I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of “cultural literacy.”
I think it has to do with the fact that I’m noticing that many of the references and allusions I make to my students as a means of making connections are missing their marks. Really, I’m most often leaving con trails over the poor kids’ heads: these babies have NO idea what I’m talking about.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with generational differences. We grew up in different times, my students and I – a lot of these kids weren’t even born yet when Tianamen Square went down; they didn’t exist when Challenger blew up, and they have no frame of reference to even think about the Cold War. As a result, a lot of the materials that I bring into my classroom are incomprehensible to these kids because they don’t have the background to make sense of speeches from Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan or Albert Speer. They’ve not had a good education in history and, I suspect, they’re probably lacking in the other disciplines as well – I can speak to the fact that they’ve been shortchanged in their English education, that’s for sure.
Of course, some of this happens with every generation. I remember my parents talking about remembering EXACTLY where they were when Kennedy was shot, and I remember feeling strangely left out that there was no defining moment for my life like that. Now, post 9/11, I know that it was ridiculous for me to think that way: I understand now that most of those defining moments are marked by profound tragedy. My in-laws lament that kids aren’t being taught “the classics” anymore and, though they’re never quite clear about what “the classics” are, their point is well taken. We don’t know the same things – we’ve maybe taken diversity, at least, as it applies to curriculum design, a little too far.
I really believe that, as a culture, there are certain things that we should all be familiar with – things that help to define who we are as a people and which give us common experiences and vocabulary to help us make connections with each other. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ONLY certain things should be taught to the exclusion of all other things, but I really do think that we wouldn’t do ourselves any harm if we tried to make at least a few things compulsory in school; the Constitution, for example, or certain poems or works of literature; the events of the Native American extermination, the Holocaust, and subsequent genocides that have been allowed to happen in the world; some history of science (I wish I knew more about Galileo, for example, or Copernicus); a better understanding of economics and the interconnected nature of our world today.
I almost feel as though we’re out of touch with one another; that our country is so huge and our reluctance to adhere to educational standards is so great that we’ve forgotten that we NEED common experiences to connect to each other and to feel as though we belong together.
So, here’s my question: If you were the Grand and Benevolent Ruler of Everyone, what things would you make prerequisites of citizenship? If, at the end of one’s general schooling, before one moves to a specialty, there were an exam, what questions would be on it? More importantly, WHY would you choose those things?
Just as a bit of fun, go here to see how you score on various “cultural literacy” tests.