Cultural Literacy:

Can it work for you?

Seemingly revolutionary is the idea of a universal understanding. Each and every person has a different level of comprehension, and often it is unclear what that level is, so as a result it ends up making communication awkward. Because of this, many feel it is necessary to have a minimum competency requirement for all Americans. By establishing this minimum competency requirement, we are, in essence, establishing a cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is a concept introduced to the masses by E.D. Hirsch, in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

Cultural Literacy… is a term which describes a familiarity with the dominant culture and which insists that students-and the populace at large-need a body of general and specific knowledge to serve as a common touchstone among us all (Christenbury 14).

Attaining this "common touchstone," seems to be one of the major problems with Hirsch's idea. How does one get every student in America, regardless of geography, to learn the same thing. He proposes a way to remedy this problem, a common curriculum for all schools (Hirsch 139). By assuring that every child is taught the same thing, we can be assured that everyone will know the same thing.

What one must wonder is, if actually implemented, will it work? What would it involve? How much would it cost? Is it worth it? Many think that it is impractical, although, "It is an idea that is appealing, [and] even seductive (Christenbury 14)." When actually applied, it tends not to fulfill all of Hirsch's expectations. A major problem with the idea is that it gives students, in a way, false knowledge. They can are limited by their knowledge to loose associations in which they can discuss a topic. For example, by a popular interpretation of Hirsch's thesis associating Chaucer with The Canterbury Tales is adequate, actually knowing anything about the text is unnecessary (Christenbury 14). Is being able to associate terms in a minimal way a good substitute for an education? Many people in the field of literacy studies and teachers alike find it to be a poor substitute.

One must also think about how the information will be conveyed to students. "Can one imagine a teacher imparting hundreds of names of authors and titles of works that students will not read? How is such information to be vividly taught? Hirsch offers no answer (Leddy 80)." The final third of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is an appendix which offers a preliminary list of terms that Hirsch feels should be identifiable to a "culturally literate" person. The list itself is alphabetical order, not grouped by subject. Is this how Hirsch would set up curriculums? Having classes for "A through C," and "J through L" and the like. It all boils down to rope memorization of facts. "Hirsch is wrong in thinking that this can be taught (in a class room of all places!) apart from the socially situated practices that these groups have incorporated into there homes and daily lives (Gee 12)." Classes would soon resemble something out of Dickens' Hard Times. Were all teachers would be cloned versions of Thomas Gradgrind preaching the advantages of "Fact, not fancy."

Hirsch's list itself also presents a problem. Whose culture did Hirsch have in mind went he wrote Cultural Literacy? His list is seen as being incomplete by a number of different people, not only by different races, but also by people from different walks of life (Colomb 413). He is often criticized for his list, many tend to think that it represents only the culture of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Hirsch believes otherwise.

It is not a WASP culture; it doesn't belong to any group. It is essentially and constantly changing, and it is open. What is needed is recognition that the accurate metaphor or model for this wider literacy is not denomination, but dialectic; each group participates and contributes, transforms and is transformed, as much as any other group…. The English Language no longer belongs to single group or nation (Patterson in Hirsch 11).

Hirsch really believes that he has captured the culture of America in a list of words 63 pages long. "What picture of American national culture can include Homer (as in the Bard) and Homer (as in Winslow) but not homer (as in home run, dinger, tater, four bagger, round trip) (Colomb 413)?" To Colomb and others, a "homer" is as much a part of culture, if not more so, than "Homer's" Illiad and Odyssey or "Homer's" Three Blind Mice. Why should items that are part of someone's culture be omitted from a list that is supposed to represent all of America? It is impossible to represent America as whole, by forming a list of words. This is a country made up of people from different races, creeds and religions. A country colored by dialects and colloquialisms. This is a country that is made up of a very heterogeneous population, whose ideals and knowledge could never be captured by a few pieces paper. In short Hirsch's list is incomplete and impractical. But unbelievably people are still buying his books.

Hirsch has gone far beyond the limits of his first best seller, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. He has followed with other books such as What Your First Grader Needs to Know, and even a desk calendar titled 365 Things Everyone Needs to Know! (English Journal 13). Because of his status as a best selling author, his ideas maybe viewed as being skewed by monetary profits, unlike those who publish for free in peer reviewed scholarly journals. This is an unfortunate fact, that because someone is paid for his or her ideas, their work is viewed as less reputable than others'.

The concept of cultural literacy is impractical in many ways as a total solution, but it still has value as a possible aid in a solution to the problem of illiteracy. The fact remains that texts with foreign words, phrases, and concepts, make it harder to truly comprehend what is being read. Would not even a basic understanding of a variety of common terms make it easier understand the meaning of an author's work. This is the basic idea behind cultural literacy, and although a way to apply this idea in a way that would actually work is still in debate, one cannot help thinking that there must be some way to combine it with a traditional education. Memorization of facts alone are not enough to produce an educated person. James Paul Gee feels that there are two necessary parts to education, learning and acquisition (Gee 20). They each go hand in hand, neither complete without the other. Learning, according to Gee, deals with attaining knowledge through instruction and memorization, similar to Hirsch's proposal. However, without acquisition, a process of acquiring knowledge subconsciously by exposure, the education is not complete. Often one truly learns through acquisition, by watching and learning and by trial and error. "I initially learned to drive a car through instruction, but there after acquired, rather than learned, most of what I know (Gee 20)." Only by combining knowledge with skills, can true literacy be realized (Colomb 413).

If cultural literacy is to be taught as an accompaniment to a traditional education, it must be made into a format were the students want to learn. A class that is composed primarily of memorization of facts would be very dry, what is needed is something that gets the students involved. Shoshana Daniel Kerewsky developed such a class. She developed activities that were fun as well as educational so her students would want to learn. She made up a game based on Hirsch's list of terms. Students in the class were broken up into a number of teams.

Each team was to compile an index card for as many terms they could, writing the term on the front and required information on the back:
  1. A definition or Explanation
  2. The field from which the term derived, or its origin
  3. A reason why Hirsch would think the term was important
  4. Abbreviated citations for all materials used to find this information, keyed to separate "reference" cards which would give citations following MLA style (the subject of a previous class)

Students had four days to complete as many cards as they were able… The members of the team with the greatest number of accurate cards and different sources won paperback reference books… (Kerewsky 20).

The results of the game were all positive. Students learned how to do research, and had a new understanding of many areas that were previously foreign to them, but best of all, they enjoyed themselves while doing it. Classes featuring games such as this and other such fun educational activities would be an ideal place for students to learn what Hirsch believes everyone needs to "thrive in the world (Christenbury 14)."

Works Cited