Definitions: Cultural Literacy Redefined

In a stack of papers called Reading.

  • Jul
  • 31
  • 2006

Where is the value in being on a first name basis with William Shakespeare today? Is it important for a painter to be familiar with Schrodinger’s cat? E.D. Hirsch wrote an essay on the theory behind his cultural literacy dictionary in which he states: “achieving high universal literacy ought to be a primary focus of educational reform in this country.” I can only see that as a primary focus if the information is useful and valuable. I believe that much of what Hirsch lays out in his work stems from the old paradigm of education, one that promotes stagnation in what and who is taught, pushing the same authors, stories, theorists, and points of view on students decade after decade. This doesn’t hold much relevance for the world outside of academia.

It’s 2006. If you don’t know the term “dot com,” you are not culturally literate. If you don’t know the term “Falstaffian,” I think you might be ok. Both terms require some background knowledge to fully appreciate, but one is clearly more relevant than the other. Isn’t it?

On, a Web site acting as a filter in an information saturated world, Trent makes some interesting points about cultural literacy: the need for it, the depth of required knowledge, and the point of diminishing returns. It’s a post that really got me thinking about the whole idea of cultural literacy.

That’s a term I’ve kicked around in these entries from time to time and that influences my daily teaching in one way or another. But the question always resurfaces: am I presenting to my students information that is either useful or valuable for them? Is Faulkner useful or valuable simply because it’s Faulkner? Teachers often teach material simply because it’s available to them. You all know that material because it’s what your teachers taught you in high school, lo so many years ago. Just because it was taught in the past, does that make it useful or valuable now?

Useful Or Valuable?

At first, distinguishing between “use” and “value” may appear to be a semantic issue not worth squabbling over. Staring at an early version of this post, the clear realization hit me that the two terms are not interchangeable here.

What is the use of cultural literacy? What is the value of it? One question asks how the knowledge can be applied. The other asks why it’s worth doing so.

Of course, this all depends on the application of such literacy. In an academic setting, the setting in which Hirsch originally intended cultural literacy to be propagated, Hirsch’s cultural literacy may be dreadfully useful. Unless you’re in engineering (or art or business or physical education or anything else other than English and social studies), in which case the majority of it might be dreadfully dull.

However, unless the application is preparing for some further stage in life beyond the immediate assignment, it’s not very valuable no matter what culture you’re in. The more long range the application of the knowledge, the more valuable it is. Knowledge for knowledge sake isn’t a valuable thing necessarily.

Should you know a lot about a few things or a little about a lot of things? I’d bet your answer to that question would go a long way in determining the value of cultural literacy for you.

There’s a piece about “quality of life” that I can’t figure a way to factor into all this, though. I am certainly a big believer in knowing more rather than less. I’m also a big believer in the idea that the more understanding about the world a person has, the more sense the world makes and the more pleasing it is to live in this world. It’s hard to argue for education that simply makes one more well rounded, but it’s so necessary. In no small part, that’s also a function of the value of cultural literacy, those added dimensions and depth to an understanding of the world.

Because an understanding of John Steinbeck might add to a trip through Salinas, is that enough of a reason to teach him, on the off chance that it just might enlighten you on some random road trip later in life? And if you never take that trip to California or the Salinas area, is reading John Steinbeck (I’m thinking of Cannery Row here) a complete waste of your time?

Friday: More Definitions


1. six5guy says:

[8/1/2006 - 5:29 am]

[…] A few days ago, I discussed the value of cultural literacy in the modern era and concluded that, indeed, cultural literacy is still relevant. In response to this, Todd Seal made a relevant point: what exactly is useful or valuable about cultural literacy? It requires a distinctive context; one needs to clearly define the culture that one wishes to become literate in. Merely saying that one is “culturally literate” is not enough; one needs to define the culture that one is literate in. In other words, I define cultural literacy as the ability to comprehend the context of a given culture. […]

2. marina says:

[3/24/2008 - 1:11 pm]

what do you must mean in the 21st century to be fully literate??

3. emily says:

[9/6/2008 - 11:14 am]

this makes no sense try to explain it better

4. Todd says:

[9/6/2008 - 12:19 pm]

emily, all I’m saying here is that cultural literacy should be defined in terms of what’s worth knowing, what the value is in having that knowledge.

What is the use of cultural literacy? What is the value of it? One question asks how the knowledge can be applied. The other asks why it’s worth doing so…. Knowledge for knowledge sake isn’t a valuable thing necessarily.

This means that cultural literacy has likely changed dramatically and doesn’t include much of the Western Canon anymore because it is increasingly irrelevant.

5. tabby says:

[9/22/2008 - 9:51 pm]

can u explain in people words? i dont get it.