An Unfortunate Truth: Cultural Literacy Redefined

In a stack of papers called Reading.

  • Aug
  • 11
  • 2006

Hirsch’s conception of “what it means to be not only just a literate American but an active citizen in our multicultural democracy” stands as a strong testament to Hirsch’s ideology. But is it valuable anymore? As our society grows ever more multicultural and multimedia (an important consideration seemingly ignored by Hirsch), do we retain all of the cultural literacy of generations past, adding to the vast pool of information all the time? Or do we go out with (some of) the old and in with the new?

Trent mentions the term “Falstaffian” as his favorite example and, quite correctly, points out that a familiarity with Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays is required to fully understand the term. Using that word illustrates my point exactly: when was the last time you used, read anyone else use, or encountered anyone else using the word Falstaffian?

I never have, unless it was during my class in community college where we covered those plays and that was quite some time ago. I’m familiar with that term and it just so happens that the Henry plays are history plays of Shakespeare’s that I can tolerate (though the Richard plays are far more interesting).

Not once have I been at a loss to describe someone and realize now that Falstaffian was the perfect word. Never in a conversation has that word come up. And I run around in English-major circles, the very type of people prone to dropping such a term at a dinner party or staff lunch. Nope. Never heard it. To push matters further, aside from six5guy’s blog entry, I don’t recall ever seeing that word in print (other than perhaps during my aforementioned community college course).

Evolve Or Die

Does all this mean that Falstaffian has fallen out of cultural literacy norms? Is that a suggestion that cultural literacy develops over time? Does cultural literacy accrue just like the English language? Do some words and/or definitions fade away entirely, becoming archaic enough that they are the equivalent of deadwood, needing to be trimmed back?

Hirsch’s dictionary is a nice idea, but it shouldn’t shine as an indelible reference. In the same way that allusions to things like Julius Caesar have faded (though there is a nice reference to it in a recent Daredevil storyline), there comes a time when the old paradigm needs to die, with new media considered and given the value it deserves. Things like Guantanamo Bay, Axis of evil, and even Desert Storm are more relevant than the need to know an obscure reference to a piece from the classic canon of DOWG literature. Scouring through Hirsch’s book, that’s the bulk of his references, exactly the old paradigm I suggest needs to lie down to long slumber.

Much like the dictionary we have all come to know and love, a cultural literacy dictionary should have new material every year and should make some effort to weed out things no longer in common usage. What is the value of a dictionary from 1806 in this modern age? Certainly, there is some value in it, but not such that it should necessarily displace all the important things that have happened in the last 200 years.

Hirsch’s book is a nice OED, but it is by no means a reference work for the education system, as was Hirsch’s original intent.

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