Though UVA’s admissions standards were as competitive as the Ivies’, the reading and writing skills of many incoming students were poor, sure to handicap them in their future academic work. In trying to figure out how to close this “literacy gap,” Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered “a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences.”
The education establish has criticized him as elitist for years, but that's baloney.
Far from being elitist, [Hirsch] insists, cultural literacy is the path to educational equality and full citizenship for the nation’s minority groups. “Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”