Continuing my curmudgeonly kick, I decided to pick up E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  I distinctly remember my first encounter with the term “cultural literacy” in junior high or high school.  My mom suggested I buy my older sister a cultural literacy calendar for Christmas.  It seemed kind of nerdy, but not having a better idea, I went with it, and promptly ignored/forgot the term for some time.  I’m not sure when I started thinking about it again, but when I decided to join this blog, I decided to put the book on my reading list.  While it wasn’t what I was expecting, it certainly was a worthwhile read.

From what I gather, Hirsch’s book is not the most fashionable in education circles these days.  It is often maligned as a reactionary and triumphalist return to the Western canon, as a quick glance at the negative reviews on Amazon will attest.  Ironically, these reviews simply prove many of the points Hirsch makes in the book.  The basic argument can be summarized quite briefly.  Since the early part of the twentieth century, education has emphasized skills rather than content.  In so doing, even basic skills such as reading have declined.  In order to address the literacy crisis in the U.S., we must reclaim the importance of content, though not at the expense of skills.  The argument is more detailed and nuanced, but in a nutshell, that’s the basic thesis.

Hirsch makes his case drawing on a number of studies relating to reading ability and memory.  Fundamental to his thesis is the argument that reading well is not simply a matter of being able to decode the symbols and grammar of a language – though such skills are no doubt indispensable.  Rather, in order to read well, one also needs knowledge of a common cultural heritage.  All writers presume some knowledge on the part of their readers.  If they didn’t, every book, newspaper article, or blog post would be exponentially longer.  If a reader is missing the requisite cultural knowledge the author presumes, the reader will misunderstand the text.  Hirsch’s argument is that because of the emphasis on skills in education today, many students are missing this knowledge, this cultural literacy, and as a result are falling behind intellectually.  But Hirsch’s concern is not one of snobbish elitism.  Rather, he worries that widespread illiteracy will have negative economic and social consequences for the nation.

Nationalism plays a significant role in Hirsch’s thesis, though not the “rah-rah, we’re the best” sense of nationalism.  He argues that standardized languages are the result of the rise of the modern nation-state, which in turn spurred the development of national cultures.  For good or for ill, in order to thrive in society, a person has to be familiar with the nation’s culture.  This culture will obviously vary from nation to nation, but the point is that one must know one’s own culture before moving on to that of other nations.  Hirsch is thus not opposed to multiculturalism in principle.  He simply maintains that one can understand other cultures only after one has a firm grasp on one’s own.

Much has been made of the list that takes up approximately a quarter of the book.  Hirsch has been accused of advocating trivia, of elitism, of cultural imperialism, and of technological ignorance.  The last charge can be made only if one ignores the publication date of the book (1988).  The other charges stick only if one has failed to read the rest of the book.  Hirsch acknowledges the constant fluctuation of any such list, and he does not rely simply on his own expertise and that of his two colleagues who helped compile the list.  On the contrary, he and his colleagues ran the list by “more than a hundred consultants outside the academic world” (135).  The group of consultants had a diverse range of age, sex, race, and ethnicity.  Moreover, Hirsch does not advocate only superficial knowledge of this list.  Rather, he calls for both an extensive curriculum (introducing students to the basic terms needed for cultural literacy) and an intensive curriculum (in-depth study of one or two Shakespeare plays, for example).

One final word about triumphalism and cultural imperialism.  Hirsch is abundantly clear that national vocabulary (another word for the knowledge needed for cultural literacy) is in many ways arbitrary, bound up with a nation’s history.  His call for a largely Western, “white” canon* is not at all intended to denigrate the value of other peoples and cultures.  Rather, Hirsch’s point is that anyone wishing to work for change effectively in a society must be able to speak that society’s language.  On this day on which we honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is fitting to note that Hirsch holds up Dr. King as an example of someone who could speak the language of a culture and use it to work for social change.

On the whole I found Hirsch’s case compelling, though not unassailable, but this review is already too long for a blog post, so I’ll keep my criticisms/questions to myself.  Also, I promise I’m going to try to find some lighter reading for the next couple of posts.

Six down, (at least) forty-six to go.


P.S. Apparently one of the people who read the library copy before me also found Hirsch’s case compelling.  Good for him or her, but I think there’s a special circle in hell for people who write in library books. 😉

*This is not Hirsch’s own language, but rather how he is often caricatured.