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Finding a 'Loony List' While Searching for Literacy

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People who insist that they can corral and classify the specific facts that define a literate person have a way of sounding as though they also plan to walk on water any minute. But anybody who cares about public-school education should be aware that the paths trod by cultural-literacy determinists are engulfed by pedagogical quicksand.

The Gospel according to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his cohorts contains a loony list of nearly 5,000 items they claim students should know by the time they graduate from high school. (See Education Week, April 1, 1987.) Their concern is nothing new: Many people like to believe that educational standards disappeared the day after their own diplomas were issued, and strident complaints about know-nothing youths going to the dogs date back to the ancient Greeks.

As an experienced teacher of nearly every grade from 1 through 14, my complaint is not that our curriculum lacks content, as Mr. Hirsch asserts, but that it is too content-jammed. As is the case with most educational-reform movements that blithely ignore the concerns of experienced teachers, Mr. Hirsch's list will only make bad things worse.

Any list that omits Moby Dick, an opus that should be withheld from anyone under 40 and perhaps old enough to appreciate its beauty, can't be all bad. Nonetheless, Mr. Hirsch's new book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, should come with a warning label: Anyone who tries to make sense of this stockpile of disjointed facts could easily drive herself mad with the underlying untruth of the matter.

One is tipped off immediately, of course, by the absolute certitude of the title. I can imagine maybe half a dozen things that every American needs to know--but 5,000? I have owned the book just one week and have already worn it to shreds with my frantic flipping back and forth in the list, searching in vain for content, for consistency, for balance.

I have amazed and alarmed strangers on airplanes, in hospital waiting rooms, and in hotel lobbies by reading them portions of the list: What do you know about Leyden jars and when did you know it? How are your Mach numbers? Is your amicus curiae in working order? I have pestered colleagues in the office and called friends and relatives long distance, quizzing them about "hardwired,'' "biochemical pathways,'' and "liver detoxification.''

My husband is the only person I encountered who could identify Marianas Trench, and he was quick to admit he acquired this arcane bit of information from The Guinness Book of World Records, and not from his comprehensive university training, which includes a Ph.D. in physics. Would Mr. Hirsch grant me partial credit for guessing that Marianas Trench was the site of an important battle in World War II, thereby locating it geographically--sort of? Should I feel aggrieved that my high-school teachers failed so miserably to make me literate?

By Mr. Hirsch's reckoning, students need to know lots of foreign phrases: eminence grise, in medias res, in situ, and many others that are contained in Mr. Hirsch's book --but not in Webster's. Inexplicably, he fails to include R.S.V.P.

Mr. Hirsch's avowed mission is to save public education by testing students at three stages during their school careers to ensure that they do not leave high school without the ability to recognize such terms as covalent bonds, the Edict of Nantes, non compos mentis, Planck's constant, the Slough of Despond, and scrotum.

But school teachers across America are familiar with this sort of gambit: Politicians and professors join forces to announce a crisis in education. Then they gather together a gaggle of their peers to cure the crisis with a commission and a few more standardized tests.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Mr. Hirsch's book receives dust-jacket praise from William J. Bennett, Albert Shanker, Bill Honig, and Richard C. Anderson. There is no indication that anybody tried the list out on a few teachers--or asked them if they had time to teach more content, to administer yet another test.

Anybody who sets himself up as the savior of culture and literacy is, of course, on the side of the angels. Who will argue against our youths knowing Sophocles? Shakespeare? Sleeping Beauty? Every teacher has experienced that vague disquiet that students don't know as much as we'd like them to: They don't have that common corpus of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and Bible stories we remember from our own youth. When I remarked at a family gathering that I couldn't figure out why a person needed to know "La Cucaracha'' to be worthy of being certified "literate,'' three generations of relatives broke out into song.

Nonetheless, if a teacher is to be effective, she has to be willing to give up some old cultural baggage and to make room for a few new things. Ecclesiastes (and Mr. Hirsch) is wrong: There's plenty new under the sun.

We need to remind ourselves that our students come to us with lots of information undreamt of in our own philosophies just a few years ago. My 3rd graders had heard of black holes, knew about sexual matters that would make the proverbial sailor blush, and were familiar with specific applications of the Bill of Rights, such as the Miranda decision.

A radical thought that I first remember being expressed by President and Mrs. Kennedy, when their children were young, is that there are nice bits of language one can introduce to children that are more worthy than the vaunted nursery rhymes. In my 16 years in the public schools I read plenty of Ciardi, Eve Merriam, Myra Livingston Cohen, X.J. Kennedy, and Shel Silverstein (all missing from the list) to my students. I don't recall ever mentioning "Little Bo Peep'' or "Little Jack Horner'' (on the list).

The fact that Mr. Hirsch and his cronies insist that high-school graduates should recognize Gilbert and Sullivan but ignore Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, Hart, Romberg, and Sondheim, reveals the blinders they wear. One can't read very far in the list before figuring out that it is extremely biased, both in commission and omission.

Even more disturbing to me is its quirkiness, its lack of consistency, its whacky inclusions (and exclusions). If the writers had admitted, "Here is what interests us, warts and all,'' I'd say "fine.'' I believe good teachers are quirky, opinionated, strongly devoted to hobbyhorses. But this crew presents their list as emerging from careful, dispassionate research, and they are trying to palm it off on innocent teachers and students as important and necessary.

I would say to the good professors that if you want adolescents to know this stuff, then you go ahead and try teaching them. As an educated, experienced, classroom-smart teacher, I don't have the time to worry about whether my students would recognize Alexander Pope on the professor's trivia list.

Woody Guthrie is here; Arlo isn't. Mr. Hirsch observes that Woody Allen is "too temporary'' a phenomenon for his list. If I were a culture prescriptionist, I might omit both Woodys and Arlo, too, but if Allen is dismissed as merely a passing fancy, on what grounds is Lee Iacocca on Mr. Hirsch's list? And Jerry Falwell? Will students 50 years hence be required to identify these flashes-in-the-pulpit to prove they are literate?

"Why have schools failed to fulfill their fundamental acculturative responsibilities?'' asks Mr. Hirsch, in the same tone and spirit as that old double-bind (not a term on his need-to-know list) question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?'' Mr. Hirsch lays the blame for a national literacy crisis on what he calls "the content-neutral ideas of Rousseau and Dewey,'' ideas he claims govern our 16,000 independent school districts.

Mr. Hirsch insists that our schools "have shrunk the body of information that Americans share.'' My answer to that is to shout: "Teachers of the nation, unite--and send Professor Hirsch your curriculum mandates.'' If the school day weren't so overcrowded already by the pressures of the factologists, maybe there would be more time for teachers to teach and students to learn.

I can only hope that Mr. Hirsch and his crew one day have the opportunity to teach 3rd grade. One chapter in my students' science text covered igneous and sedimentary rocks (on the list), as well as metamorphic (not on the list)--terms I first encountered in a college geology course. In social studies, my 3rd graders were expected to learn something about Timbuktu (not on the list), the industrial revolution (on the list), and how New York City plans its budget (not on the list). In mathematics, they learned permutation, probability, Venn diagramming (none on the list)--sophisticated concepts not in my school ken nor that of my parents or their parents. My 3rd graders had close encounters with Aesop and Robert L. Stevenson (both on the list), as well as La Fontaine, Basho, E.B. White, Langston Hughes, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and scores of others (none of whom made Mr. Hirsch's list).

If Mr. Hirsch and his helpers would visit the classrooms of savvy, dedicated teachers, they would see the curriculum overload firsthand: Students in every grade are expected to learn too much, too early. A 5th-grade science text, for example, introduces more new vocabulary than a high-school French text.

But cultural terminologists have a specific list; despite a cast of 5,000, they are pushing a very narrow, restricted view of education and culture, one closely related to an underlying political agenda that nobody talks about.

Ironically, following Mr. Hirsch's prescription--it would be alarmingly easy to train students to pass Mr. Hirsch's tests--a student would be "exposed'' to much but required to read little to demonstrate "literacy.'' Mr. Hirsch is forthright in his admission that a person need not have read the books on the list--few specific titles are, in fact, even mentioned--but need only recognize a name when it is dropped.

Mr. Hirsch points out that using his definition, a literate person need not read "Romeo and Juliet''; he will just have to recognize its title and be vaguely familiar with the quote "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?'' Mr. Hirsch would also like high-school graduates to recognize the titles "Hamlet,'' "Othello,'' and "King Lear.'' No quotes required.

Hundreds of thousands of 10th graders across the land will stand up and cheer when they learn that "Julius Caesar'' did not make the cut, not as a title anyway. All a literate person will need to recognize is Antony's funeral speech.

William Shakespeare made the list; Joseph Heller did not. The literate person, says Mr. Hirsch, should recognize the title Catch-22, but he need not bother with the author. I wonder, should Heller feel better or worse than Norman Mailer, whose name is on the list but whose books are missing?

Mr. Hirsch and his colleagues assert that literacy requires specific information, and, by God, they do get specific, proving only that loony educational prescriptions will proliferate to fill the space available to them. Yes, Parkinson's Law is on the list; the Peter Principle is absent, though Peter Piper is there.

My best theory for the need for this list is an ivory-tower perception that the world needs more Trivial Pursuit players. Certainly Mr. Hirsch's offering is a TV-game-show, word-search approach to culture.

I'd be very interested to know just what Mr. Hirsch thinks high schoolers should know about Proust, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, Henry and William James, Rabelais, the pre-Raphaelites. Bret Harte also joins these characters on his list, proving once again how reluctant are the literate mafiosi to yield any of their arcane information to the scrap heap to make room for something of significance to new generations.

Fresno, Des Moines, and Shreveport are here--in response, I guess, to the geography crisis announced by another group of professors some months back. Just what you've got when you have a student who recognizes "Fresno,'' I'm not sure, but one can wonder why Ghana, Kenya, Nagasaki, Sri Lanka, and Armenia did not make the list.

The golden fleece is here; the Golden Horde and the Gold Coast are not. Also among the missing are Kismet, the yellow brick road, and "Beam me up, Scotty.'' Eva Peron and Margaret Thatcher are here; Golda Meier and Winnie Mandela are not.

The trombone is here; the tuba is not. The Battle of Marathon is here; the Vietnam Memorial is not. Henry and Gerald Ford are here; Ford's Theater is not.

Walter Lippman is here; Woodward and Bernstein, Seymour Hersh, David Halberstam, and Jimmy Breslin are not. I find it especially distressing that these cultural aristocrats care only about dead culture.

I would have considered it a miracle if any of my high-school students had willingly picked up a newspaper. It was my job, even my sacred calling, to convince them that there were columnists who could inform and enlighten their lives. I don't apologize for the fact that The Daily News was in my classroom as well as The New York Times and the local paper. Hope springs eternal that the student who reads the caption under a sensationalistic picture may one day turn to the editorial page. But there is not much hope for the student who is kept so busy memorizing Walter Lippman and Horace Greeley that he has no time for even the sports section.

Babe Ruth is on the list; Lou Gehrig isn't, nor, of course, are Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, or any other players contemporary youths might have seen play. My personal prejudice is that sports figures and TV celebrities already receive too much hype for me to grant them time in my classroom, but surely, if one's definition of "literacy'' is going to include Ty Cobb, then there should be room for Pete Rose.

It is a matter of complete indifference to me whether my students know about Mae West or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (all on the list), but I am intrigued by the Poo-Bahs (on the list) who would insist on such celebrities while ignoring so many significant literary and historical figures. Dale Carnegie and Sarah Bernhardt are here; Chuck Yeager and John Steinbeck are not. Anne Frank is missing. Jesse James made the list; Capone, Dillinger, and Hoffa did not.

When I saw Fanny Farmer on the list, I didn't know whether Mr. Hirsch meant the candy or the cookbook, but I doubt that any teacher has a spacious enough curriculum to include either.

And why Onan, Mr. Hirsch? Onan, but not Ruth, Naomi, or Esther. Teachers across the country must wait with ugly anticipation to learn at what grade Onan's tale should be told. And who gets the job of explaining the Marquis de Sade? People alarmed by the possible mention of condoms (not on the list, though penis envy is) in the schools will have a field day with Mr. Hirsch's literacy prescriptions.

Mr. Hirsch's theory of literacy reminds me of my first year of teaching. Struggling to find literature that would convince my Brooklyn 9th graders that reading could be personally satisfying and even rewarding, I asked my department chairman if I really had to follow department guidelines and teach Silas Marner. He insisted I did, but advised me, "You can skip the long, descriptive passages.'' Mr. Hirsch's list, though including George Eliot in its sacred canon, doesn't require one to read any of her words. Name recognition is enough.

I'd like to close with the poems from Mr. Hirsch's canon that I have never taught and, barring unimaginable catastrophe, never will teach: "Charge of the Light Brigade,'' "Hiawatha,'' "Captain, My Captain,'' "Paradise Lost,'' "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,'' "Rime of the Ancient Mariner.'' Quite simply, life is too short--for my students and me--to struggle with those works. My job is to turn kids on to books, and to do that, I need to know a lot about both kids and books.

The magical words of poets have filled many of my classroom hours, but, unlike Mr. Hirsch, I try to demonstrate to my students that poetry is not something practiced only by the long dead (no poet on Mr. Hirsch's list was born in the 20th century). My 3rd graders and college freshmen both started each class with a poem on the board--provocative words of 20th-century writers as well as bards long dead. Time enough later for students to go on to college, become English majors, and struggle with Milton.

I look back on many rich moments in teaching, taking pride in the fact that, although most of my students came to me passionately hating to read, I managed to find at least one book to entice every one of them. The authors ranged from Dr. Seuss to Beatrix Potter to Katherine Patterson to Kenneth Grahame to Farley Mowat (none on the list).

If a teacher can find one book that engages the young reader, there is always hope that he will be inspired to look for another. If we truly want to educate our youths for literacy, then we must have faith--faith in our teachers and our students. We must remember, with Oscar Wilde, that truth is rarely simple and never pure. Neither is literacy. Purists and dogmatists do more harm than good with their loony lists.

It might be worthwhile for serious people to stop grinding their axes and ask if a common literacy of some 5,000 separate items is even possible in a land so diverse as ours. Can the children of the 1980's be expected to drag along the intellectual baggage of their great-great-grandparents? Might not the children of Fresno have different needs from the children of Anchorage and the children of Nantucket?

In a poignant passage in An Unfinished Journey, Shiva Naipaul remarked of his 12-year-old brother, "The Hindu Trinidad of his youth was not the Hindu Trinidad of my youth. We did not have a shared past; we did not have a shared pool of memory, ancestral or otherwise.'' If he can say that of a tiny place like Trinidad, what is the case for a land so large and diverse as ours?

Mr. Hirsch insists that the educational goal he presents is that of "mature literacy for all our citizens.'' One can only wonder what is so mature about a literacy list that is both too arrogant to recognize the cultural contributions of many and too shadowy to be of any use to its holders. A one-size-fits-all curriculum ends up fitting nobody. To accept Mr. Hirsch's list is to accept a gloomy, determinist view of both culture and literacy.

I would like to announce that I do know about "throw weight,'' but the knowledge came at a high cost--10 minutes of waiting long distance for my husband to stop laughing and give me a lecture on naval engineering. "Chutzpah'' is also on Mr. Hirsch's list, and the book is full of it.

Vol. 06, Issue 32, Page 21

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