanation involved lots of diagrams, and lots of specific pictures of the parts of the plane, and nary an equation in sight. I believe that many people of mid-low IQs (say 85-90) can learn some (not all) difficult concepts in that sort of highly concrete manner, that directly relates to “real-life”.

        The rest of your description fits him to a t.

  • Black_Rose

    ER, could you give us an anecdote when you personally realized (without knowledge of his intelligence test scores) that your father was unable to grasp theoretical and abstract concepts that you can handle quite adroitly.

    As for me:

    I once believe that my parents were knowledge in most domains, but as I matured, I became quite intellectually independent and inquisitive that I noticed inconsistencies and inadequacies in my parents’ account of the world by comparing it from more reputable sources such as teachers and books. I felt that I exceeded them in both retaining concrete details and in my comprehension of the underlying theoretical framework in an array of intellectual domains. Later, I had more faith and confidence in my own faculties of reasoning and memory (and I inferred that I was autistic due to my proclivity for reading books as opposed to socializing with my peers) than in the statements of ordinary adults. Then, I understood that one should not readily accept the proclamations of “authoritative sources” such as teachers, press releases, and textbooks without critically evaluating their reasoning and evidence, but this certainly requires high verbal intelligence since it requires the ability to process verbal information abstractly.

    Due to these tendencies, I had a innate affinity for the natural sciences as i was a cell-molecular biology in college and was an exceptional biology student in high school that I was often compared to Barbara McClintock, but I later lost my fervor for it in college since I wanted to explore other fields such as philosophy.

    • Black_Rose

      Similarly, some often complain that Wikipedia is not a credible source; indeed there is some spurious information there, but it does require some verbal ability to critical assess the quality of information there. For instance, if I judge a statement is dubious due to it being inconsistent with the information in the article or an absence of support from reputable sources, I often analyze the source and compare it to my prior knowledge of related topics.

      Wikipedia is a valuable informational resource for those with high verbal ability as they can separate the established information from baseless assertions. Moreover, it provides references to in depth resources, allowing one to explore a given topic in greater detail.

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