'What Literate Americans Know'

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The following excerpt includes all words beginning with the letter "C'' from the list of items that E.D. Hirsch and his colleagues at the University of Virginia believe that literate Americans now know.

With the support of a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation, in 1983, Mr. Hirsch persuaded Joseph Kett, chairman of the history department at the University of Virginia, and James Trefil, professor of physics, to help him compile a list of the information literate Americans share.

Each professor took the primary responsibility for developing the vocabulary within his field, consulting such sources as indexes, reference books, and magazines. Those lists were then criticized by the other two, and the entire list was submitted to more than 100 consultants outside the academic world.

The three men are also working on a large explanation of the listings, a "dictionary,'' that would consist of the associations each item tends to call forth in the minds of literate people.

Mr. Hirsch says, "We do not claim that the list is definitive,'' but the consensus reached among those surveyed indicates it is a "fairly reliable index'' of what literate people know.

"Early in our project, my colleagues and I decided that our list should aim to represent but not to alter current literate American culture,'' Mr. Hirsch writes. "The only exception to this principle that we have permitted is in the domain of scientific literacy,'' where they expressed a belief that Americans should know more than they do now.

The list is also supposed to represent a high-school level of literacy. Eventually, Mr. Hirsch would like to produce a similar list for 5th graders.

Items listed from the field of literature are not expected to have been read, unless followed by the word "text'' in parentheses. In the usual case, when people are likely to know the title of a work and just a few bits of associated information, that is indicated by the word "title'' in parentheses. A similar, relatively shallow familiarity with each term in the list is characteristic of literate persons, according to Mr. Hirsch.

(For an excerpt from Mr. Hirsch's book, see Commentary, Page 68.)

Copyright 1987 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted by permission.

Vol. 06, Issue 27

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