Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

Cultural Literacy is one of several works published in the 1980’s that confronted the issue of educational quality in the United States. Released about the same time as this book was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), a critique of college education and one that created far more controversy than did Cultural Literacy. Other widely publicized commentaries were the National Commission on Education’s A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983), a study chaired by David P. Gardner, President of the University of Utah; the United States Department of Education’s The Nation Responds: Recent Efforts to Improve Education (1984), a reaction to the Gardner report; and two books by Ernest L. Boyer, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America (1983) and College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (1987). Many other heated controversies over the content of American education arose in this period, such as the two-year debate (1986-1988) over the Western culture course at Stanford University.

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What is especially notable about this book is that it was part of an active attempt to revitalize American education. Shortly after it was released and made the best-seller lists, Hirsch addressed the Conference of English Teachers, who gave his ideas a cool welcome. That reaction may have been partly because of the laudatory reception his point of view had gained from the Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, a ready critic of contemporary American education at all levels. In the summer of 1987, Hirsch established a foundation to create standardized tests of student knowledge. That was followed by publication of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988).

There may be substantial agreement that there is or should be a body of information common to all literate Americans, but there is also likely to be substantial disagreement about the content of that body. Hirsch would reply that a sample of literate Americans, apparently some six hundred lawyers, were able to identify over 90 percent of the terms in his list. One can also contend that it is not appropriate to teach students merely to be familiar with a specific body of information; education should be broader than that. Hirsch and his proponents would respond that since most other nations do that, why should the United States not do so? It is especially important if American students’ abilities are to be compared with those of other nations. Defenders of mainstream American practices argue that Hirsch exaggerates the influence of Rousseau and, perhaps, Dewey on today’s schools, whose curriculum encompasses much more than traditional academic topics. Within the latter, Hirsch has not questioned instructional methods for mathematics and the physical sciences.

Unlike Bloom and Bennett, who have been overtly hostile in their attacks on American education, Hirsch has demonstrated a calm, rational, cooperative posture toward existing educational practices. His efforts have found support in some members of educational officialdom and of the corporate sector. In the late 1980’s, it could not be foreseen whether his ideas would be adopted—and whether they would then be effective.

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