Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cultural Literacy: The Promise and the Reality

The term "cultural literacy," as far as I know, comes from a guy named E.D. Hirsch, who in 1987 wrote a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. It has inhabited the fringes of educational theory ever since.

To be brief, Hirsch's theory holds that the health of a society is contingent on its having intellectually curious people who have a shared foundation of cultural knowledge. Hirsch and his adherents argue that our educational system needs to establish such a foundation. They argue that in the quest to emphasize "concepts" over "trivia," we are jettisoning important facts that people "need" to know. His solution was to create a gargantuan list of stuff (from people's names to bodies of water) that he felt should be taught in schools. It is important to note that mastery of such a list isn't the end of education, but just the beginning. Once the basic knowledge is acquired, one can start to analyze and evaluate.

Hirsch's theory has been embraced by some, but overall it hasn't had much of an impact on how schools operate. Even if schools never do accept it, though, it would seem that technology is opening new possibilities for cultural literacy. People who don't understand an allusion or lack the knowledge to join a conversation can quickly bridge a gap. While reading The Great Gatsby recently, I came across a reference to a book called Simon Becomes Peter. When I first read the novel several years ago, I must have glossed over that. This time, though, I reached over to the computer and in literally seconds learned the significance of this relatively obscure novel.

However, I think this golden age of cultural literacy is highly theoretical. I would guess that most people use the Internet to solidify knowledge bases they are already proficient in, while largely ignoring the ones they aren't. I know I do. What is emerging in our culture is a possibly unprecedented development of geekdoms--we are becoming masters of a few trades and jacks of hardly any (if that makes any sense). In the old days, if you were a baseball fan, there was still a limit to how much baseball information you could consume, and there was a limit to the amount of conversation you could have about baseball. You would have been forced to at least explore some of what else was out there in the world. As an eleven-year-old, I literally watched or listened to every baseball game I could. (This isn't as absurd as it might seem today--there was no baseball on cable until I was 12, and even then I didn't have cable until I went to college). I checked out pretty much every baseball book from the public and school libraries, and I talked baseball when I could, which wasn't often considering that few people I encountered had the passion that I did. I shudder to think what would have happened had I had the Internet. Between baseball sites and message boards, would I have ever developed any other interests?

How cruelly ironic that just as we have obtained the means for average people to be self-taught "Renaissance Men," we have a culture that encourages specialization, not only in professional capacities, but in private lives as well.

You can test your cultural literacy here. Here's how I did:
Excellent--American Lit, World Lit, Quotes and Phrases, Myth and Religion, American History, and Econ/Math (my showing in that last category was a bit of a shock to me)
Good--Civics, Geography, and Life Science
Fair--Physical Science, World History, and Famous Authors (I demand a recount in the last category).
Time for Training--Art/Architecture, Music, and Technology

What are the odds that I forgo visiting comic book message boards in favor of using the Internet to study architecture?


Anonymous said...

I am a student in Mrs. Kelley's class. Please add me. Thanks

11:42 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I did those tests and now I feel kind of unintelligent.
My best ones were quotes and phrases, music, and myths and religion.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Sandwich, I think those tests are intended for adults. Give yourself a break; you've probably only been literate for a little more than ten years. Give yourself another ten years and I bet you'll be rocking the cultural literacy tests.

11:27 PM  

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