Cultural Literacy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)