In the previous post we were discussing cultural literacy—the concept first propounded by educator E. D. Hirsch in 1987—and I’m still thinking about it.
When I was writing that post I stumbled upon this article from Psychology Today, and got a kick out of the little quiz it opens with. Are you culturally literate? asks Jonathan Wai about the twenty-one concepts listed here.*
No, don’t boot up Google. Put your iPhone down. Stop.
That’s precisely the point Wai makes:
For much of my life, I’ve had Google, and you have too. And because I’ve felt
thatI could always reason my way through problems as long as I was given the appropriate information (or was able to look it up), I always thought that what really matters is the ability to problem solve, not the ability to remember a ton of facts. What I have come to recognize is that problem solving ability is without question important, but thatthe core knowledge thatI have makes up the resources from which I can immediately draw upon to problem solve with.
“In other words,” Wai concludes, “you can’t solve problems unless you have the relevant knowledge to do so. And sometimes this knowledge needs to be immediately present.”
That is, as a cultural frame of reference.
Wai makes some good points, not least that cultural literacy cannot and must not be limited to one’s own generation. (He also uses the word that too much.)
Hirsch’s lists of cultural relevancy tend more toward concepts but I was interested to find this list of important books by someone who has talked a lot about why it’s vital that writers read great books. Even if you haven’t read all of them (and who has, for heavens’ sake?), the fact that you recognize these titles is a part of being culturally literate. (Some of the comments after the post are particularly distressing, but that’s another post entirely. Faulkner is not boring, and that’s just the start of it.) I present the list just as an item of interest.
Finally, after reading the previous post a dear friend of mine reminded me that the ability to use whassup in proper context is, in fact, cultural literacy, and he’s right, he’s right. He is right. But, God help us, it’s from a television commercial. That’s almost as low on the cultural literacy food chain as you can get (Jersey Shore, I think, is lower, but that’s your call). On the other hand, the television series Thirtysomething (first broadcast in 1987) added a word to the Oxford English Dictionary. And being possessed of cultural literacy definitely enhanced one’s viewing pleasure of Lost (premiered in 2004). Nonetheless, much of television is ephemera and, as noted above, is so of the moment it won’t contribute much of lasting value to anyone’s frame of reference.
Or at least that’s what I think right now. :) Let me know what you think.
* I can get you nineteen of them. But that’s only because I’ve read Steven Pinker. All I know about gamma rays is this, and I draw a complete blank on absolute zero. I think maybe it has something to do with temperature but, seriously, I haven’t a clue. Science has never been my strong suit.
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