The Anti-Content Mindset
The Root Cause of the "Math Wars"

by Bill Quirk  (E-Mail:

Knowledge Transmission vs. Discovery Learning and "Process Skills"

When Secretary of Education Riley called for a truce in the "math wars", he characterized them as "bickering" over details. But this isn't a battle about details. It's about the primary mission of American public education.

The ongoing strength of any society depends on the quality of the shared tradition of knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation. American schools need to teach children the core content associated with the foundational knowledge domains of English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.  But our self-described "reformers" reject the very concept of knowledge transmission, refusing to recognize a common core of knowledge that all kids should learn. This is strikingly evident for math. They propose state "math standards" that conspicuously avoid specific content. Where's the math? There's glowing praise for "discovery learning" and general, content-independent "process skills". You'll find several examples of "activities for student "self-discovery". But don't look for specific, content-related learning goals associated with these "activities".

Reformers say knowledge is changing too fast and there's no point remembering "old facts". They say they want to maximize "understanding" and develop "powerful thinking skills". They appear blind to the fact that both understanding and thinking depend fundamentally on remembered content:

Consistent with their rejection of knowledge transmission, reformers have been forced to redefine the meaning of "teacher" and "test". "Teachers" are now to "guide" and "create rich enabling environments for student self-discovery", not impart knowledge or skill (the old dictionary definition of "teach"). They have redefined "test" to mean "find out what each child has personally discovered", not what the child has failed to learn. They call it "authentic assessment".

The anti-content mindset accounts for the dismal performance of American kids in international tests. Our Asian and European competitors still believe in knowledge transmission. They know there's been no significant change in the core knowledge associated with the foundational knowledge domains. Their kids are learning the "old facts", and their college graduates are now filling our nation's professional and graduate schools.

E. D. Hirsch Explained How It All Started

In The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them Professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr. explained the origin of anti-content thinking:
  1. Approximately 100 years ago, teacher-training institutions were primarily concerned with teacher mastery of subject matter. Content was primary and teaching methods were secondary.
  2. With the development of universities, teacher-training institutions were absorbed as "schools of education" and lost responsibility for content.
  3. No longer responsible for content, teacher trainers disparaged the importance of content and elevated the importance of general, content-independent "process skills".
  4. Beginning eighty years ago, the anti-content ideas of Columbia Teachers College Professor William Heard Kilpatrick began to dominate American public education.

The Relentless Assault On the Concept of a Shared Tradition of Knowledge

Although the anti-content philosophy is over eighty years old, it was largely held in check until the 1960's. But we now have more than 5 million people who are directly employed as part of our American education establishment. Many of these accepted the anti-content gospel and never experienced the process of "going deep" into a knowledge domain. At best they are "generalists". These self-described "reformers" are threatened by knowledge experts and empowered by the devaluing of knowledge. Over the last forty years they have labored to undermine the concept of knowledge transmission, relentlessly promoting social changes that trash the very concept of a shared tradition of knowledge:
  1. They demand that we celebrate "diversity" and discard the "melting pot". Rather than working to achieve a common basis for mutual understanding, we are now to "value" all differences and never expect a "meeting of the minds" when the minds reside in individuals who differ by race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or sexual preference.
  2. They endorse the anti-truth philosophies of "postmodernism", "deconstructionism", and "constructivism". All these reject the traditional belief that different people can come to the same shared understanding of subject matter. These theories say that all knowledge is inherently subjective, a matter of personal opinion, and impossible to share.
  3. They tell our children to trust only their peers and challenge all other authority, including that of their parents and (amazingly) their teachers.
  4. They caution teachers not to pass on "their knowledge" to students. They say each generation must discover its own truth.
  5. They claim that traditionalists want to indoctrinate kids with suspect knowledge, a tainted creation of Western Civilization and dead white males.
  6. They have told parents to expect that the way a subject is taught will be "very different from the way they were taught 20 or 30 years ago". When the parent don't understand what's going on, they are to have faith in the "professional" educators, and stay out of their way.
  7. They claim that specific content standards, dictated by others, will make teacher low-level "delivers" of knowledge, not respected "professionals".

Making Matters Worse: The Shrinking Supply of Qualified Teachers

For the last eighty years American teachers have been trained to value "process", not content. Yet, over these years, the nation has been blessed with many dedicated teachers who have viewed teaching as a calling and who have educated themselves in one or more content areas. Unfortunately, the percentage of such qualified teachers is regularly decreasing:
  1. Smart women can now become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and executives. They are no longer waiting in line to join the teacher pool.
  2. There is an increasing awareness of the political reality of today's schools. Well-qualified applicants can find ample opportunities elsewhere.
  3. The "solution" of decreased class size tends to force the rapid hiring of unqualified teachers.
  4. The anti-content mindset attracts the incompetent.

What's the Solution?

  1. We need specific, grade-by-grade content standards for all the foundational knowledge domains. The content must be teachable and measurable.
  2. We need to support teachers who are happy to "deliver" standards-based lesson plans, with clearly identified learning objectives for every lesson. We should eliminate teachers who continue to claim the right to "teach as they please", ignoring those paying their salaries.
  3. We need clear standards-based student materials, carefully tied to lesson plans.
  4. We need our kids to understand that everyone is expected to do a certain amount of work, and, as children, their business is learning. The rest of society is paying (over 600 billion dollars annually) for their period of study and preparation for life. If they refuse to do their "work" they are cheating society.
  5. We need to harness the power of modern information technology and reengineer the knowledge transmission process. This isn't about firing teachers. It's about developing interactive software to support the teaching of specific content. Think of it as the logical evolution of textbooks.
  6. Finally, we need to organize and encourage the hidden army of teachers who secretly object to the reformers' agenda. They know it's wrong and "roll their eyes", but remain silent, not wanting to be labeled as troublemakers or worse. Many of them think the situation is hopeless.

Copyright 1998-2011 William G. Quirk, Ph.D.