Cultural Literacy

What is the hallmark of a truly educated person? In 1987, E.D. Hirsch published a book entitled, Cultural Literacy. In it, he discussed topics that constitute the essential elements of literacy in science, geography, and the arts. He included a comprehensive appendix of historical and legendary figures, scientific, geographic, and literary terms, and quotations that most educated people would be able to identify. The list appears in alphabetical order. A brief excerpt from one of the pages illustrates the breadth of information.

L’etat c’est moi Lincoln Memorial
Let bygones be bygones Lincoln’s Second Memorial Address
Let me not to the marriage of true Lindberg, Charles A.
minds/Admit impediments linear momentum
Let sleeping dogs lie Linneaus
Letter from the Birmingham Jail lipid
Letter killeth, but the spirit givith life Lippman, Walter

How many current high school seniors, college students, or adults can identify all or most of the terms above?

According to Hirsch, a literate culture brings a nation together. In fact, it is much more inclusive that any ethnic culture. “It has no in-group, no generational or geographical preference. It can be mastered in the country or in the city, in a shanty or in a mansion, so long as the opportunity is given.” (p.106) Such an education is blind to race or ethnicity, so that inner city children would be exposed to the same information as those in the suburbs.

In February 2009, Liz Coleman, president of Bennigton College, addressed a TED conference that expanded on this idea. She expressed her concern that that a truly liberal arts education no longer exists. Instead, she maintains, the curricula offerings at most colleges and universities emphasize a narrow scope that causes students to focus “more and more on less and less.” She has re-vamped the curriculum at Bennington College to include cross-disciplinary hands-on learning. She argues that they must be versed in broad-based liberal arts courses.
Shouldn’t math and science students have the opportunity to read philosophy, literature, and history? Don’t we owe our doctors, lawyers and scientists, the ability to understand and appreciate the arts and music? Shouldn’t we strive to have all Americans culturally literate?

Leave a Reply