In his controversial 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, scholar E.D. Hirsch Jr. warned that America was in danger of cutting itself adrift from it own cultural moorings. He decried the measurable erosion in our shared “national vocabulary,” and he cited, as an example, high school graduates who believe Darwin discovered gravity and that Mark Twain invented the cotton gin.
Back then, Cultural Literacy served as a rallying cry for all those who advocated a return to a core curriculum firmly rooted in the basics. Now, with his new book, A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Hirsch provides a detailed listing of more than 2,000 fascinating facts and figures-numerical, historical, and literary figures, and figures of speech-with which the average student should have at least passing familiarity by the end of 6th grade.
This is not to suggest, Hirsch makes clear in his introduction to students, that the dictionary should be the sole source of such information. Instead, he says, the book “will be useful in giving you a general picture of what you already know and what you still need to learn.’'
If Hirsch’s own history suggests anything, it is that this contribution, too, will engender some controversy. Should the average 6th grader know what E.D. Hirsch says he or she should know? That’s something readers will surely decide for themselves. In the meantime, here is a sampling of entries from A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
Upper-case words are references to other entries in the book.
Actions speak louder than words: It is safer to rely on what people do rather than what they say.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride If wishing could make things happen, we would all have everything we wanted.
topic sentence: The most important sentence in a paragraph is the topic sentence because it states the main idea of the paragraph.
limerick: A limerick is a humorous poem with five lines. One familiar limerick is: A fly and a flea in a flue Were imprisoned, so what could: they do? Said the fly, “Let us flee!’' Said the flea, “Let us fly.’' So they flew through a flaw in: the flue.
Othello: Othello is a tragedy by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Othello is a Moor, or dark-skinned MOSLEM, who is tricked by an evil soldier, Iago, into thinking that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and he kills her in a jealous rage. When he realizes that his wife had been innocent, he kills himself in his grief.
Adonis: Adonis was a Greek youth who was so handsome that even APHRODITE, the goddess of love, fell in love with him. Today we call any young man who is extremely handsome an Adonis.
Trojan horse: The Trojan horse was a gigantic wooden horse left by the Greek army outside the walls of TROY. Inside the horse were hidden the Greeks’ best soldiers. Another Greek soldier, pretending to have deserted his comrades, tricked the Trojans into bringing the horse inside the city walls. That night the Greeks crept out of the horse and conquered Troy.
land flowing with milk and honey: In the Old Testament, God calls the PROMISED LAND “the land flowing with milk and honey.’'
Resurrection: Christians believe in the Resurrection (or rising) of JESUS CHRIST. The New Testament says that after he was crucified, he lay in his tomb for three days. On the third day he rose from the dead and appeared again to his followers.
Religion and Philosophy
ascetism: Ascetism is a way of life that opposes fancy clothes, expensive possessions, fine food and drink, and physical pleasures. It favors a simple, thoughtful way of life devoted to God and helping other people.
Socrates: Socrates was a great Greek philosopher and teacher who taught his students by asking them questions rather than by telling them what to think. In this way, his students learned to find and correct their own errors. This type of teaching is called the Socratic method.
American History to 1865
Fourscore and seven years ago: These words begin ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. “Fourscore and seven’’ equals eightyseven (a score equals twenty). The country was founded in 1776, eightyseven years before Lincoln’s address, which was delivered in 1863.
American History Since 1865
King, Martin Luther, Jr.: Martin Luther King, Jr., was a clergyman who led the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT in the South in the 1960’s. He organized marches to protest SEGREGATION and racial injustice and delivered one of the most powerful speeches in American history, in which he told the nation, “I HAVE A DREAM’’ of peace and racial equality. He urged his followers to use non-violent means, known as “passive resistance,’' to call attention to the wrongs suffered by blacks. During various protest activities, civil rights workers were often attacked by the police or angry whites, but the civil rights workers did not fight back. Their courage eventually won support for their cause from many people.
only thing we have to fear is fear itself, the: These words were spoken by President FRANKLIN D. ROOSE- VELT during the GREAT DEPRESSION. He was trying to encourage Americans not to panic during this trying economic crisis. Politics and Economics
e pluribus unum: E pluribus unum is a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many, one.’' It is a motto (a special saying) of the United States because we are one nation made up of many states.
World History to 1600
Columbus, Christopher: Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who discovered America in 1492, when he was searching for a new route to the Indies. His three ships were the Nia, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
I came, I saw, I conquered: JULIUS CAESAR was a general of ancient Rome. After one of his military victories, he told the Roman government, “I came, I saw, I conquered.’'
Stonehenge: Stonehenge is a circle of huge stones standing upright on an open plain in England. The stones were set in place in ancient times, but no one knows who put them there or what precisely they were used for.
World History Since 1600
Teresa, Mother: Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who lives in India, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for helping unfortunate and poor people.
United States Geography
Badlands: The Badlands, in South Dakota, is an area of barren hills and gullies caused by erosion.
acute angle: An acute angle is an ANGLE that measures less than a RIGHT ANGLE, that is, less than 90 DEGREES (90).
change of phase: MATTER can exist as a SOLID, a LIQUID, or a GAS. When something changes from one of these forms (or phases) to another, it goes through a change of phase. For instance, when water freezes, it goes through a change of phase from a liquid to a solid.
floppy disk: A floppy disk is a disk with a magnetic material on it that can store information for a PERSONAL COMPUTER. It is called floppy because it is made of a flexible material.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as What 6th Graders Should Know