Are You Culturally Literate?

Some twenty years and more ago, while I was still at my post at a local university teaching a variety of “English”  courses to a variety of students pursuing a variety of interests,  I began to be intrigued by what I felt was a need for them to become well-versed in what was beginning to be called “cultural literacy.”

A book by philosopher Allen Bloom, appearing in print about the same time and which drew an inordinate amount of attention and controversy, was titled “The Closing of the American Mind.”  It appeared, via its primary thesis and the accompanying anecdotal and accumulated evidence, to underscore the growing awareness that mere literacy, the ability to read and write, was not adequate to be considered a fully literate person.

It was E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book “Cultural Literacy” which gave this movement a central thrust and continuing dominant present, even until today.  Hirsch, of The University of Virginia, soon developed “What Literate Americans Know:  A Preliminary List” into a series of of dictionaries and eventually a entire series of public and private school curricula based on the premise that sound cultural literacy should be a transcendent goal of education, at least through the twelfth grade.  Two fellow University of Virginia professors (Joseph E. Kett and James Trefil) collaborated with him on the Dictionary projects.

The Second Edition of the comprehensive “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,” published in 1993, already had expanded into a volume of 619 pages.  Many contributors had submitted additional entries following the publication of the first edition.  A series of dictionaries for age groups of children were developed and published under the general title,  “What Your ____________ Should Know.”

Here is the list of entries I rather quickly made that I felt ought to be added that were not in Hirsch’s the “Preliminary List.”  How would you fare in your ability to recognize and identify these topics?  Take a few minutes at least to browse through the list.  (I eventually made up a test of cultural literacy which was intended to offer a raw assessment and evaluation of the cultural literacy of high school students, perhaps at the end of the junior year. I developed a complete proposal for federal grant funding, but it unfortunately was not funded.)  OK> Here you go!

Andrews, Julie               Apres moi, le deluge                               Baby M.                         “The Band Played On” (book title)       Bauhaus                           behind the 8-ball                                  blackmail                         Boccaccio,  Giovanni                              Capote, Truman              carpe diem                                            Crane, Stephen                Dreiser, Theodore                                Durant, Will and Ariel     Fonda, Henry > Jane >                        gobbledygook                   golden parachute                                  Hammerstein, Oscar      Heloise and Abelard                              Hitchcock, Alfred            influence peddling                                 Irvin, Sam                       Jacobite                                                   Jones, Tom                      Kronkite, Walter                                    let them eat cake             monkey business                                  Murrow, Edward R.        North, Oliver                                         ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny                                                Paolo and Francesca        “The Pardoner’s Tale”                       Petrarch                            Ptolemaic Universe                              “Remembrance of Things Past” (title)                                         Serling, Rod                       Sondheim, Stephen                             Spielberg, Stephen           Steffens,  Lincoln                                Ubi sunt                             unicameral legislature                          vive le roi                                              Von Trapp family             Weltanschauung                                  white elephant                  Whitehead, Alfred North                    Wife of Bath                       Wille zur Macht                                   Wolfe, Thomas                   Wolfe,  Tom

Were I to make up such a list today,  I would remove several pretty ephemeral items (those that pass rather quickly) and  add a few others.

So, how did you do, and what do you think about “cultural literacy” as a primary goal of education,  whether taught by others or learned on your own (via reading, conversation, attending movies, and watching TV,  going to church, etc.)?

RJR

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2 Responses to “Are You Culturally Literate?”

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