Monday, July 9, 2007

Cultural Literacy

My grandmother passed away this year at the age of 99. She was one of the most amazing women that I have of the most well-read, intellectual women I have known. She taught Spanish, English grammar, and other subjects. She read the encyclopedia for fun. She had a book published at the age of 92.

My father was choosing a few books from my grandmother's shelves to bring home to our family. He gave me her copy of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Even if I hadn't been interested in reading this book already, just seeing all of her underlining in pencil would have made the book meaningful to me. I feel like I'm having a little conversation with her as I read along.

From Chapter 1, Literacy and Cultural Literacy:

pg. 2

[C]ultural literacy [is namely] the network of information that all competent readers possess. It is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read.

pg. 3

We know instinctively that to understand what somebody is saying, we must understand more than the surface meanings of words; we have to understand the context as well...To grasp the words on a page we have to know a lot of information that isn't set down on the page.

pg. 4

[C]ommunication between strangers requires an estimate of how much relevant information can be taken for granted in the other person. If they can take a lot for granted, their communications can be short and efficient, subtle and complex. But if strangers share very little knowledge, their communications must be long and relatively rudimentary.

pg. 31

In the technological age, Washington and the cherry tree, Scrooge and Christmas, the fights historical, the oceans geographical, the "beings animalculus," and all the other shared materials of literate culture have become more, not less, important. The more computers we have, the more we need shared fairy tales, Greek myths, historical images, and so on. That is not really the paradox it seems to be. The more specialized and technical our civilization becomes, the harder it is for nonspecialists to participate in the decisions that deeply affect their lives. If we do not achieve a literate society, the technicians, with their arcane specialties, will not be able to communicate with us nor we with them. That would contradict the basic principles of democracy and must not be allowed to happen.

Chapter 2, The Discovery of the Schema:

pg. 59-60

To participate in the literate national culture is to have acquired a sense of the information that is shared in that culture. No adult-level discourse retreats to the rudiments of knowledge. If assumptions about rudiments could not be made, ordinary discourse would be so lengthy and intricate as to obscure its own point.

Literacy requires us to have both intensive knowledge of relationships and extensive knowledge of specifics...It is not enough to say that students can look these facts up. The research reviewed above shows that in order for readers to integrate phrases into comprehensible meanings, they must already possess specific, quickly available schemata. When readers constantly lack crucial information, dictionaries and encyclopedias become quite impractical tools. A consistent lack of necessary information can make the reading process so laborious and uncommunicative that it fails to convey meaning.

Chapter 4, The Vocabulary of a Pluralistic Nation:

pg. 106

It is, therefore, a very odd cliche that connects literate national culture with elitism, since it is the least elitist or exclusive culture that exists in any modern nation. Literate culture is far less exclusive, for instance, than any ethnic culture, no matter how poverty bound, or pop culture or youth culture. It has no in-group, no generational or geographical preference. It can be mastered in the country or in the city, in a shanty or a mansion, so long as the opportunity is given. But it must be given effectively by schooling that produces literacy, not by ceremonies of schooling that do not.

Chapter 5, Cultural Literacy and the Schools:

pg. 125

Indeed, if traditional facts were to be presented unimaginatively or taught ignorantly or regarded as ends in themselves, we would have much to deplore in a return to traditional education. But dry incompetence is not the necessary alternative to lively ignorance.

pg. 126

To learn a culture is natural to human beings. Children can express individuality only in relation to the traditions of their society, which they have to learn. The greatest human individuality is developed in response to a tradition, not in response to disorderly, uncertain, and fragmented education. Americans in their teens and twenties who were brought up under individualistic theories are not less conventional than their predecessors, only less literate, less able to express their individuality.

pg. 133

But it isn't facts that deaden the minds of young children, who are storing facts in their minds every day with astonishing voracity. It is incoherence--our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.

Chapter 6, The Practical Outlook:

pg. 142

There are many things to be said against making a list, and in the past two years I have heard them. Ideological objections to codifying and imposing the culture of the power structure have been among them. These are objections to the whole concept of spreading cultural literacy and are consequently objections to spreading literacy itself, not to making lists. A sounder objection is that the very existence of a list will cause students merely to memorize the bare items it contains and learn nothing significant at all. Students will trivialize cultural information without really possessing it.

How can I deny that such misuse of the list is not only a danger but a near certainty?

While reading Cultural Literacy, I recalled coming across a similar thought in the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Canadian doctors Neufeld and Maté. One of the most interesting chapters, to me, discussed the way culture has traditionally been handed down vertically from generation to generation. In our current age, due to the rapid changes in technology, our culture is changing with unprecedented speed. There is less shared culture and communication between generations.

Chapter 7, The Flatlining of Culture:

pg. 87

In the separate tribe many of our children have joined, the transmission of values and culture flows horizontally, from one unlearned and immature person to another. This process, which can be thought of as the flatlining of culture, is, under our very eyes, eroding one of the underpinnings of civilized social activity. A certain degree of tension between generations is a natural part of development but is usually resolved in ways that allow for children to mature in harmony with the culture of their elders. Young people can have free self-expression without forgetting or disrespecting universal values handed down vertically, from one generation to the next. That is not what we are seeing today.

pg. 90

The culture generated by peer orientation contains no wisdom, does not protect its members from themselves, creates only fleeting fads, and worships idols hollow of value or meaning.

pg. 91

Immature beings revolving around one another invent their own language and modes of expression that impoverish their self-expression and cut them off from others.

pg. 92-93

Many of our children are growing up bereft of the universal culture that produced the timeless creations of humankind: The Bhagavad Gita; the writings of Rumi and Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes and Faulkner, or of the best and most innovative of living authors; the music of Beethoven and Mahler; or even the great translations of the Bible. They know only what is current and popular, appreciate only what they can share with their peers...

And only in healthy relationships with adult mentors--parents, teachers, elders, artistic, musical and intellectual creators--can children receive their birthright, the universal and age-honored cultural legacy of humankind. Only in such relationships can they fully develop their own capacities for free and individual and fresh cultural expression.

Chapter 13, Unteachable Students:

pg. 174

What they learn, however, is not the value of thinking, the importance of individuality, the mysteries of nature, the secrets of science, the themes of human existence, the lessons of history, the logic of mathematics, the essence of tragedy. Nor do they learn about what is distinctly human, how to become humane, why we have laws, or what it means to be noble. What children learn from their peers is how to talk like their peers, walk like their peers, dress like their peers, act like their peers, look like their peers. In short, what they learn is how to conform and imitate.

Using information as pegs on which to store more information was an idea first presented to me in The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Again, I noticed interesting similarities in their case for a neo-classical education.

Chapter 3, The Parrot Years:

pg. 22

Language teacher Ruth Beechick writes, "Our society is so obsessed with creativity that people want children to be creative before they have any knowledge or skill to be creative with." Your job, during the elementary years, is to supply the knowledge and skills that will allow your child to overflow with creativity as his mind matures.

That doesn't mean that your first grader has to learn about complex subjects in depth or that you're going to force him to memorize long lists of details. In the first four years of learning, you'll be filling your child's mind and imagination with as many pictures, stories, and facts as you can. Your goal is to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.

You might read a book about the planet Mars to your second grader. If it's the first time he's heard about Mars, he probably won't grasp all the information you're giving him. But he may hear on the news that night the most recent information from the Mars space probe, and suddenly something that would have passed by him clicks in his mind. You'll tell him, in history, about the Roman god Mars, the father of Romulus and Remus, and he'll hang this detail on the peg you provided when you read that book about planets. When he runs across the word martial and asks what it means, you can tell him that it means warlike and comes from the name Mars, god of war--and the information will stick.

pg. 23

A classical education assumes that knowledge of the world past and present takes priority over self-expression. Intensive study of facts equips the student for fluent and articulate self-expression later on. Too close a focus on self-expression can actually cripple a child later on; a student who has always been encouraged to look inside himself may not develop a frame of reference, a sense of how his ideas measure up against the thoughts and beliefs of others.

And finally, Hirsch's desire to educate disadvantaged, minority students to the level of cultural literacy brought back recent memories of reading and watching Marva Collins and how she taught inner city children:

I taught my students how to add and subtract, but I also taught them that arithmetic is a Greek word meaning to count and that numbers were called digits after the Latin word digitus, meaning finger, because people used to count on their fingers. I taught them about Pythagoras, who believed that mathematics made a pupil perfect and ready to meet the gods. I told them what Socrates said about straight thinking leading to straight living.

It is amazing to me when ideas flow together from a variety of sources. Interesting food for thought, no?

If you have young children and find the concept of Cultural Literacy interesting, you might want to check out The New First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Your Child Needs to Know. Divided by 21 subjects such as Medicine and the Human Body, Technology, Politics and Economics, Mythology, and World History, this book covers basic information a child should know by the end of sixth grade. I find it fascinating to read through the entries and think about what information Levi might or might not have covered by that age. I also realize how much ground I have to make up in my own education.

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