Monday, May 11, 2015

Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch

I had to get Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch after I read The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them. This book lays down his theory about early education focusing more on learning information along with skills and eschewing the idea that skills are enough. 

In the early chapter of modern American public education, reformers believed that all that was necessary to learn was to teach children the skills they would need. So educators taught all-purpose reading and writing skills believe the content of the literature to be unimportant. In fact, they actually rejected the idea that subject matter mattered in 1893 with a report titled, “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.”

The result has been a huge drop in what Hirsch calls Cultural Literacy. This is the information we all just take for granted that most of us know. This cultural literacy is inseparable from the ability to communicate and therefore inseparable from democracy itself. Without shared knowledge, we cannot hope to be self-governing. He defines cultural literacy as being between those most basic of skills and knowledge absolutely necessary to survive, but well below an expert’s knowledge. So we understand that most of us know something about say, the Civil War, but most of us are not experts about every battle and its outcome. It is the ability to assume this modest amount of knowledge that allows us to communicate using a kind of code without having to resort to pedantic language with every cultural reference. 

He describes some very interesting research showing that while we read, we not only decode the words, but we fill them with background knowledge. Researchers found that even with relatively simple language, if the subject of a piece was unfamiliar to the reader, he found it difficult to understand. One particularly interesting example was given of how to do laundry. But even though the language was fairly straightforward (First you arrange the items in different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient...) without the subject-identifying title “Washing Clothes” most had no idea what the paragraph was about. Reading skills alone were clearly not enough. Background knowledge was necessary to make sense of the piece of writing. The conclusion was that people who lack cultural literacy will view almost all writing and literature as hopelessly confusing. As a result, they will feel disheartened and give up. In fact, it seems that skills alone are rarely or never transferable. Cultural literacy is necessary to understanding anything. 

In early American history, we understood this. We had books such as Hugh Blair’s Rhetoric. Although Scottish by birth, when he compounded his book of necessary knowledge, he failed to include a single Scot. He was scrupulous in deciding what was culturally necessary to survive and sentiment had no place. Since his book was not updated with new cultural knowledge, it became obsolete. Finally the idea of cultural literacy went out of fashion, and here we are. We now find ourselves in a difficult place because we have few resources to turn to if we wanted to. Where is our modern Rhetoric?

It is interesting to read the Founders or even Martin Luther King’s speeches and see how much cultural literacy they assumed. It was common to obliquely or even obviously reference other works like the Bible or Roman philosophers with the general assumption that the reader would instantly recognize the source. Hirsch believe schools are the best way to transmit the cultural literacy we need to survive as a nation and regain what we have lost. 

He believes the list of things all students should know should be extensive, but not exhaustive. While “Shakespeare” should definitely be on there, along with some superficial familiarity with some of his plays, which specific play should be studied would be up to individual schools and districts. And the information should be passed on as early as possible. Every opportunity to make children culturally literate should be seized. He gives examples like The Adventures of Ulysses written for very young children as a way to start early. All texts from kindergarten on must convey much more factual information and traditional lore.

The dangerous notion that cultural literacy is “mere facts” has rendered an entire generation culturally illiterate. They are at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to moving forward in society. 

Hirsch has started a company and written several books to further his ideas. This book was written in 1987. I hope we have incorporated some of his ideas, because they are good and exciting!

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