I’m No E.D. Hirsch

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.



Filed under concerns, frustrations, Learning, popular culture, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching

9 responses to “I’m No E.D. Hirsch

  1. I believe some classical music education needs to be in there (other than kill the wabbit).

    I am with you on this topic – just ask my husband about my rants on losing the classical education in favor of specialty schools (all the way down to middle school). Do you really need a sci/tech middle school emphasis? I majored in engineering for Pete’s sake. If you don’t get a good foundation in high school, you sure as heck are not getting it in Eng. school!!!

    One of my pet peeves is the desperate thrust to teach computer science in high school. What on earth for? Seriously, I would rather those kids spend more time on cultural literacy and algebra; I would also appreciate NOT having to undo the bad habits they learn there as well. The other thing that bugs me in the same arena is having little kid computer class. My child has spent one period per week in computer class. SINCE KINDERGARTEN. What on earth for? A kid doesn’t need to learn word processing until the year before they start having to turn in papers that are typewritten.

    *** throwing my hands up and going to find a strong cup o joe ***

  2. I know what you mean about the Cold War… I tried to teach a story (cannot remember its name) which was about the fear we all felt during that time to my American lit. students last year, and it completely went over their heads. I’ve never been met with so many blank looks; it was very frustrating.

    But I don’t know what the answer is, what works and historical eras absolutely must be taught. I was appalled to discover that our world history teacher spends weeks on the Native American tribes in both South and North America, but he usually skips the Egyptians and the ancient Greek civilizations. WHY?!

  3. i just spent over an hour taking those tests. 😛

  4. I have thought about this a lot since cultural literacy is a major debate in my district. What I have noticed from the district office is a push to “teach skills” through text samples which mirror the state test. This means selections of no more than 750 words in a high school class with a ficus on pieces of 150-250 words. In fact the middle schools in my district have stopped teaching novels. This said, here are my thoughts on this trend of a decreasing cultural literacy:

    – a focus on skills over content,
    – state test mirrored text samples,
    – more subjects exposed to rather than depth of a few,
    – the classics sacrificed for contemporary pieces,
    – a greater emphasis on practice assessments and testing, and
    – the influence of multiple entertainment mediums.

    Now I need to check out those tests. 🙂

  5. * focus, not ficus 🙂

  6. Siobhan Curious

    I think that we’re responsible for contextualizing things that our students don’t relate to. I teach a novel that relies heavily on an understanding of Cold War fear, and I show my students part of “The Day After” to give them that understanding (and boy, does it give them an understanding of that fear!) Then I talk to them about how I felt when I was 13 and watched it for the first time, and how it affected societal perceptions of nuclear war. It drives the point home, and many of them can relate it to post-9/11 fear as well.

    Where literature is concerned, I’m not sure I think there’s anything specific that I would put on a cultural literacy exam. My college is massively multi-ethnic, and I couldn’t possibly be responsible for providing each student with a basis for relating to both “Canadian” culture and their own culture of origin.

    I think cultural literacy constructs itself as a result of whatever the critical mass of teachers finds important during a particular period of time. (Yes, I think teachers have a major impact on it.) So those going to school now will be able to relate to one another through their familiarity with graphic novels, certain excellent popular novels (everyone seems to be teaching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for good reason), and classic standbys like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Catcher in the Rye.

    Is something lost if students don’t read Shakespeare? Absolutely. But something is also lost if they don’t read a lot of Milton or T. S. Eliot, and most English teachers I know agree that it is no longer possible to teach many such works in most adolescent classrooms unless we dedicate so much time to them as to eliminate everything else.

    I feel differently about history – there are certain historical topics that seem essential – but, not being a history teacher, I will not speak out of turn…


  7. What a great post, I agree with all you write!

  8. WL

    Those cultural literacy tests were fun, but they could use a once-over by a competent proofreader.

  9. Yeah, WL, I noticed that, too. Sigh…

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