The day's festivities at PS 20 in Brooklyn began with the sixth-grade chorus singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," followed by Duke Ellington's classic "Take the A Train." The first-grade children—the boys wearing tricornered hats and the girls wearing white caps tied under their chins—recited a section of "Paul Revere's Ride," written, as one beaming child put it, by "William Wadsworth Longfellow."
Two radiant sixth-grade children declaimed Maya Angelou's poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she wrote for President Clinton's inauguration. A first-grade group of twenty played violins, bowing out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" by Mozart. Fifth graders reenacted the writing of the Declaration of Independence and hailed its significance in today's world; another group from the same grade declaimed on the historical injustices that had violated the spirit of Mr. Jefferson's great document. Third graders dramatized the tragedy of Julius Caesar, betrayed by his friends and the Roman mob.
For a moment, I had to pinch myself. This was neither a dream nor a wishful fantasy of my imagination. This was a regular elementary school in the heart of downtown Brooklyn that has adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum and that today was holding its annual Core Knowledge Fair, where the children proudly demonstrated what they had learned.
The Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia, works on the simple principle that knowledge is powerful. The children study a coherent sequence of specific knowledge that builds year by year. Every student every year studies English, history and geography, mathematics and science, the art of many civilizations, visual arts, and music. As they showed at their fair, they dramatize what they learn through song, poetry, dance, and performance.
The walls of the school overflow with student projects about ancient Greece, ancient Rome, American history, the principles of science, and African American achievements. The children read wonderful classic literature, including O. Henry stories and Jack London novels. Many participate in band or chorus and learn to use computers.
E.D. Hirsch has consistently argued that the best way to reduce the gaps among social, economic, and racial groups in America is to provide equal access to knowledge. The knowledge that culturally literate people need is not haphazard; it is specific, it can be identified in advance, and teachers can teach it. That is what I saw at PS 20, where 98 percent of the children are members of a minority group. Many are from low-income homes, but no one looks poor. Instead, they look like children who are happily imbibing knowledge and making it their own.
For the past twenty years, our schools have been embroiled in endless and mean-spirited wrangling about the cultural content of the curriculum. PS 20, where the love of knowledge is so joyfully communicated by administrators, teachers, and parents, gives me hope that a new day is dawning.