Tag Archive: culture

A Plea for Content

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.

The Silence of God

“The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”

This evening I finished Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  Endo, as the translator notes in his preface, is sometimes described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and as I read the story I did notice some similarities to Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  Set in 17th century Japan, the novel follows the story of a Portuguese Christian missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues, who heads for the island with a companion despite the recent outlawing of Christianity and accompanying persecutions.

Endo paints a vivid and stark picture of the perils these missionaries and others like them faced.  To reach the island, they have to sail ashore on a beach rather than at a harbor and under the cover of dark.  The missionaries hide in a small hut in the mountains during the day and minister to the underground Christians only at night.  Travel to another underground Christian village is fraught with danger of discovery and imprisonment.  Moreover, the Japanese government offers a generous reward to those who turn in Christians – an understandable temptation to peasants living on next to nothing.  Less than half way through the novel, Rodrigues is captured, betrayed (unsurprisingly) by the very man who brought him to the island, a Japanese Christian who regularly renounces his faith to save his skin.  The rest of the novel describes how the priest wrestles with his faith, particularly in light of the suffering his arrival has brought upon the Christian peasants of Japan.

The silence of the title refers primarily to the silence of God in the face of the horrific suffering the Japanese Christians endure: some are tied to stakes in the ocean and left to die over the course of several days; others are bound and thrown into the sea to drown; another is beheaded by a samurai; and still others are tortured in “the pit,” the gruesome details of which I’d rather not go into here.  Faced with this horrific suffering, Rodrigues regularly asks God why he remains silent.  Ought he not show himself the Lord of the universe when his chosen ones are suffering at the hands of his enemies?  At the same time, the priest frequently meditates on the face of Christ, the one who also experienced the silence of God and whose beautiful face the Japanese rulers want Rodrigues to trample in an act of apostasy.  In his better moments, he sees his own suffering and that of the tiny flock in his charge as a participation in Christ’s own sufferings, but it is clear throughout the novel that his courage and conviction are challenged by his experience.  Add to this experience the weakness of his betrayer and of another Portuguese missionary, Ferreira (an actual historical figure), who apostatized and chose to collaborate with the Japanese, and the temptation to follow suit becomes practically overwhelming.

Silence is a complex, moving, and challenging novel.  As I read it, I felt torn in two directions.  On the one hand, as Rodrigues continually asked God why he remained silent, I wondered how well he had learned the gospel and counted the cost before he set out on his mission.  Jesus never said following him would be easy – on the contrary, those who would follow him can expect the same kind of treatment he received, and last I checked, crucifixion isn’t a walk in the park.  But then I asked myself, how would I have responded in the same situation?  It’s easy to accept suffering when it amounts to an annoying student here, a tedious meeting there.  If I were to witness first hand the kind of horror that Rodrigues faces, could I look it in the eye and remain strong?  I hope so, but I don’t know.

One more theme the book emphasizes is the seeming incompatibility between Christianity and Japan.  The Japanese rulers insist that Japan is a “swamp” in which the sapling of Christianity cannot grow.  William Johnston notes in the preface that Silence caused quite a stir among some contemporary Japanese Christians, who would contest this claim.  Yet I wonder if the voice of the Japanese rulers represents Endo’s own voice.  He himself was a Christian, and he portrays many of the Japanese Christians in heroic ways.  I suppose the ambiguity is one of the things I found compelling about the novel – despite its simplicity of style, the thrust of the story is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.

If you have any interest in 17th century Japan, the interface of Christianity with foreign cultures, or issues of faith, doubt, and apostasy, then I highly recommend Silence.

Five down, (at least) forty-seven to go.


Barefoot in the Canyons with Caballo Blanco

Early last fall I caught part of an interview on NPR with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.  It sounded like a fascinating book, but I filed it away in my ever-growing list of “maybe someday” books – which usually means I won’t get to it.  But then I got roped into this New Year’s resolution, and I had the perfect excuse to check it out, and am I glad I did.

The entire book sprang improbably from a simple five-word question: “How come my foot hurts?”  McDougall, a journalist who had survived innumerable extreme sports, as well as war zones and some of the most dangerous and lawless regions of Africa, was laid out by perhaps the most common of New Year’s resolutions: running.  Visits to two podiatrists yielded the same answer: your (6’4”, 230 lb.) body isn’t made for running.  In fact, the human body in general is not made for running – the pounding takes a toll on the body, especially for those large of frame.  McDougall initially accepted this common wisdom – after all, his experience backed it up.  Whenever he went running, some part of his body would break down.  But then one day while on assignment in Mexico, McDougall flipped through the pages of a travel magazine and caught a picture of a figure joyfully careening down a mountain in nothing but a cloak and sandals.  Intrigued, McDougall abandoned the story he was working on to search for the Tarahumara, a reclusive Indian people who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico and run like gazelles – or rather, as the book argues, like the finely tuned running machines that humans evolved to be.

Because of the shyness of the Tarahumara, McDougall had to track down a strange and mysterious figure who goes by the name Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, to learn about the people and their legendary running secrets.  When he finally tracks down Caballo, McDougall (and the reader) get a fascinating account of the history of the tribe, their sad, but all too common, exploitation by outsiders, and the reasons for their reclusiveness.  Along the way we also get a colorful picture of the bizarre yet intriguing world of ultimate sports, a world filled with outlandish characters who perform even more outlandish feats of athleticism in the most harrowing of conditions.  The rest of the book recounts McDougall’s efforts to help make a reality Caballo Blanco’s dream: the ultimate endurance race through the treacherous Copper Canyons pitting the Tarahumara against the best (and bravest/most foolish) American ultramarathoners.

McDougall tells the story with just the right mixture of humor, suspense, and fascinating tidbits.  The book is worth reading for the characters alone, who epitomize the saying “truth is stranger than fiction”: there’s Caballo Blanco, the mysterious gringo who left everything to live among the Tarahumara and learn their ways; “Barefoot Ted,” the barefoot running enthusiast who doesn’t know how to shut up; Billy and Jenn, the party animal ultramarathoners who will drink all night only to get up a few hours later and run 20 miles; and Scott Jurek, the king of American ultramarathoners who runs to cope with his past.  McDougall also describes several races with a flare and detail that make you feel as though you’re there.  He intersperses the main story with accounts of the design of running shoes (which really took off in the 1970s, along with running injuries) and scientific studies about why humans evolved into the best distance runners in the animal kingdom.  A few tidbits: what’s the purpose of our gluts?  Our posteriors, generously sized compared to those of chimps, serve as a counterbalance to keep us from tipping over from the forward momentum of running.  Why the Achilles tendon?  It acts like a rubber band, generating kinetic energy and enabling us to keep running for hours on end.  What’s the most efficient way to hunt down an animal in the wild?  It ain’t the bow and arrow.  Rather, it’s something called “persistence hunting,” running an animal down for hours until it dies from overheating.

There’s so much more that I could go into: the simple beauty of Tarahumara culture, the odd concoctions runners drink to keep them going, the numerous brushes with death that many of the runners face.  Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book for me is McDougall’s descriptions of running in general and of the Tarahumara in particular.  What first struck McDougall in the picture he saw, and what strikes everyone in the book who sees the Tarahumara run, is the sheer joy on their faces.  Running for them is not a chore or a punishment – it’s something they were born to do, and indeed, McDougall argues, something we were all born to do.  Every five-year-old knows this, but, sadly, it gets beaten out of most of us somewhere along the way to adulthood.  McDougall’s book may change that for you – it certainly did for me.  Although it is unlikely that I’ll be signing up for any ultramarathons in the near future, thanks to McDougall I do hope to rediscover the joy of running.

Two down, (at least) fifty to go.


PS Be sure to check out McDougall on The Daily Show (haven’t figured out how to embed videos yet):

Daily Show Born to Run