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Cultural Literacy

According to E.D. Hirsch


According to E.D. Hirsch, to be culturally literate is to possess the basic info
rmation to thrive in the modern world. It is the grasp on the background informa
tion that writers and speakers assume their audience already has. In his book, C
ultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch sets forth 5,000 ess
ential words and phrases of which each person should be knowledgeable. The lis
t ranges from idioms to mythology, from science to fairy tales. Why has this li
st prompted a notable debate on our countrys educational standards? E.D. Hirsch
believes that the literacy of American people has been rapidly declining. The l
ong range remedy for restoring and improving American literacy must be to institu
te a policy of imparting common information in our schools. In short, according t
o Hirsch - the answer to our problem lies within the list.
Hirschs book explains the importance of the need of a higher level of national li
teracy. His main argument is that cultural literacy is required for effective c
ommunication and the cooperation of many people... Communication is what Hirsch s
ees is essential for success in todays society. Communication is the key to equ
ality in America. With increased cultural literacy, an egalitarian society is e
ventually possible. One common body of knowledge for everyone will be the glue t
hat holds society together.
Hirsch also points out the senselessness of concepts such as multi-culturalism a
nd multi-lingualism. He acknowledges the importance of the numerous cultures and
ethnicities of which United States is comprised. Hirsch mentions the hyphenated
American: the Italo-American, the Polish-American, the Afro-American, the Asia
n-American and so forth. He points out that he is in favor of each minoritys prot
ection, nurture, and respect; however, he strongly feels that people need to dec
ide what American means on the other side of the hyphen...what national values and
traditions really belong to national cultural literacy. American cultural litera
cy should be based on our traditions -- morality of tolerance and benevolence, t
he Golden Rule, communal cooperation, altruism and freedom. It is in this way t
hat Hirsch argues those in opposition of cultural literacy. Many opponents ques
tion Hirschs view by questioning who would decide this common body of knowledge f
or everyone. People debate what is included in the list on the basis of multicult
urism. They ask, is the knowledge equally important to every citizen of the Uni
ted States no matter what race, gender or religion? Hirsch responds by putting
the emphasis on the other side of the hyphen - the American side.
When reading Hirschs book, I strongly agreed with his big picture of cultural li
teracy and agree that it is important to establish a common body of knowledge fo
r students consisting of important facts. However, I think Hirsch takes it a st
ep too far by comprising a sample list that intentionally excludes Americans tha
t are of different origin. Hirsch needs to keep in mind that the United States
was founded on the ideal that anyone and everyone should be free and equal -- no
matter where they come from or who they are. In essence - multi-culturalism is
a part of Americas foundation and I think that students should be educated on th
at ground no matter what Hirschs list says. I believe that Hirschs views regarding
multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism are completely one sided and too extreme
to be applied in todays typical American classroom.
Although it is simple to imagine the glorious outcome of a nation that is fully
literate and educated in several areas, one must look at the details. In spite
of Deweys revolutionary philosophy on education, Hirsch stands completely opposit
e. Deweys philosophy stresses the crucial role of experience in a students educat
ion and development. His system would prepare the student for life in the real w
orld -- for everyday interactions with peer and co-workers.
Hirsch criticizes methods advocated by Dewey and Rousseau by saying that a chil
d needs to learn the traditions of the particular human society and culture it is
born into....American children need traditional information at a very early age
. But what role does traditional information play in todays society? Hirsch long

s for the historic educational system of memorization. He plans for the student
to use this information when engaging in somewhat intellectual discussions and
reading materials by preparing him for the authors brief allusions and references
. For the majority of Americans who are working blue-collar jobs -- traditional
information plays virtually no role at all. The memorization of dates and names
was simply a waste of time in the classroom; their education is not being appli
ed to their lifestyles. This sort of education may be important for some people
in the United States, but not everyone can memorize dates and names, the truth
is - not everyone needs to. Therefore, I think the best kind of education will
combine the theories of Dewey and Hirsch. This could be done by involving hand
s-on experiences in addition to a lesson or lecture. Too much of either type of
education simply wont be advantageous to students once they are out of school.
I found Cultural Literacy particularly interesting because of the fact that I am
attending Colgate University, a liberal arts school. It is the mission of a l
iberal arts school to educate each student in several different areas and for ea
ch student to become knowledgeable of a core curriculum. In a sense, this is wha
t Hirsch wants for every school in the United States. From my experience, Hirs
chs perspective does have validity, but he has a tendency to underestimate the im
portance of a students interest in the learning processCoprights: Jens Shriver