Use V. Value: Cultural Literacy Redefined

In a stack of papers called Reading.

  • Aug
  • 07
  • 2006

What does it mean to be culturally literate today, and is such literacy useful, particularly in the absorption of information? (source)

The usefulness of cultural literacy depends on whose definition or classifications of cultural literacy we refer to and the culture under question. Pop culture in society at large contains a different cultural literacy than that required for the student culture on my campus.

Hirsch’s ideas about cultural literacy are not bloody useful to my students at all. Understanding references to many other things present far more useful possibilities:

Kobe Bryant
(“Dude, whatever you do this weekend, don’t pull a Kobe!”)
ethnic heritage figures
(the importance of understanding their personal background)
pop music lyrics and artists
(that Peaches song from Lost In Translation as an appropriate symbol of Siddhartha’s involvement with Kamala)
social networking sites
(while learning how to use a new site: “It’s another MySpace”; while on vacation: “That’s a total MySpace picture!”)
any number of local events
(students staged a walkout last year and have already refered mockingly to those students who were uninformed about the reasons behind the walkout)

For my students to go through the reading necessary to make sense out of the idea that The Scarlet Letter is my albatross is not useful nor is it worth their time. This is especially true in light of the fact that I should be a better judge of my audience than to use that phrasing when addressing a group of people who have never heard the name Coleridge, let alone are familiar enough with his work to get the allusion (unless they happen to be Iron Maiden fans).

It also depends on what information we absorb.

Is It Valuable?

Today’s definition of cultural literacy involves more than Hirsch originally penned. It involves a combination of events, literature, locations, and plain old zeitgeist. The dominant culture in America reads very little literature. Things like The New Yorker and classic British authors are geared toward specialized audiences, not the dominant culture. As far as reading habits go, the dominant culture appears rapidly developing into internet readers, those who turn to Google News for information consumption and YouTube for entertainment, MySpace for personal connections and Hotmail for correspondence. Glances at blog creation stats, a collection of Pew survey results, and Technorati go a long way to substantiate this opinion of mine.

With that kind of reading so popular, where’s the value in understanding a T.S. Eliot allusion if none are made? Further, what’s the value in understanding such an allusion if all it does is add a slight shade of complexity to the message? If the ideas are comprehensable without understanding the allusion, doesn’t that render the allusion useless to some degree?

The title of six5guy’s entry, “The value of cultural literacy,” hints at the argument behind both his writing and my writing, to which he (in part) responded. That Trent read Hirsch’s book on cultural literacy online and makes ready reference to Wikipedia present a component of cultural literacy missing from the discussion so far. It’s something that even Hirsch, in his explanation of the theory behind his dictionary, omits.

Friday: An Unfortunate Truth

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