Two of our granddaughters visited with us this week. The youngest is 5. She’s been reading for a year and can handle chapter books like the Amelia Bedelia series. She’s the philosopher in the family. She recently asked, “Are bad people bad because they’re really bad, or are they bad because good people think they are?”  So when I asked her to get me something in the living room,  I was startled when she asked:

“What’s a living room?”

Of course! My daughter lives with them in a loft-style apartment. She doesn’t have a separate living room; no one uses that word in her family.  What, I thought, if that word was part of a question on a test? Or what if she was shown a picture of a silo and asked to circle the correct word?

Green party…griot…gulag…Guevara, Che….Heaney, Seamus…It ain’t me, babe…Jit 

This is a plea to the middle class: Maybe it’s time to reclaim the conversation that will finally stop one-size-fits-all testing. It’s the middle class, after all, who has access to privilege and power. If we can’t change the system, who can?

Hurston, Nora Neale…internment camps….kiva…makossa (music)…Monk, Meredith…mestizo

E. D. Hirsch Jr. acknowledged in his 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, that HIS knowledge counts. So if you’re out of HIS loop, out of HIS culture you are doomed to the bottom of the intellectual trash heap. Those who created standardized tests in order to see if kids have mastered the Common Core Standards have waited 25 years to put Hirsch’s lists into practice.

Paz, Octoviao…Piscses…Muraskai, Lady…Nevelson, Louise…nitrates…nitrites…octave…refusenik

The history of whose intelligence counts has been a firestorm of mistakes. Early brain studies comparing mass and volume between the sexes concluded that women were intellectually inferior because they had smaller and lighter brains. (Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of Gender. W.W. Norton) In 1917 the president of the American Psychological Association convinced the military to give the new Stanford-Binet IQ tests to more than a million recruits to determine who had sufficient brain power to serve as officers, and who was not fit to fight in World War I at all. Surprise! The tests proved the mental inferiority of Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, the Irish, and just about any newly arrived immigrant group. Forget African Americans! In fact, only native born Americans, English-speaking Anglo-Saxons, turned out to have the highest IQ. (Davidson, Cathy. 2011. Now You See It. New York: Viking). Are you sensing a pattern?

Pound, Ezra…Prague Spring…selective perception…semiotics…shaman…Sufi…sutra

The frenzy surrounding standardized testing and it’s goal of “We told you: public educators can’t teach” comes from a thesis that demands we measure what kids don’t know. Read that as: what they don’t know according to some cultural conceit. Where does E.D. Hirsch get the right to decide? Who made him King? Whose knowledge counts? According to those in power, those who get to “play” is determined by those who can master the dominance of white, middle class culture.

Several years ago the editors of the The Grey Wolf Annual Five, Multi-Cultural Literacy–Opening the American Mind addended their book with a list of cultural references they thought E. D. Hirsch and his co-editors mistakingly left out. In addition to what you’ve seen sprinkled throughout this post, here’s more of Grey Wolf’s list:

  • 100,000 Songs of Milarepa
  • apse
  • Akhmatova
  • Anna
  • ashram
  • Anasazi (tribe)
  • Baal
  • Asian Exclusion Act
  • barrio
  • Black and Tans
  • Colette
  • Cage, John
  • chiropractic
  • Dar-es-Salaam
  • Davis, Miles
  • down under fructose
  • Gaia hypothesis
  • ghost dance
  • gospel (music)
  • I Ching
  • Lawrence, Jacob
  • mercenary soldier
  • Noh plays
  • non-linear thinking


When we decide to standardize knowledge, when our goal is to create a homogenous culture, we do so at our own peril. Who cares if your plumber knows about Venus DiMilo? Suppose your doctor never read Grapes of Wrath. When will we decide to find out what our kids DO know? Suppose we put the money we have thrown at standardized tests- the making, the marking, the blaming- into glorious classrooms where we begin by asking what our children DO know and proceed from there?

issei..Shiva…Synge, John M…Wobblies…Yiddish…mbaqanga…film noir…Haida


About The Author

Nancy Letts

Nancy Letts consults with school districts, professional organizations and public sector agencies.Her teaching appointments have included public schools in Pennsylvania and New York, and at Pace University and the City University of New York. She and her work have been the subject of articles in the New York Times, Teaching K-8 Magazine, Thinking: the Journal of Philosophy for Children, and on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” She has been a contributor to the Teachers College Record, The Quarterly at UC Berkeley, and Teaching magazine. Audio tapes include”Building Learning Organizations,” and “Getting Started With Portfolios,” from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Her book "Creating the Caring Classroom" is published by Scholastic Professional Books.

Related Posts

  • Triplezmom

    What always frustrated me when we did all those practice tests, (because that was the key to my non-middle class students succeeding on those tests, making sure they could fill in bubbles) is that we could have spent all that time actually increasing their vocabularies and exploring the world beyond their neighborhood for a lot less money and a lot more joy.

  • Julie

    Yes, yes, yes!!! Thank you for so succinctly stating what should be obvious!