Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Source of book: Lent to me by Peter Wonderly

For those of my friends and/or followers who know Peter, he is one of the best educated persons I know, either in spite of or because of his colorful history. Peter has devoted a significant portion of his life attempting to impart education to continuation students, a seemingly hopeless job.

I would venture to say he lent me this book because he figured I would be one of the few in his acquaintance to truly care about cultural literacy and its decline. If that was the case, he was correct.

This book discusses, obviously, cultural literacy. The author defines this as the body of knowledge which educated (that is, literate) adults know and take for granted in everyday speech and writing that others know as well. For example, in a typical newspaper article, the author assumes that the reader is familiar with the three branches of government here in the United States. Unfortunately, these assumptions are increasingly incorrect as applied to the population at large.

Hirsch identifies this decline in literacy, this decline in shared knowledge enabling communication, as stemming from an educational philosophy first articulated by Rousseau. (Note at this point that I have assumed that my readers are familiar with Rousseau. And with the concept of educational philosophy.) This idea was that education should not be the memorization of a set list of facts, but rather the learning of the process of learning. This was popularized in the United States by John Dewey in the form of an educational emphasis on learning the mechanics of reading, critical thinking, etc., with the idea that learning these abstract skills will then translate to the ability to learn the facts in any area of knowledge.

Hirsch argues persuasively that the facts themselves are necessary to even learn, much less use, the raw skills. Particularly in the area of reading, the mechanics of understanding the words is less useful than understanding what the words mean in the context of the culture. A reference to Shakespeare will only confuse a reader who can recognize the word, but not the man or the concepts evoked by him.

So far, this idea, although perhaps radical in our time, is well defended by Hirsch. I certainly find myself in his camp on this issue. Critical thinking and reading with comprehension are so tied up with the background facts that both need to be developed simultaneously. I find myself in my conversations with my children having to focus on the basic building blocks of knowledge. We have laid some basic foundations in biology, physics, and chemistry in order to discuss the world around us. This applies to my 5 year old as much as to my 8 year old. Electricity is mysterious unless the structure of the atom is understood.

Where I tend to part ways with Hirsch is in two vital areas. First, what is the cause of the decline in cultural literacy? Second, what is the cure for the decline?

Hirsch argues that the decline in cultural literacy, although its philosophical roots date back to Rousseau, truly accelerated in the 1970s. Since I lack the knowledge or resources (or memory, for that matter) to determine the issue for myself, I will accept this as fact. Certainly, by the time I was in high school in the 1990s, I felt like an alien among my peers because I was literate in this sense.

Hirsch attempts to blame the decline on the change in educational philosophy. (Rousseau and Dewey, again.) The problem with this argument is that these ideas really were implemented in large part one or two generations prior to the decline. Perhaps the knowledge took a few generations to disappear. Or perhaps the schools were not as important to the transfer of cultural knowledge as he thought.

This ties in, of course, with his proposed cure. He suggests, like plenty of educational theorists, that a change in curriculum is necessary. (So far, I can see his point) However, he also argues for a longer school day, longer school year, taking children away from their presumably ignorant parents for longer periods of time.

This is an easy, knee jerk reaction. (Again, notice that I assume you understand the reference.) To his credit, Hirsch is working with what he has: the ability to influence the educational establishment. However, he misses what I consider to be the fundamental point. Back in the “golden days” of shared literacy, school days and years were shorter. Thus, perhaps the time spent in school was not the determining factor.

Cultural literacy, like many other important facets of education, is not primarily learned in school. This is similar, of course, to the debate about the ever increasing obesity among Americans, which also gained significant momentum in the 1970s. Good nutrition, like shared knowledge, is primarily gained at home, through interaction with multiple generations of adults. What has disappeared is the one-on-one transfer of values and knowledge.

In my previous review of Sweetness and Power, I noted that the increase in sugar consumption was tied, not to its cheapness, but to its ease of preparation. It was a quick source of calories that did not require preparation time, thus being more convenient for a working parent to serve. I would argue that knowledge transfer has undergone the same transformation with the increasing employment of both parents, the loss of multiple generation households, and the decline of time spent communicating across the generations. Just as sugar was and is a quick source of calories, television and other less literate forms of entertainment require less work and time than the transfer of cultural knowledge.

I do not want to sound like I am discounting the contributions of teachers. Indeed, they play an important role in the transfer of knowledge. However, the system of education will never be sufficient for all that is needed. Each of us learns through all of our interactions. If we hear something at school that is not reinforced and expanded as we communicate to others, we forget what we heard. If we do not practice our literacy, it fades into distant memory at best. It is that constant honing of our background knowledge that transforms it from facts for the next test to a commonality of shared literacy. It is this that enables us to communicate with other literate individuals, though we may be separated by race, culture, location, or even time in history.

As a final note, the last 65 pages or so of this book list what the author has deemed a basic list of concepts necessary for cultural literacy. He developed the list with a few others specializing in other areas of knowledge, and then circulated the list for refinement to a large group of literate acquaintances. The author clearly indicates that this list is meant to be a start, not the final product, and solicits additions and subtractions.

I found this list to be interesting as a list of concepts to be mastered. I do, however, have a few cautions. First and most important, I would urge fellow home school parents to avoid panic. This list is best suited to college graduates, not elementary school children. This is the eventual goal, not that goal for your precocious 3rd grader.

Second, this list is well suited to an adult. I found it a good gauge of the concepts I still needed to look at myself. I am, of course, in middle age. I learned plenty of these ideas after graduation. Learning is more of a lifelong process, not a final destination completed with a diploma or a degree.

I have no doubt that a person who learns the concepts in this book will be able to better communicate with other literate persons. In that light, I would recommend this book as a doorway to better knowledge, and an alternative to the Rousseau/Dewey educational philosophy.

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