More Definitions: Cultural Literacy Redefined

In a stack of papers called Reading.

  • Aug
  • 04
  • 2006

On a recent “Today” episode, a commentator discussed Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic commentary. “There are some folks who want to Dixie Chick Mel Gibson.” That requires some background information in popular media (read as: cultural literacy).

Pop Media As Cultural Literacy

This type of background understanding is used more commonly than an understanding of references to canonical literature or ancient world history events. Perhaps references made during entertainment “news” segments represent American culture at large and hold some kind of key to modern cultural literacy.

As meaningless as you may think this type of information is, that’s exactly how a majority of teenagers (and perhaps even a majority of the nation) feels about E.D. Hirsch’s conception of cultural literacy. And at least pop media cultural literacy provides some immediate use; just about every television program makes at least one of these types of references, where a student may wait weeks or months in order to bring an understanding of Shakespeare to bear on modern events.

What’s Left Behind

Reaching yet another component left out of the discussion, the society we live in today is radically different than even 10 years ago. As technology becomes a more prominent feature, schools that want to prepare teenagers for life in any career field need to promote familiarity with computer systems.

As society moves in new directions, how much of the old culture is necessary to hang on to in order to make sense out of the world? In a similar way that an understanding of conduct required around royalty was a necessary skill that’s disappeared (specifically in America, but elsewhere as well), is it necessary that a lawyer understand your reference to Lord of the Flies when describing court proceedings? Is it necessary for your dentist to acknowledge your Canterbury Tales reference when telling about last weekend’s social event?

Culture And Literacy?

I always assume that the general purpose of cultural literacy is to allow for maximum comprehension of ideas contained within that culture (at least) and the whole world (at most). The cultural literacy of one population is almost necessarily different than another.

Further muddying the waters, the definition of “culture” and “literacy” popped up from time to time in my thinking on this issue.

With the term cultural literacy, are we speaking of America, which has a very different culture than that of, say, Japan? The state of California, which has a very different culture than that of, say, Michigan? The city of Berkeley, which has a very different culture than that of, say, Beverly Hills? And are we speaking of knowledge that’s necessary to understand common allusions? Obscure allusions? Allusions that were made 50 years ago during someone’s privileged attendance at Harvard or Yale?

Culture, to me, means the body of society immediately involved. My students form a society on campus, as do the teachers, but those are two completely different societies. Do we each have our own cultural literacy? Certainly the reference to Skinner wouldn’t go unnoticed by a teacher, to be considered a put down rather than a compliment. That same reference, if made to my students, would evoke images of the principal on The Simpsons (coincidentally, that’s exactly the reason the show is so brilliant) and may not be met with the same kind of scorn.

Literacy in this case, far more allusive a term to pin down, means knowledge needed to get by and make sense out of the majority of conversations you’ll find yourself in and the majority of reading you’ll do. As such, that literacy is different for science majors, who likely need to be able to understand references to both Alfred Wallace and Stephen Hawking, and auto mechanics, who need to be well versed in Chilton and the history of Mopar. Neither is worse off than the other, but failure to recognize that essential difference is a failure to understand the implications of cultural literacy.

I do not know who Dmitri Mendeleev is or Maxwell’s equations. Both of these are listed by Hirsch as necessary for cultural literacy (they are in the “Physical Science and Mathematics” chapter). Do I really need to? Are Mendeleev and Maxwell truly part of a “common cultural knowledge“?

Is there a touch of the elite about how Hirsch has decided to define this term? Is it time to create an update that takes into account certain factors that Hirsch has overlooked (like the fact that DOWG literature isn’t good literature in and of itself; that things don’t need to be known simply because they were taught “in the good old days, when an education used to mean something”)? To say that Whitman is worth teaching simply because it’s Whitman is no reason. Likewise with much of what Hirsch lists. Where’s the use and value? For what culture and what literacy?

Monday: Use V. Value

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