The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
The Graywolf Annual Five, Multi-Cultural Litearcy: Opening the American Mind
January is the cruellest month for many of us: the little faces look up, full of post-Christmas triste, and they start asking the hard questions: "How did he get back up the chimney?" and "If the reindeer made the sleigh fly, does that mean they're bionic?" and even "How come the Air Force never shoots him down? Doesn't he show on the radar?" Like Flat Earth believers watching the first satellite pictures of a round earth, they turn to us for answers. But where do we turn?
E.D. Hirsch has one answer in his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Not a very thoughtful answer, perhaps, nor a profound one; not searching, learned, or reflective--but then, it's not meant to be. He offers us the basic, need-to-know briefing. He refers us to Clement Moore's well-known poem, on which our conventional Santa is based, and summarizes the "myth of Santa Claus" as follows: "that he is a fat man dressed in a fur-trimmed suit, carries presents in a sack, enters houses through the chirnney, and travels through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer."
Purists might object that in Moore's poem Santa's sleigh does not fly; eight tiny reindeer travel along the snow, leaping to the roof only to provide access to the chimney. But Hirsch lays no claim to purism, or poetry; the popular, agreed-upon image is that Santa's sleigh, pulled by reindeer, flies through the sky-- and that is what Hirsch gives us.
For the issue of misreading a seminal text, go to Harold Bloom; for the saint whose charitable actions gave rise to the legend, read The Lives of the Saints. For the rituals of gift-giving which define the American Christmas read Margaret Mead; and for Santa's symbolic significance read the semioticians. The Santa of Norman Rockwell, FAO Schwartz, and the Salvation Army are mere variations on the essential core of the myth, and for that bare common denominator, that information that "every American needs to know," we go, Hirsch would urge, to his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
The concept of cultural literacy is not exactly a new one: Hirsch formulated the concept in 1983 in The American Scholar after years of exploratory work. The article aroused interest among a small cluster of committed intellectuals, but it was Hirsch's expanded version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, that crossed the boundary dividing works of scholarly interest from best-sellerdom. Not only theoreticians, but actual people by the hundreds of thousands bought the book in hardcover to read Hirsch's famous list of 5000 items that "every American needs to know."
Literacy became the chic topic that year playing the same apocalyptic role in the popular press as AIDS had done the year before, and nuclear winter the year before that. The literacy battle raged as theory jostled methodology, and canon threatened "skills." Major universities re-examined their curricula, and kindergarteners were tracked for "reading readiness." Between E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, nobody could escape the message that literacy as we knew it was going the way of the Dodos.
What is "cultural literacy" that it should arouse such interest? Hirsch is not concerned with the "functional literacy" problem-- the inability to decode a Help Wanted advertisement, a job application, a restaurant menu. Nor is he concerned with the upper end of the scale, the concept of "education" in the sense that the President of Harvard College uses the terms when each spring he welcomes a new graduating class into "the company of educated men and women." Hirsch writes as a sociologist, noting the existence of a certain essential minimum of knowledge about the operations of the world in general, of our society, our history, our literature. It is knowledge of this essential minimum which he calls cultural literacy.
"Cultural literacy" is far shallower, but also wider, than the knowledge imparted in a college course. It is, in fact, not so much knowledge as a sense of familiarity with the common material of day-to-day life. When, for example, a newspaper editorialist contends contemptuously that the President is wearing the emperor's new clothes, he does not assume that his readers have recently read Hans Christian Andersen's fable, nor that they are familiar with the background of Andersen's political satire, but only that they share a consciousness of a certain image; a naked emperor uneasily aware that his clothes are imaginary, and a confused populace not daring to mention the obvious truth.
Hirsch's contention is that we no longer share this common fund of familiar references; the pool into which an earlier generation all dipped in common is common no longer. Young high school graduates do not have the grasp implied in such texts as newspaper editorials and magazine articles; and, he argues, it is this lack of background knowledge rather than a lack of technical reading skills which dooms this new generation to inadequacy in their efforts to handle the day-to-day instruments of communication.
Up to this point Hirsch's argument received resounding approval and heartfelt agreement from the vast community of teachers and employers dealing with the young people in question; it was the list itself that split his readers into factions. Cationists seized on the list as an exceptionally detailed core curriculum, while advocates of "skills" over contents, process over product, condemned Hirsch for defining literacy as information mastery.
Feminists argued that the list slighted women, and members of minority groups noted the emphasis on white, male, European achievements. The Graywolf Press devoted an entire volume to the subject: Multi-Cultural Literacy: Opening the American Mind. Graywolf Press's 1988 annual was devised as a response to the perceived elitism of E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom: the annual collects essays of blacks, hispanics, feminists, and a Japanese-American, all exploring the heterogeneity of American culture and arguing, in their diverse ways, for the adoption of a much more culturally varied list than Hirsch's. The volume includes a list of 600 multi-ethnic items lacking from Hirsch's original list (although a number of them made it in to the expanded list of the Dictionary).
Hirsch's supporters and detractors, canonists and "skills" teachers alike, are largely in agreement with his underlying argument, that there is a list somewhere comprising the material essential to the minimally literate person. Hirsch's own list may be-- must, by its very nature, be--faulty, but some Platonic List nonetheless exists, and while we may not teach it by the same methods, we all nonetheless agree that, by process or content, we hope, to see our students gain mastery of it. Underlying the differences is a deeply-felt commitinent to the notion that learning is precious, that the process of learning is a pleasure, and that the pains are worth the gratification.
Do our students feel this way as well--do they wish to join the ranks of the culturally literate? Have they heard of the List and if they have, do they want it? We have neglected to consider these questions, assuming in our innocence that the desire to learn which strengthened us during the inevitable longueurs of schooling animates our students as well. But are we justified in believing that our students come to school to be educated-to be transformed, by our efforts and their own, into educated men and women?
It is with this question that we run into difficulties, for students may have very different thoughts on the subject, thoughts which they do not necessarily share with us-- inter-generational communication is not a skill which ranks high on their individual Lists-- but thoughts which, nonetheless, they adhere to with a tenacity worthy of a better cause.
Let us abandon theory, temporarily, and consider what our students say on those occasions when they abandon the absorbing pursuits of late adolescence to enter the classroom and encounter the perplexing language and customs of adult literacy.
In 1986 I was teaching Rhetoric at a small Catholic college in New England; here I encountered for the first time the population about whom Hirsch writes. These were the students who cannot identify Aristotle, Chiang Kai-shek, or Margaret Thatcher; who cannot find Mexico on a map, or surmise in what century the Civil War was fought.These young people were no longer asking questions about the aerodynamics of Santa's sleigh or, indeed, any questions at all. The time had long since passed when they believed that any adult knew anything worth learning.
The class explored themes of revolution in literature, though without the lively interest they might have evinced in bionic reindeer. And here we found ourselves in great difficulty: while my students had doubtless been taught, about the American Revoitition, and maybe others as well, this information didn't help them understand what they were reading: they lacked the concept of an historical period--a sequence of years or decades in which ideas and events precipitate each other causally. The notion that ideas could cross from Europe to America and back again was as ludicrous to them as the thought that tenth grade (American History) could interpenetrate twelfth (Modem World) or that Civics could interact with Social Studies. In short, they had no access to what they had leamed; in Hirsch's terms, they could not bring past schemata to bear actively upon the new material that was presented to them.
And, while they did not object to reexamining the familiar material which they occasionally encountered in an English survey course, there was a genuine sense of intimidation at unfamiliar material, as I discovered during a revelatory classroom discussion.
Some time that week my students would be writing papers exploring the value of a high school education. We were talking about Paul Goodman's definition of high schools as halfway houses for the mentally deranged,when it became clear that they also didn't know the word "deranged." My efforts to explain were complicated by the fact that most of the students didn't recognize the word "mad" as meaning anything but "angry"; it took a good deal of time for them simply to understand what Goodman was saving.
At long last, Goodman's insult to adolescent intellect reached its target, and something in the nature of an explosion took place.Students who had hitherto demonstrated the articulateness of turnips became garrulous; hockey players who had snored happily through weeks of class woke up in indignation. Their resentment was addressed not at the epithet of "mentally deranged," but rather at the complexity of language which made him, and me, difficult to understand. They demanded, in effect, that their college work be adjusted to their level of vocabulary; my suggestion that in college one acquired a larger vocabulary they unanimously rejected. "If you people," one student explained, lumping Goodman and myself together,"would talk like average people, then we wouldn't need all those extra words."
The language used by that community of educated men and women which, theoretically, they aspired to join, was not a real language to these students-- certainly not a language which they wished to use, or even to understand. It was extra words, unnecessary difficulty, mere showing off. We had simplified the world for them in their youth, and as they approached maturity they imagined that this was the way of the world.
It is this audience-- young high school graduates--that Hirsch discusses in Cultural Literacy, and this is the audience whom he seeks to reach in the Dictionary. Hirsch and his co-authors have created a reference work for them, to bridge the gap between their abysmal ignorance and that minimai awareness of the world which he calls literacy.
But how will the youths familiar to us from countless anecdotes of the literacy battlefield responded to such a book? How would my former students, with indigant protestations at the thought of widening their vocabulary or frame reference, respond to it?
This we have yet to learn, for of all the vocal individuals who have plunged enthusiastically into the Great Literacy Debate, the young have been conspicious by their absence. The mass of articles, television debates, letters to the editor, and revised curricula come from parents, teachers, administrators, and educational theorists. Where are the beleaguered teenagers whose abilities were the focus of the debate? They are silent. "Of course they are," we might note sardonically, "They don't know how to write," Or even, "They don't know how to read." More likely, they do not know what the point at issue is.
Will they buy the Dictionary? Will they hunt down the origins of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and trace Santa's route up the chimney? Will they seek this avenue to cultural literacy? I doubt it. Deeply enmeshed in the complex web of their own Lists, intimately versed in the minutiae of pop stars, sports figures, and automotive engineering, they gather from time to time in fastfood restaurants, or shopping mall parking lots, to shake their heads sadly over the abysmal ignorance of their parents and teachers. With sage nods and sympathetic groans they lament our suipidity in matters of genuine significance, and contemplate with satisfaction that brilliant and enticing world which we, too, inhabited at eighteen, but which we have left behind.
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