Cultural Literacy

By Lynn Olson — April 01, 1987 11 min read
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America’s literacy problems stem from children’s lack of knowledge about the common culture—not their lack of mechanical skills—according to a book scheduled for release this week by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

In Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that American schools are producing students who—in the words of one community-college teacher cited in the book—think Charles Darwin discovered gravity, J. Edgar Hoover was a 19th-century president, and Mark Twain invented the cotton gin.

Mr. Hirsch argues that true literacy cannot be divorced from subject-matter knowledge, and that schools must return to a much more traditional, facts-oriented curriculum that systematically teaches children the information they need to know.

His book, which includes an extensive listing of information that literate Americans hold in common, is an expansion of earlier essays that earned him both high praise and harsh criticism within the education community.

The book’s publication comes at a time when more and more states are turning their attention to the problems of adult illiteracy. And its themes may provide ammunition for those, such as U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who have advocated the return to a more traditional K-12 curriculum as one solution to that problem.

“Literacy is far more than a skill,’' asserts Mr. Hirsch, but requires “large amounts of specific information.’'

Literate Americans share a discrete body of knowledge, he contends, that is not being imparted to all schoolchildren. Its absence among many individuals has resulted, he says, in widespread “cultural illiteracy.’' (See excerpts on page 68.)

He submits that schools can and should play a central role in determining the nature of this shared information base, and in developing an “index of cultural literacy’’ that could help guide the creation of curricula, tests, and textbooks.

Knowledge List

With the assistance of two colleagues at the University of Virginia, Mr. Hirsch has compiled a tentative list of nearly 5,000 historical dates and events, geographical names, famous people, bits of patriotic lore, words, phrases, book titles, and texts, which he maintains literate Americans know. The list could serve as a starting point, he suggests, for what students are taught.

Eventually, the 64-page appendix of facts and figures will form the index for a “dictionary’’ of cultural literacy.

It includes such diverse items as the date 1776, acid rain, Johann Sebastian Bach, “familiarity breeds contempt,’' Florida, and the text of the Gettysburg Address. (See related story on page 55.)

According to Mr. Hirsch, the list reflects a high-school level of literacy. But he adds that people’s knowledge of this core content is sketchy and imprecise, rather than deep.

For example, he writes, “Only a small proportion of literate people can name the Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears, yet they know who he is. They know what Mein Kampf is, but they haven’t read it.’'

Nonetheless, he argues, this “middle-level information’’ distinguishes the literate person from the illiterate, and is the “homeland of the common reader.’'

Without shared national information, attitudes, and assumptions, he states, U.S. citizens would not have a “common basis for communication’'—a scenario that he views as increasingly possible, given the growing diversity of American society.

According to Mr. Hirsch, one-third of all Americans are now illiterate and many more have literacy skills that must be improved.

Although the level of literacy required to prosper in modern society has been rising throughout the developed world, he writes, “American literacy rates have not risen to meet this standard.’'

Schools’ ‘Failed Task’

Responsibility for the state of cultural literacy, Mr. Hirsch maintains, rests squarely with the schools.

“The new illiteracy is sometimes excused by the argument that our schools are now educating larger portions of our population,’' he writes. “The point is that we are not educating them.

“We undertook the great task of universal education precisely in order to produce a truly literate population, but we have not succeeded in that task in recent years.’'

As evidence, he points to more than a decade of declining reading and verbal scores on both the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, even among the country’s best educated and most “advanced’’ youngsters.

Preliminary field tests from a NAEP project on the literacy and historical knowledge of American 17-year-olds, for example, reported that two-thirds did not know the Civil War occurred between 1850 and 1900; three-quarters did not know what “reconstruction’’ meant; and half could not identify either Joseph Stalin or Winston Churchill.

‘Educational Formalism’

Mr. Hirsch blames primarily a philosophy of education that he says has eschewed facts in favor of more generic skills development.

"[E]ven now,’' he notes, “the goal of teaching shared information is under attack by the latest version of educational formalism, the ‘critical thinking’ movement.’'

Pushing students to engage in higher-order thinking skills is fine, he asserts, but not at the expense of denigrating factual knowledge.

“The polarization of educationists into facts-people versus skills-people has no basis in reason,’' he writes. “Facts and skills are inseparable.’'

In particular, he advocates that vast amounts of cultural information be systematically imparted to youngsters in the early grades. If students still lack important elements of the knowledge base by grade 10, he notes, “they will rarely be able to make up the loss.’'

According to Mr. Hirsch, the mere existence of his list “will help people perceive that our previous reluctance to identify core information has seriously hindered the effective teaching of literacy.’'

“It’s not the list that is dangerous to serious education,’' he asserts, “its explicitness is dangerous to the inadequate, skills-oriented educational principles of the recent past.’'

‘Cognitive Overload’

To support his views on the ties between literacy and content knowledge, the University of Virginia professor points to recent research in the fields of reading and psychology.

According to this work, vast stores of vocabulary, word associations, and skills enable competent readers to rapidly process new information and place it in pre-existing frameworks or “schemata’’ for understanding the world.

Lacking such knowledge, poor readers experience “cognitive overload,’' Mr. Hirsch states. They are forced to process so much new material at one time that it quickly overburdens their short-term memories, making their reading “slow, arduous, and ineffective.’'

Estimates that a chess master can recognize about 50,000 different patterns of pieces on a chess board probably apply equally well to cultural literacy, according to Mr. Hirsch. “Interestingly,’' he writes, “that is the approximate number of words and idioms in the vocabulary of a literate person.’'

“There are, of course, many more than 50,000 items stored in the full text of long-term memory,’' he adds. “A basic vocabulary of 50,000 schemata serves merely as a quickly accessible index to a much larger volume of knowledge.’'

Mr. Hirsch’s arguments are particularly timely, given the current educational climate.

Secretary Bennett has consistently advocated that schools return to a more traditional curriculum that emphasizes the great texts and traditions of Western Civilization.

According to the Secretary, today’s students do share a common core of knowledge, but it is composed of popular culture, such as the names of television and rock stars, rather than literate culture.

In the last few years, several states—including California and Texas—have approved comprehensive statewide curriculum frameworks to clarify what students should be learning in particular courses.

In addition, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Mr. Bennett last month recommended that the National Assessment of Educational Progress provide state-by-state as well as national data on how students perform in core subject areas.

That proposal would require broader consensus among states than currently exists about what the core knowledge base should be in grades K-12. When NAEP was first designed in the 1960’s, the idea of state-by-state comparisons was explicitly rejected for fear that it would lead to a national curriculum.

Writes Mr. Hirsch: “The counterreform of the 1980’s seems bent upon a return to a more traditional curriculum. This welcome course correction demonstrates the underlying good sense of the American people, who have launched a grassroots movement to advance that reform.’'

Two-Part Curriculum

But according to Mr. Hirsch, a national core curriculum—as traditionally envisioned—is “neither desirable nor feasible.’'

What is needed, he contends, is a two-part curriculum that is “traditional in content but diverse in its emphases, that is pluralistic in its materials and modes of teaching but nonetheless provides our children with a common core of cultural information.’'

Mr. Hirsch dubs this bifurcated model the “extensive’’ and “intensive’’ curriculum.

The content of the “extensive curriculum’’ is traditional literate knowledge—the information, attitudes, and assumptions that literate Americans share. It consists of a “minimal description of elements that should be included in every child’s schooling, no matter what form the schooling takes.’'

Any school can find ways to incorporate this minimal content into its courses, Mr. Hirsch argues, “given a determination to do so and coordination among grade levels.’'

In contrast, the “intensive curriculum’’ consists of the in-depth study and fully developed understanding of a subject, “making one’s knowledge of it integrated and coherent.’'

The flexibility in methods and content that applies to the intensive curriculum, he asserts, “ensures that individual students, teachers, and schools can work intensively with materials that are appropriate for their diverse temperaments and aims.’'

According to Mr. Hirsch, the concept of a two-part curriculum “avoids the idea that all children should study identical materials.’'

“It also resists,’' he says, “the lure of a core curriculum, if that proposal is taken to mean that all high-school graduates should study, say, Romeo and Juliet. A common extensive curriculum would ensure that students have some information about Romeo and Juliet, but in their intensive curriculum they might study The Tempest or Twelfth Night in detail.’'

Nonetheless, he writes, “American schools should be able to devise an extensive curriculum based on the national vocabulary and arranged in a definite sequence.’'

“This aim,’' he contends, “could be accomplished with a great diversity of schoolbooks and teaching methods. Although the methods of conveying cultural literacy can and should vary from school to school, an agreed-upon, explicit national vocabulary should come to be regarded as the basis of a literate education.’'

Textbook and Tests

The most effective way to reform the curriculum, according to Mr. Hirsch, would be to increase the proportion of nonfiction and traditional myths and stories included in the reading materials for grades K-8.

“What are needed,’' he argues, “are reading texts that deliberately convey what children need to know and include a substantially higher proportion of factual narratives.’'

In higher grades, where teaching is done by subject matter, Mr. Hirsch maintains that continued systematic attention to the national vocabulary is needed.

In particular, he argues, schools should teach more survey courses that cover large movements of human thought and experience.

He proposes that publishers and educators reach an accord about the contents of the national vocabulary and a good sequence for presenting it. One option, he suggests, is to convene a group of educators and public leaders to develop a model grade-by-grade sequence of core information.

Their recommendations would carry “only the force of personal authority,’' he notes, “which is sometimes effective, sometimes not.’'

He also suggests the creation of “general knowledge tests’’ for three different stages of schooling, each based on an agreed-upon body of information. Again, it would be up to each state or local district to use the examinations.

But he argues that even if such tests were not compulsory, their mere existence would “exert a normalizing effect on the extensive curriculum.’'

“If school administrators knew that some of their students might want to take one or more of the tests, they might adjust their curricula accordingly for all students,’' he writes.

“Similarly, the mere existence of such tests might encourage publishers, as a matter of commercial prudence, to include in their textbooks the core information upon which the tests were based.’'

‘Hidden Curriculum’

Mr. Hirsch anticipates that his opinions will be roundly criticized by those who view them as undemocratic or intolerant of minority cultures.

But he argues that the question of specific content “can no longer be ignored’’ in American education.

According to Mr. Hirsch, somebody in each classroom already is deciding what material children should learn in the name of “skills acquisition.’'

“All too often it is content for which our children will have no use in the future,’' he asserts.

The challenge, according to Mr. Hirsch, is to bring that “currently hidden curriculum’’ out into the open, and to “make its contents the subject of democratic discussion.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Cultural Literacy


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