A "niche" case for the core

Liam Julian

When "core curriculum" supporters like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. do their advocating, it goes something like this:

"In order to gain power in our democracy and economy, children must develop ‘cultural literacy' in a common core of knowledge so they can function in a world where interactions and understandings are greased by shared reference points and allusions."

Such a view always had a lot going for it, but now the core curriculum's case seems to be growing even stronger.

A good indication of that comes from The Long Tail, a new book by Chris Anderson, who edits Wired magazine and is a former Economist reporter. Anderson's premise is that the blockbuster--the all-encompassing "it" product that unites people from sundry backgrounds--is in irrevocable decline, and that niche marketing is rapidly taking its place.

"If the twentieth-century entertainment industry was about hits," he writes, "the twenty-first will be equally about niches."

The author uses well-known companies such as Netflix and Google to support his thesis.

While 90 percent of movies rented at Blockbuster Video stores are new releases, 70 percent of Netflix rentals, from a library of over 60,000 DVDs, are from the back catalogue.

Take, for another example, the online music retailer Rhapsody, which has a library of about 1.5 million songs. It's reasonable to expect lots of people will click on the top 50,000 or so songs, and that's certainly the case--50 Cent, Michael Jackson, and '70s rock bands still command the spotlight.

But it's not only Rhapsody's top 50,000 songs that are streamed at least once a month. Those ranked 50,001 to 900,000 songs all receive such treatment, and the numbers are growing even larger. To be sure, Top 40 artists are vastly more popular than, say, a new-age musician from Goa, but Rhapsody is betting that someone, somewhere, will still crave that musician's sitar-infused psychedelic trance. It's a good bet.

Online music is stored with ease, so Rhapsody has found an essentially unlimited market. That market is the Long Tail.

And when dealing with products even less confined than online music--such as information--the Long Tail grows, well, longer. Consumers can access the information they want without having to slog, as they once did, through reams of resource books, bibliographies, and card catalogs. With tools such as Google, it's instant info-gratification.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that our society could become so niche intensive that we have enormous trouble finding any common ground. Or that we become so fragmented that inter-niche socialization grows infrequent.

Some developed nations are already witnessing this trend. Japan is confronting a widespread problem, known as hikikomori, of young men who grow disillusioned with social interaction, shut themselves in their rooms (often for years), and communicate only through electronic means. Recent crimes in the United States and Canada (see here and here) were committed by members of online niches most people never knew existed.

Certainly teaching Shakespeare and colonial history in K-12 schools won't stop such antisocial behavior. But as our social fabric seems to unravel more each day, isn't it worth cultivating some type of shared ground? Shouldn't young people grow up with an understanding of the core knowledge that gave rise to the myriad niches surrounding them, and will no doubt give rise to more?

Some might argue the opposite. Because we are entering a niche world, they point out, why shouldn't students be able to fashion their own niche educations?

And they're partially right. Diversity is laudable, especially diversity in ideas and interests. Yet, if the modern world's panoply rests on a deteriorating foundation, the whole point of diversity--to learn from others' ideas in order to inform one's own--is lost.

A world of niches with nothing to unite it.