Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Cultural Literacy and Its Importance in Society, Plus John Donne's Meditation #17

Cultural literacy is the ability to understand and participate in a particular culture. It includes knowledge of the arts, literature, history, and customs of that culture. Cultural literacy is important for communication and understanding between people from different cultures.

The term "cultural literacy" was coined by American educator E. D. Hirsch in his 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Hirsch argued that cultural literacy is essential for civic participation and for understanding the world around us. He identified a list of several thousand terms and concepts that he believed all Americans should know.

The reason this topic is important because as our culture becomes more splintered, our various past experiences overlap less and less. As a result, when someone refers to Job's tears, it has no meaning to those who hear or read it if they are unfamiliar with the book of Job in the Old Testament.

Having an understanding of history, literature, philosophy and the arts enables us to communicate without having to explain what the Alamo was, who Romeo and Juliet were as star-crossed lovers, or how Puerto Rico became part of the U.S. but is not a state.

In 2008 I wrote the following, which references this loss of a cohesive understanding of who we are and the breakdown of our sense of community.

23 July 2008

As the world's knowledge exponentially compounds, we find ourselves increasingly removed from the knowledge that has gone before us. When we encounter a passage from literature today, few there are who recall its source, who can identify its root.

At various points in history many great libraries were burned. Today, such book burning is no longer necessary. Whether history, theology, philosophy, literature, biography, science or travel, the classics are all but forgotten. (People with dyslexia get a pass from my rant here.) 

In a nation where reading is mandatory, it is literally amazing how few there are that read today. Maybe it's our educational system that presents classic lit in a manner that turns young people away from the rich bounty contained in books. Or maybe it's due to the easy seduction of so many other distractions. 

I'd mentioned Hemingway a few weeks back. Here is the source for the title of his Spanish Civil War classic For Whom the Bell Tolls, beginning with another oft quoted phrase worth taking to heart.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Here is the context for this passage, a worthy meditation.

Meditation #17
By John Donne

From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623), XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu DicuntMorieris (Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.)

Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

Read the complete essay here

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