Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cultural Literacy

We often take so much for granted. This is especially true in our communication. We say something and assume everyone else knows what we’re talking about. The reality is that we are in the midst of a national communication breakdown.

Our American education system can’t be entirely to blame, but it is a contributing factor. Instead of teaching young people to love literature and learning, we “teach to the test” and strive to simply make sure they get a passing grade, even if they learn nothing. Sure, there are exceptional teachers, but all too often the pressures are there for outcomes and not real learning.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote an important book called Cultural Literacy which addresses this theme. The subtitle is What Every American Needs To Know. Hirsch argues that there is certain knowledge that is fundamental in order to function in our modern society. When writers write and politicians speak, there is a background to their words. Without understanding that background, we often miss the point of what they are attempting to convey.

Wikipedia defines “cultural literacy” as “the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it.”

Professor Hirsch devotes many pages of his book to making a distinction between important knowledge and trivia. In the realm of people, for example, it is important to know who Benedict Arnold and Judas were, not so important to know Betsy Ross. Arnold and Judas have become metaphors for betrayal. Betsy Ross was of many who made early contributions in our history.

Hirsch ends his book with an appendix that lists 5000 names, phrases, dates and concepts which “every American” ought to know. Here are some of the items from that list. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know some of them. Instead, make a decision to be a lifelong learner. It will increase your influence and strengthen your confidence as you interact with others in our challenging, modern world.

Important Dates
1066
1492
1776
1861-1865
1914-1918
1939-1945
and (the book) 1984

Important People (these are just a few of the many names in Hirsch's list)
Henry Aaron
Adam and Eve
John Adams
John Quincy Adams
Adonis
Muhammed Ali
Woody Allen
Hans Christian Anderson
Attila the Hun
Saint Augustine
Bacchus
Clara Barton
Ludwig von Beethoven
Chuck Berry
Billy the Kid
Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Cain and Abel
Catherine the Great
Fidel Castro
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Copernicus
John Dewey
etc.

Examples of expressions, concepts and events would include:
Conditioned reflex
Crossing the Rubicon
Cuban missile crisis
Cum laude
Custer's last stand
Cut the Gordian knot
Diplomatic immunity
Dialectical materialism
Double indemnity
Dreyfuss affair
Fiddling while Rome burns
Fireside chat
Frankenstein's monster
Golden Rule
etc.

You get the picture. The book is worth your time, as is your investment in lifelong learning. At the very worst, you'll become a better team mate in your next game of Trivia Pursuit.

9 comments:

Christella said...

This is an important, enlightening book. I was a curriculum coordinator when the book was published, and tried to get our school district to consider some of the ideas. Unfortunately, you're right. If it didn't fit with the "test" we couldn't use it. However, several teachers really took to it and we even added "cultural literacy" information about people of color that the book lacked. If you watch Jay Leno interviewing young people and asking them questions, the need for the book is evident.

ENNYMAN said...

We home schooled and Susie (my wife) either came across this in the curriculum or her readings and we plugged in with it. Yes, things have declined since we were young people... and to think that at one time Latin was part of a standard curriculum in public schools because it helped young people understand the roots of our language.
Now, there are debates about whether Hispanic kids need to learn English.
e.

LEWagner said...

I've read of proposals for bilingual education of Hispanic kids, so they can keep up in math and other subjects, while they are learning English. I've never heard it advocated that they don't need to learn English at all, though. Who is advocating this?

ENNYMAN said...

I will see what I can find. Good nudge to be careful and not overstate the facts. Not one of the workers in the San Francisco restaurant where my son worked spoke English, but this does not mean it is "Education policy"...

e.

ENNYMAN said...

Well, 7 in 10 say Hispanics need to learn English... but it's not a universal conviction.

http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS117052+11-Mar-2008+PRN20080311

I dunno.

M Denise C said...

Enjoyed this posting, Ed. The lists remind me of how unaware I still am and need to keep learning. But at least I am a little aware of how unaware I am!

LEWagner said...

That article did not say what you claim it said.
The actual title of the article is, "Seven in Ten Hispanics Say Immigrants Should Learn English". There is an additional qualifier in the article: "... if they plan to stay in this country."
None of the Hispanics in that survey advocated that schools should stop teaching English to Hispanic kids (the same way they stopped teaching Latin).
Similar to your experience in San Francisco, I also met several recent immigrants to the Dallas area who couldn't speak a word of English. Sandy even had to advertise her apartment in Spanish when she left, as that area of Dallas was almost 100% Spanish-speaking. The older people were too busy working to learn a lot of English very quickly.
The Hispanic kids WERE learning English in school, though, and I would have been tremendously surprised if anyone would have advocated that to be stopped. The people in Sandy's neighborhood all seemed happy that their kids could help translate when needed.
I have heard the claim repeated before that "liberals" don't want Hispanics to be required to learn English, but have never found any substantiation for it. It's another example of the kind of thing that right-wing talk show hosts like to repeat over and over, and eventually people start believing it.

ENNYMAN said...

LEW: I wasn't approaching it as a liberal/conservative issue. I assumed that most issues have advocates on both sides even if the one side is a crackpot. I saw a few blog entries that did not count as anything more than anecdotal evidence. (Someone in Miami saying people didn't have to learn English there, for example)

I won't defend the sentence.

ENNYMAN said...

MDC:
Yes it is a good book... Very quickly shows us all how little we know of all there is that can be known.
Thanks for the visit.
e.