Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cultural Illiteracy

In the last article, I wrote about numerical illiteracy which is called innumeracy. In continuing this series on illiteracy, we’ll focus on something called cultural illiteracy. As an aside, I want to make clear that I’m not using the term illiteracy in a negative sense. No person is completely literate in all fields of human knowledge. This series is meant for us, myself included, to understand those areas of our lives that can be changed to help us live a fuller life.

This next topic, cultural illiteracy, does not refer to being misinformed about other cultures but rather being misinformed about one's own culture. The concept of cultural illiteracy was first brought to our attention by English professor, E.D. Hirsch in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. For Americans, culturally literacy includes a vast multitude of information from the mundane such as understanding street signs to the more remarkable works of Shakespeare.

To be literate as an American means being able to interact with these aspects of our culture and speak accurately about it. Cultural literacy doesn’t mean you are an expert on Shakespeare. It does mean you have a somewhat familiar understanding of who he was, what he did and some of his more famous quotes.

Many people think that cultural literacy means being fluent with literary classics that have historically been part of a liberal education. Not so, says Dr. Hirsch, because literacy can even embrace a wide range of trivia including current slang words and phrases. In our high tech culture this means we understand such words such as Twitter, blog, and smart phone -- alongside knowing who Julius Caesar was. Cultural literacy is not only knowing what a word means but also being able to use it correctly in conversation with others.

Not being aware of current events is one of the hallmarks of cultural illiteracy. If you have ever watched Jay Leno’s Jay Walk, you know that an astonishing number of people cannot recognize a picture of the Vice President of the United States. Some younger Americans are notorious for avoiding newspapers, weekly news magazines and books such as novels and biographies. It’s the avoidance of resources about the world around us that pushes us towards cultural illiteracy.

Dr. Hirsch believes that culturally literacy is the bedrock of a democratic society. A democracy depends on its citizens to make choices about how they want their country run and who is to run it. This means it is important for people in a democracy to effectively communicate with one another. As you know, communication is impossible without a shared body of knowledge. You have probably been frustrated by trying to talk with someone who had no background to understand what you were trying to say. The question arises, "How can we talk to one another without a shared background of basic information?" Because America has such a strong component of cultural illiteracy, we no longer talk to each other -- we yell, we call names, we instruct, but we don't listen.

The more people who are culturally illiterate, the more fragmented our society becomes. Maybe one of the reasons our country is so politically polarized is that so many people don’t know much, if anything, about our founding fathers. What were some of the issues Jefferson and Madison talked about? Why was John Adams so important in the production of our Constitution? If all our political information comes from talking heads whose only purpose is to promote a specific agenda (or as they say, to "entertain"), then we wind up basing our political decisions on someone else's biased opinions rather than facts.

Cultural literacy is about more than being able to read and write. It involves learning and having a fund of knowledge that is imbedded within out culture. For example to be a culturally literate person one might need to know about important documents such who wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail. What is important about the date 1776? What does the figure of speech "nose to the grindstone" mean? What is DNA? Who was John Brown?

By this time you might object that the search for cultural literacy is nothing more than mere rote learning of historical trivia and meaningless facts. This is something educators are trying to move away from, you say. Aren’t educators trying to use new teaching methods based on experiential learning and critical thinking? You would be correct to bring this up. However, I don’t think it has to be a forced choice.

Having new learning tools doesn’t automatically eliminate any old ones that are still of value. When Einstein introduced relativity to science, Newtonian science was and is still legitimate. When science then moved to using even newer tools such as quantum mechanics, it did not throw out the tools from Newton and Einstein.

Likewise, we should continue using experiential learning and critical thinking in the educational process. This does not mean we then need to become culturally ignorant. But doesn’t this mean there will be too much material for people to learn? Information has exploded so quickly, people have barely enough time to keep up. Wouldn’t teaching cultural literacy just take valuable time away from our other ongoing, personal educational goals (our personal education is never finished)? Why is cultural literacy so important?

Past president of the American Federation of Teachers,
Ed McElroy, says that if our society "made sure that all students, regardless of race, income, or neighborhood, were exposed to a rich, challenging, sequenced curriculum in important subjects, schools could make a much bigger difference than they already do."

In other words, we need to teach more than learning how to read (a "mechanical process", Dr. Hirsch calls it). Reading needs to be within a context that is "content-rich." A significant portion of people in our culture lives without a fund of basic knowledge. This keeps them from functioning more effectively because they do not understand what is often being said. For example, let’s say you are a sports fan and you hear someone tell you that the local team has risen phoenix-like from last place to taking the conference championship. Does this sentence have anything to do with the city of Phoenix, Arizona? Was the person talking about the graduating players going on to play for the University of Phoenix? Was a subtle reference being made about NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander? A basic understanding of Greek mythology would have immediately made sense of this comment. The phoenix was a mythical bird that died every thousand years by being burned to death and then reborn from the ashes. The reference to "phoenix-like" now obviously means the local team rose like the phoenix from the ashes of defeat to a new life of a winning championship.

Or take another example. A friend of yours says that a mutual friend is a woman who "doth protest too much." Why would a person use such strange language? Whatever does this mean? If one knew this was a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the meaning would become apparent. First of all, the word "protest" meant something different in Shakespeare’s day than it does ours. When we use the word today we are talking about denying or objecting to something. In Shakespeare’s day to protest meant to make a vow or make a solemn declaration. This expression in the play meant that when the Player Queen made vows or declarations, they were so over the top that she lost all credibility to her listeners.

Although many people may have heard the words
"phoenix" or "protest," understanding the meanings of these words requires that fund of basic knowledge we've been referring to, a "common point of reference." Only when we understand the meaning of the words that are used within our culture can we understand one another.

For some people, reading is difficult for a number of reasons. For others the skill is just unfamiliar and we know that most of us would rather not do unfamiliar things that make us uncomfortable. Yet, as we all know, the more we do something unfamiliar, the more familiar it becomes. We become more culturally literate by not only reading more but also by reading about things we don’t know much about. As we become more knowledgeable, reading will seem less like a chore and more like something that brings us pleasure.

If you are wondering how culturally literate you are, you can check this out at a website that allows you to test your cultural literacy. Testing your cultural literacy has nothing to do with your intelligence or education. It is a way of finding out the gaps in your cultural awareness. It is only when we become aware of our deficiencies can we begin to take action to improve ouselves. This website can open up new avenues of ideas and information for you to find out about. You can find out your cultural strengths and weaknesses privately at a website called
The Literacy Company.

If you are interested in helping children become more culturally literate, you can look at Dr. Hirsch’s
Core Knowledge Series of books that he began as a project in 1997. It includes books for all children between Kindergarten and Sixth Grade. Each book includes the knowledge that a child at a specific grade level needs to know as she or he begins their journey towards cultural literacy. My guess is that reading these books with your child will also help you fill in your own gaps. If you are a parent who home schools your children you will find these books an invaluable reference.

For adults who want to improve themselves in this area, Dr. Hirsch has written, with two colleagues,
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Each chapter in this dictionary is devoted to a specific topic such as "Idioms," "Technology," "Mythology and Folklore." Amusingly, Micky Mouse is an entry in the Mythology and Folklore chapter. This book can be used by all adults for increasing awareness of the culture in which they live and living that cultural richness on a daily basis.

To become culturally literate can mean more than being familiar with the now but also with our past. So much of who we are as a people and how we think can be easily traced to civilizations from thousands of years ago. Finding the connections between these ancient peoples and our world of today can be fascinating and mind-expanding. Most of us know that a thumbs up for a movie is meant to tell us that we would probably like that movie. However, in ancient Rome a thumbs up meant a gladiator was now condemned to death. Much of our language and thought patterns germinated in Greek and Roman culture. Finding these origins helps us to find our roots. Here are some books you can think about if you would like to expand your awareness of who you are and where you came from.

The next article in our illiteracy series will take a look at scientific illiteracy. This is important not only from a curiosity standpoint. We live in the age of science. In the long history of humanity, it was only "yesterday" that science began to change our ability to more fully understand our world. It also gave us the means to have more control over our world. It is a tool for satisfying our curiosity, tackling difficult problems, and letting us experience the awe and wonder of this strange and mysterious universe in which we live.

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