Are You Culturally Literate?

Is this what every American needs to know?

Posted May 24, 2011

James Franco GiftedHere is a short test of your cultural literacy.  Are you able to place the following terms in context?

absolute zero, Alamo, Billy the Kid, carpetbagger, El Greco, Faust (title), gamma rays, Homestead Act, Iago, Icarus, jazz, lame duck, manna from heaven, nom de plume, penis envy, rococo, sea legs, tabula rasa, Valhalla, Battle of Waterloo, Zeitgeist

First, a quick question: How many items do you think Paris Hilton, Snooki, or James Franco would know?  I don't know about Paris or Snooki, but I have a feeling that Franco-who was a gifted kid and holds multiple graduate degrees-might know them all.

So how did you do?

I'll be honest.  When I first saw the terms, I could place most but not all of them appropriately.  And perhaps some of you might feel the same as you read this (don't feel bad, you're probably not alone).  So where did these terms come from?  They are from the back cover of E. D. Hirsch, Jr's book Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know.  They are but a sample of the roughly 5,000 plus terms that Hirsch and his colleagues have compiled, based on the agreement of more than one hundred consultants on over 90 percent of the items listed.

So who is E. D. Hirsch?  And how does he know what it means to be culturally literate?

Hirsch, a distinguished emeritus English professor at the University of Virginia, has argued that there has been a surprising rise in ignorance among the young.  And although I hate to admit it, after reading his book, I wonder if he has a point.

Let me explain.  For much of my life, I've had Google, and you have too.  And because I've felt that I could always reason my way through problems as long as I was given the appropriate information (or was able to look it up), I always thought that what really matters is the ability to problem solve, not the ability to remember a ton of facts.  What I have come to recognize is that problem solving ability is without question important, but that the core knowledge that I have makes up the resources from which I can immediately draw upon to problem solve with.

As David Lohman-a distinguished psychology professor at the University of Iowa-has pointed out, "how well we reason depends on how much we know."  I would expand this quote to read, "how well we reason and create depends on how much we know."  See my article If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent? for a discussion on the relationship between intelligence and creativity.

In other words, you can't solve problems unless you have the relevant knowledge to do so.  And sometimes this knowledge needs to be immediately present, for example, when you are reading a book or taking a standardized reading comprehension test.

So why should we care about cultural literacy?  Hirsch argues that without it, youths will be unable to function in contemporary society.  He focuses specifically on the topic of reading and makes a strong case that reading comprehension, to a large degree, depends directly on whether or not the reader has at their immediate disposal relevant knowledge of the content domain.  For example, when a writer addresses a general audience, they assume that they are addressing a common reader, that is, someone who is literate and shares with the writer a common set of knowledge and relevant associations.  According to Hirsch, what has essentially happened among the young is that many have become what I will call uncommon readers, individuals who do not possess the relevant necessary knowledge to be able to fully function in contemporary discourse.

I've never thought of myself as an illiterate person, and in many ways I'm not.  After all, I've been in school for an unthinkable portion of my life, so how could I be, right?  After reading Hirsch's book, however, I have realized with embarrassment that I probably have a lot more to learn (and even more to relearn).  I know that my generation is not ignorant, we have extensive knowledge.

But is it primarily knowledge limited to our own generation? 

paris hilton catConsider this: Why do we know intimate details about the strange personal lives of Paris Hilton and Tiger Woods?  Hirsch would say that many of us lack the information that "writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations."

Perhaps the reason cultural literacy might be most important, however, is reflected in these words from Benjamin J. Stein:

"The kids I saw (and there may be lots of others who are different) are not mentally prepared to continue the society because they basically do not understand the society well enough to value it."

So, do you think you understand American culture enough to value it?

© 2011 by Jonathan Wai

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