Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cultural Literacy

I realize that what I was getting at yesterday was something E.D. Hirsch talked about in his 1987 book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.” I bought the book at the time, read enough to realize I was somewhat deficient and set the book on the shelf where it has remained unopened ever since.

Hirsch included in his book “The Thinking American’s List,” which takes up about 75 pages, single-spaced and in two columns. It ranges from nursery rhymes to authors to dates to geometry terms to sayings. You get the idea. His idea was that a complete education would expose children to all of these concepts.

I must say that I have been embarrassed more than once when people in other countries know more about US history than I do. They often seem to be more culturally literate than I am. Why is that?

Looking back at my childhood, I see a lot of dinners eaten as a family in front of the TV. Even if it was the news we were watching, we didn’t discuss much of anything. We never talked about literature because my parents didn’t read anything more than the newspaper.

I contrast this to my good friend’s household, where the 10 children sat around the very large dinner table with their parents and talked about books and ideas each night. I was almost afraid to eat with them for fear I would be asked to say something intelligent. This family helped start the early-morning French class I was able to attend in the 6th grade. To this day those children all know a lot about everything and have imparted much of that to the next generation.

In school I can remember only a couple of teachers who went out of their way to go beyond the textbooks and the standard curriculum. My 6th grade teacher introduced us to a variety of classical music, which we listened to for a few minutes each morning. My 8th grade teacher maintained a lending library of classics in the classroom. She also had us do monthly “research” of famous people born in that month, often memorizing famous lines if they were poets or writers. Other than that textbooks and library books were the main sources of my literacy.

I found this site as I was Googling “cultural literacy” last night. Be forewarned: Taking the tests becomes addictive. I was appalled to get scores in the 80’s in the first 3 I tried, all subjects I’m supposed to know something about. I can’t imagine how badly I would do on the history tests.

So we might ask Hirsch WHY every American needs to know any of these things? Such knowledge obviously does not make that person a better person. It doesn’t teach ethics. It doesn’t end war or famine.

It simply fills our minds with a richer mix of information that might make it easier to understand what’s going on in our country and in the broader world. It allows us to make mental connections when we hear a name or a place or a quote.

I wonder if “cultural literacy” is still being talked about by educators as we try to improve our standing in the world of education. No one mentioned it in “Waiting for Superman”, the current film about the sad state of education in our country.

Any thoughts on cultural literacy?

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to peruse that book -- I've seen it around but never read it!

I think many educators and social commentators in our "multi" society have become very wary of suggesting standards for cultural literacy, regarding it as a culturally relative and highly-charged concept. I agree with that view to an extent, but also believe that both individuals and the collective community benefit when there's at least a minimum of shared knowledge. (That pool of basic knowledge evolves along with the community.) Otherwise, a place and culture loses its sense of itself, like a person with memory loss.

E.g., where I live, I'd benefit from speaking even basic Spanish. And, in my work I'd really benefit from broader knowledge in some areas. On the other hand, I'm quite knowledgeable about where I live in the bioregional and urban geography senses -- I know my Home pretty well (land, history, architecture, neighborhoods, etc.).

Sorry for long-winded comment; as an educator and artist, I think about this stuff all the time! I could go on for pages; let's pick it up offline? Thanks for the great and thought-provoking post, Barbara!

As Gary Snyder (one of my favorite poets and people) writes, "Learn the flowers"...

F.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Anon -- You make such a good point about our environment to a great degree dictating at least some of our cultural literacy needs. I too live in an area where it is useful to know Spanish. It's actually helpful to know something about many foreign cultures because this area is truly a melting pot.

12:56 PM  
Blogger lacochran's evil twin said...

I haven't read the book but I'm guessing it's Euro-American centric. I'd really like our young (and old) people to learn about so much more than Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

LA -- Good point. I do think the "list", which is just a part of the book, needs to be updated to include things from the last 23 years since the book was published. It's probably not a bad thing for kids to learn who Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain were. But it's probably more relevant for them to learn who Bill Gates and Al Gore are.

The trick is to figure out how to impart this information in a way that makes it interesting and avoids memorizing lists of facts and dates. In my own experience, the memorization was easy, but retention was impossible. That's why I don't know much history today; I only memorized the facts to pass the tests -- it just never sank in!

5:39 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Cultural literacy is key to a common understanding of where we were and why we are who we are and a whole lot of stuff in between. That being said, I'm terrible with names and dates. Much better with theories. I like learning, in general, though, and would have loved to seen that great family. More than talk about figures, it sounds like the children learned how to think for themselves.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

To be culturally literate, I'd think, would increase one's ability to think critically, to make comparisons, to draw conclusions, to expand one's narrow view to a world view. To have a collective knowledge base allows for more discourse than argument, more discussion rather than closed-minded dissension, yes?

7:54 PM  
Blogger e said...

I'd love to look at that list and see what I've learned in life. I think my parents thought that travel and exposure would render me culturally literate or at least more so than my contemporaries here.

This is a thought-provoking post.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin, Pauline, E -- You are some of the most culturally literate people I know!

E -- You can buy the book (used) on Amazon for $.01. Let me know how you react to the 75-page list of what you should know.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

I think it is probably much more difficult to achieve a common ground of "cultural literacy" these days because of the current trend to celebrate diversity as opposed to encouraging things to melt together in the pot, so to speak. I think in the olden days of our country, people felt that they needed to blend culturally as quickly as possible to become successful in their new country. Although to be fair, this mostly meant that people were blending their cultural selves in a more Anglo-Saxon direction.

It will be interesting in twenty years or so to read about this current wave of immigration, from a historical perspective, and to compare it to similar periods in the early parts of the two preceding centuries.

I probably don't remember much of it now, but I enjoyed using that book when it first came out, to fill in some of the things that hadn't sunk in from reading encyclopedias for fun when I was a kid. What a nerd! But no one knew so it was okay (I told myself).

I would imagine that the impact of Spanish exploration and colonization is probably a far more relevant topic in history class these days than it was when some of us were growing up. Mexico, Central and South America all seemed so far away back then. In my little world American history was all about the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. The Spanish part seemed like an interesting detail for the western United States.

"Cultural Literacy" is definitely something that needs to be amended every five years or so in order to stay current and relevant.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Cyndy -- Funny that you mention reading the encyclopedia when you were young. My son did that for several years. That may be one of the reasons he knows so much today about everything.

I don't think of cultural literacy as making us more homogeneous, but rather more aware of backgrounds and differences.

You are so correct that the history of Latin America got short shrift in the schools I attended as well. I wonder if that has changed today with the huge influx of Hispanic immigrants?

12:19 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

This book was assgined reading in one of my doctoral classes last year. It was a fantastic class.

Interesting off-topic point...my word verification is "diskin".

1:53 AM  
Blogger lettuce said...

wow, thats some list

interesting post and discussion
I'm inclined to agree with this - but can't help wondering if that doesn't reflect my middle-class background in a way which wouldn't make sense to a lot of people...?

6:06 AM  

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