Cultural Literacy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1989

The Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay confidently asserted, “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa.” Whether or not such knowledge was widespread in nineteenth century England, it most assuredly is not in twentieth century America. In the October 3, 1983, issue of The Washington Post, Benjamin J. Stein reported on what he called “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L. A.” According to Stein,I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one who could tell me the years when World War I was fought. Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought. . . . None has known how many [senators] Nevada or Oregon has.

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Stein adds that a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles, thought that Toronto “must be in Italy,” and a junior at the University of Southern California placed Washington, D.C., in Washington State.

Such ignorance is not unique to Los Angeles. A 1978 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported a significant recent decline in American children’s knowledge of civics. Average verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores are considerably lower in 1987 than they were in 1970, with an especially sharp decline among the supposedly best-educated high-school students. E. D. Hirsch’s son teaches Latin; when he informed his class that Latin is no longer spoken, one of his students challenged his statement because she believed that it is the language of Latin America. A group of community college students in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, could not identify Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee.

Many factors have been blamed for this sorry state of affairs: television, the breakup of the traditional family, low pay or low standards for teachers. According to Hirsch, though, the cause is more fundamental—nothing less than the philosophy underlying contemporary American education. Hirsch describes this attitude as formalism, the belief that literacy is a skill, like riding a bicycle or driving a car. According to this view, if one learns to ride a Schwinn, one can also ride a Peugeot; if one can drive a Chevrolet, one can drive a Ford, too. Similarly, once a student learns to read a text about friendship, he can understand a passage of equal difficulty about the Civil War.

Together with David Harrington, Hirsch tested this assumption using just such a pair of essays, comparing the reading ability of students at the University of Virginia and a community college in Richmond. The two groups did equally well when they had to read the piece requiring no special information beyond vocabulary recognition. When confronted with an article about Grant and Lee, though, they showed markedly different abilities. The university students, who had sufficient background knowledge of the Civil War, again read the essay easily. The community college students, who did not know who Lee and Grant were, found the writing difficult, even though the vocabulary was no more challenging than in the piece about friendship. So, too, a group of literate Americans can more readily grasp a description of an American wedding than of an Indian ceremony, whereas literate Indians find the account of their native customs more comprehensible.

Such results are consistent with what linguists have learned about language acquisition. Comprehension requires a knowledge of both the lexical and structural meanings of a sentence. That is, one must indeed possess the skill to combine sounds into words and to interpret the dictionary meaning of those words. Here American education, with its formalist philosophy, does very well; American first graders read at least as well as their European and Asian counterparts. As early as the second grade, though, American children begin to lag behind, with those from culturally poor environments falling further behind than their culturally richer classmates.

These differences arise because grasping lexical meaning is not enough. “Meet me at the green” is a sentence any third grader can read, but it is not one every third grader can interpret. A child growing up in New England will immediately recognize that “the green” refers to the grassy plot in the center of town where sheep grazed in the eighteenth century. To a Californian, however, the sentence would be meaningless, because he would lack the knowledge of what “the green” is, even though he could easily pick out a green shirt.

Before the triumph of formalism, children learned lexical and structural meanings at the same time, for their school readers dealt with American history, and their curricula included literary classics. John Dewey and his camp changed all that. In Schools of To-morrow (1915) he urged the teaching of “a small number of typical situations with a view to mastering the way of dealing with the problems of experience, not the piling up of information.” Dewey’s schools of tomorrow became the schools of today, emphasizing current fiction that deals with social issues. High-school graduates may be better able to cope with death and divorce, but they have trouble communicating information. Furthermore, they are ignorant in fundamental areas.

As Hirsch points out, this ignorance is a political and economic as well as a cultural problem. In a totalitarian society, illiteracy is a personal tragedy; in a democracy it is a national disaster. In a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington dated January 16, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote:Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

Whether one relies on television, radio, or printed matter for one’s news, the need for cultural literacy remains. Otherwise, one cannot grasp the nature of domestic debates or international conflicts. One of the realizations that prompted Hirsch to write his book was that a typical newspaper article would be unintelligible without a considerable amount of assumed background knowledge.

Cultural illiteracy also leads to political fragmentation. The Constitutional Convention almost foundered on sectional mistrust resulting from ignorance. General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney observed toward the end of the four-month session in Philadelphia, “I had myself prejudices against the Eastern states before I came here, but I will acknowledge that I have found them as liberal and candid as any men whatever.” National cohesion demands a trust based on a shared body of knowledge.

Prosperity, too, requires cultural literacy. The story of the Tower of Babel illustrates the impossibility of accomplishing a task when coworkers cannot communicate. Many companies find an analogous situation in the 1980’s, as midlevel executives seem unable to share information.

To combat cultural illiteracy, Hirsch urges curricular reforms that will again emphasize “factual information and traditional lore.” A sixty-three-page appendix lists the specific content of such a revised course of study. In teaching these forty-five hundred people, places, concepts, phrases, texts, and titles, teachers should, Hirsch says, be flexible. Everyone should recognize the name Henry David Thoreau, but not everyone needs to read Walden (1854). The distinction Hirsch makes is between extensive knowledge, which asks only a superficial understanding of Thoreau as an advocate of civil disobedience and a lover of nature, and intensive knowledge, which might include an understanding of Transcendentalism, Thoreau’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, or his response in Walden to Benjamin Franklin’s version of the American Dream.

While the proposed changes are far-reaching, they are not excessively demanding. According to Hirsch, “Only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and the illiterate, between dependence and autonomy.” In the near future, Hirsch plans to publish a dictionary containing that information.

The problem that Hirsch addresses is real. Millions of Americans lack even minimal literacy, the ability to complete simple forms or read road signs. Hirsch reports that “only two thirds of our citizens are literate, and even among those the average level is too low and should be raised.” His proposals, however, raise numerous questions.

For example, there is the list in the appendix. Despite Hirsch’s disclaimer that it “is provisional” and not definitive, it illustrates the problem of defining cultural literacy. According to this list, the ideal schoolchild will know who imprisoned Montezuma but not who strangled Atahualpa. He will know the dates of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, but not of the French and Indian or Spanish-American War. He will know about Thor but not about Woden. Even though cultural literacy is a worthwhile goal, the road to it is not as clear as Hirsch would suggest.

Nor is it as painless. As an example of what he considers cultural literacy, Hirsch notes that his father, in giving financial advice to his associates, would write, “There is a tide,” assuming that his readers would recognize the reference to Brutus’ speech in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1623). Here Brutus is urging immediate action. Although the elder Hirsch intended the allusion to support his recommendation, someone familiar with the play might consider that Brutus’ eloquence leads to disaster at Philippi and so choose another counselor. A little learning is a dangerous thing. To suggest that a few hundred pages of any book will create cultural literacy is to raise unrealistic expectations.

Moreover, it is unfair to place the entire responsibility of cultural education on the schools. If Americans in the nineteenth century were culturally literate or shared common knowledge, the school curriculum was hardly the only reason. For in 1890, only half the children between the ages of five and seventeen were attending classes, and fewer than 10 percent of the population had been graduated from high school. Thus, if Americans in the 1980’s are culturally illiterate, the schools cannot assume all the blame. Stein’s audiences in Los Angeles had heard about the Civil War, but students resemble Huck Finn, whose interest in Moses declined sharply when he learned that the Jewish leader “had been dead a considerable long time.” As Huck explains, “I don’t take no stock in dead people.” Students in 1987 recognize the name Madonna, but their association is with the living rock star, not the mother of Jesus, who has been dead a considerable long time.

Third graders from culturally rich homes read better than third graders who lack that background because the former not only learn in school but also have information reinforced or introduced through books in the house and trips to museums or historical sites. Once one abandons the delusion that cultural literacy is a matter of learning a few isolated facts about a limited number of arbitrarily selected items, one will see that all elements of society must join the enterprise; parents, media, and libraries cannot shirk their obligations by insisting that a place where students spend one-eighth of their year bear total responsibility for acculturation. One will also recognize that acquiring cultural literacy is a lifelong process, not one that ends at age seventeen.

Finally, Hirsch’s standards of cultural literacy are ethnocentric. Panama appears on the list but not Argentina, 1776 but not 1789, ukulele but not the Ukraine. In a global economy, in a world that will survive only if people from different nations can communicate with one another, a program of national rather than international acculturation is both myopic and dangerous.

Whatever its shortcomings, though, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know raises important questions about contemporary education and points out failings that require remedy. If the answers are not as simple as Hirsch implies, one should not despair but rather work the harder to speed the day when all inhabitants of the global village, rich and poor, black and white, Hispanic and Anglo, Russian and American, can sit down together at the table of mutual understanding, when the Earth shall be as full of knowledge as the waters that cover the sea.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Occasionally, a university professor is transported from the comparative obscurity of academic life to the prominence of national celebrity. Such was the fate of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., upon publication of Cultural Literacy. During service on the English faculties of Yale University and the University of Virginia, Hirsch established a secure reputation as a literary theorist. That standing among his scholarly peers was achieved, in part, by such books as Wordsworth and Schelling: A Typological Study of Romanticism (1960), Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (1964), Validity in Interpretation (1967), The Aims of Interpretation (1976), and The Philosophy of Composition (1977). Republication of several of these attested his continuing influential position in his field of specialization.

Cultural Literacy is at once a continuation of Hirsch’s previous work and a sharp digression from it. Simply put, it is a continuation in that it links text to meaning, and a break in that it focuses on the fundamental task of reading and how one learns through reading, or more specifically the functional importance of cultural literacy.

The body of the book is only 145 pages, organized in six chapters, followed by a seventy-page appendix, “What Literate Americans Know: A Preliminary List.” The list—by far the most widely discussed section of the book—is introduced by a brief explanation of its composition. The list itself is not divided into subject areas. It is extremely heterogeneous; a brief excerpt will convey its flavor:

Don’t put the cart before the horse.Doppler effectDos Passos, Johndouble entendredouble helixdouble indemnity

The preface (five pages) and acknowledgments (three pages) introduce the theme of the book and trace its intellectual evolution. In chapter 2, eight graphs vividly illustrate the effect of context (cultural literacy) upon reading comprehension.

In form, Cultural Literacy is straightforward exposition: an extended formal essay, generally unencumbered by the trappings of academic writing, although thirty pages of footnotes follow the text. Hirsch’s tone is argumentative, but gently so.

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