On this day in 1987, the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know was published by American educator E.D. Hirsch. The basic premise of Hirsch’s bestselling book was that in order to be literate, students need fundamental background knowledge in a range of disciplines, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music. Hirsch argues that reading is more than just decoding words; comprehension requires a reader to possess knowledge of a shared body of cultural references.
For example, imagine a student read the following sentence from Ray Bradbury:
The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.
To catch Bradbury’s full meaning and his negative attitude towards television, the reader needs to understand the mythological allusions he makes to “Medusa” and “Siren.” The mere ability to pronounce or read the words is not enough to capture the meaning and tone of the sentence.
Cultural literacy, then, is the body of core, essential knowledge of the people, places, ideas, and concepts that form the collective memory of our culture.
In addition to defining and arguing for cultural literacy, Hirsch also included a 63-page appendix where he listed 5,000 subjects and concepts to illustrate the kind of specific cultural references that every literate person should know. Below is a sample of some of the terms:
ad hoc, Adam and Eve, Battle of the Bulge, Beatniks, capital punishment, Camelot, Emily Dickinson, The Divine Comedy, elementary particles, Epicureanism, The Federalist Papers, free will, Lady Godiva, gerrymander, hyperbole, Edward Hopper, isolationism, Irish potato famine, Jakarta, Judas Iscariot, King Lear, kitsch, Robert E. Lee, Lilliput, Ferdinand Magellan, Magna Carta, Neptune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, oxymoron, Oedipus, paranoid schizophrenia, pasteurization, beg the question, quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), The Red Badge of Courage, rank and file, sarcasm, Scylla and Charybdis, Tower of Babel, twin paradox, Ursa Minor, unilateralism, Venus de Milo, Voltaire, white elephant, Woodstock, X-chromosome, xenophobia, yellow journalism, yin and yang, Zeus, Zionism
In 1989, Hirsch published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a book that gives a brief definition of each cultural reference.
Today’s Challenge: Allusion Alphabet
What would you say are allusions – cultural references from history, religion, mythology, or literature – that everyone should know? Create an Allusion Alphabet that includes people, places, and ideas that you think are essential elements of cultural literacy; include at least one reference for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Once you have your alphabet, write a report on one of your allusions. Imagine you are writing to a person who is unfamiliar with the term. In addition to giving essential background details on the who, what, when, and where of your term, give the reader some explanation on why this concept is so important. (Common Core Writing 3 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education. We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse. -E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
1-Hirsh, E.D. Cultural Literacy