The Requirement of Cultural Literacy

The regional library’s curbside pickup resumed last summer, but I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic re-reading books from my personal library, some of which I haven’t looked at in 20 years. I didn’t realize it had been so long until I checked the publication date of one book and realized it had come in the mail during the fall of 2000. I’ve previously mentioned that I am not a fan of e-books, but waiting for something to arrive from the library has driven me to further exploration of their e-book holdings. The main benefit is the ability to get books instantly, and after PBS aired a couple of Agatha Christie programs I decided to get back to a few of her mysteries.

When I was about 14, I attempted to read Agatha Christie because I was in the mood for a whodunit though I don’t recall having read one before. I carried the paperback just about everywhere for two weeks, and read at it on the bus or during study hall. I remember giving it up before I reached the end, but until I downloaded it the other night and dived back in, I never realized why I hadn’t finished it the first time.

At the time, I lacked the background information required to truly comprehend what the writer assumed I knew. I had no knowledge of seaside resort hotels in Torquay, a Minoan-14 car, the hierarchy of English country house staff, or the monetary conversion of a £50,000 inheritance. In other words, I was too culturally illiterate to comprehend what I was reading, and I eventually gave up.

When I realized why I had given up, I put Agatha Christie on a brief pause, and went to my bookcase to locate Cultural Literacy, the 1987 book by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. about what every American ought to know. From the original book jacket: “[Cultural literacy is] the grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their readers and listeners already have. [It] is the hidden key to effective education in America. The high school student who thinks…that the Alamo is an epic poem attributed to Homer cannot really read.”

“Cannot really read.” This sounds harsh, but it’s absolutely true. At 14 I could certainly read Agatha Christie’s words. She wasn’t writing a dissertation having to do with physics, but I didn’t possess the background information to truly comprehend the plot. I lacked the basic understanding of English life in 1942. One might think I would’ve known the difference between art deco and Victorian armoires, but in the early 1980’s I only knew about shag carpeting and macramé plant hangers. Perhaps it’s time for me to get over my feud with the school librarian who once jerked a book out of my hand in seventh grade. One of the student assistants had just stamped my card, but the librarian curtly declared that I wasn’t ready for it. Enough time for personal reflection has passed; I’m sure I wasn’t.

My edition of Cultural Literacy contains a 69-page appendix called “What Literate Americans Know.” Three decades containing vast amounts of new information have passed, and I can only imagine the amount of information we should be responsible for at this point. Some of us might be keeping up with the latest, but I’m concerned about what we have let slip by.

We’ve been watching more trivia game shows during the pandemic, and I’ve been troubled that contestants have not known the answers to questions that should be engrained in our psyches. A contestant on one show thought Benjamin Franklin had once been president but couldn’t recall that Mike Pence was actually vice president when they filmed the episode. One recent Jeopardy contestant couldn’t figure out John Wilkes Booth for one clue and Edith Wharton for another, and you can imagine the noise I made when one wrote down George Custard in Final Jeopardy.

Under normal conditions, without time constraints and studio lights, these people would probably have no trouble recalling the correct answers, but are we losing our ability to retain certain facts that should be entrenched in our brains? Unless we’re suffering from illness or other serious condition, we should surely be able to retain the common facts from our culture. Then again, when “person, woman, man, camera, TV” has been the recent standard for intellectual prowess, perhaps I’m setting the bar too high.

Is it asking a lot to expect that everyone instantly recognize the names of Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Friedan, Madeline Khan, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Trisha Yearwood? If I can identify pictures of Billie Eilish and a portrait of Empress Maria Theresa without blinking an eye, I assume everyone else is keeping up until I realize that some are not. We should have no trouble recalling that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in 1865, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. These dates impacted our country and are more important than the latest celebrity divorce.

As a writer and storyteller, as well as a person who enjoys talking, I find myself occasionally having to provide a backstory to my topic. I can no longer be certain that a reader is familiar with Governor Ann Richards who should never fade from our memories.

Being culturally aware reminds me of a young visitor a few years ago. At the time, I lived just a few miles from some of the most amazing museums in the world. I suggested we go one day. Within a few minutes of arriving I could tell there was absolutely no interest even though my guest had indicated the possibility of majoring in art one day. She told me she was not interested in past art, but in creating her own, using “new” techniques.

That’s a perfectly normal statement, but it dragged me back to the days as a music student.  There was a theory professor who remarked that while some of us were receiving a basic understanding of how music is made, others among us would go on to actually compose music. There are compositional rules, and we were going to learn those rules. There may come a day when a composer wants to break a few rules, but they need to understand what they are doing and why their actions would be considered innovative. On the other hand, if they didn’t have enough knowledge, they might end up being accused of plagiarism because they would have produced nothing more than something that had already been composed 200 years earlier.

Then my young guest rounded a corner of the museum to find a contemporary artist who had painted a series using egg tempera. “Oh, wow! That is so cool! See? It’s new stuff like this that interests me.” She wasn’t thrilled when I pointed out that the method was quite ancient, but I had proven my point that we need to acquire useful knowledge to understand what we’re doing and to some extent why we are doing it.

Additionally, without broad knowledge and cultural literacy, we can easily fall prey to opinions and conspiracies based on the emotional blather of very dangerous people. Stable society is held together by people who can discern facts. Facts are true. Facts are not unwieldy theses based on a collection of opinions even if gleaned from corroborating sources.

Facts can be proven, but conspiracies are hysteria, which can, as we’ve seen, prompt gullible people to storm a capitol in an attempt to overthrow a legitimate government. As we continue to process the sights and sounds of January 6, 2021, my brain keeps returning to education and cultural literacy. If the insurgents were in possession of basic facts (knowledge) and the ability to discern reality from a persistent lie (understanding), they would have been able to see the fraud emblazoned before them and not have become traitors.

© 2021 by Patrick Brown

2 Replies to “The Requirement of Cultural Literacy”

  1. Thank You, Patrick, for defining a frustration I know many of us (most?)feel when watching a Masterpiece production on BBC or an exploratory episode on Discovery Channel, etc. and being a little frustrated at feeling another language, one I don’t understand, is being used. And, thanks again, for introducing me to E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s excellent resource for expanding my cultural awareness. Onward and upward – keep these articles comin’.

    Liked by 2 people

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