As I was writing my recent post on the words and phrases and concepts William Shakespeare contributed to Western culture, I started considering how interesting life is when one knows such things. I mean, do you smile when I write “I’d rather be right than be president” or do you wonder what in the world I’m talking about? Our lives are enriched if we have a satisfactory cultural frame of reference. If we have, you know, some basic cultural literacy.
When I was a kid I failed to appreciate how culturally literate (and, it follows, well-read) my mother was. She’d studied Latin for four years in her Chicago high school and had a thorough grounding in the classics. She’d say, “To thine own self be true,” and in the context of her conversation it sounded as right and real and natural as anything else she said, things like “you’re just tilting at windmills, honey” when she thought I was wasting my time in a fruitless effort, or “I’ve earned this nap with the sweat of my brows. You kids go play now.” (There were also a lot of references to the sufferings of Job where we kids were concerned; honestly, I don’t know how she put up with us.)
I didn’t even know what cultural literacy was until E. D. Hirsch published his now-famous Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know in 1987. He began formulating this concept—that for full comprehension a reader needs relevant background knowledge—as a college professor of composition, and the book was both celebrated and controversial.
Some of the controversies are discussed in this article by English/literature professor (Long Island University) Bernard Schweizer, writing in the NEA Higher Education Journal (fall 2009). He also makes a compelling case for teaching cultural literacy. He’d been discussing an essay with his students in a remedial freshman composition class; some of the (literary and other) references had been footnoted, but …
A host of other references go uncited, apparently because the textbook editors assumed that they do not need to be explained. Names like Henry David Thoreau and Job (biblical character), words including “Gandhianism” and “quixotic,” expressions such as “something is in the offing” or “the excretions of our economy,” as well as allusions like “the snows of Kilimanjaro are set to become the rocks of Kilimanjaro,” or “we may all be hot, but some will be hotter than others,” go entirely without footnotes. When I tossed out questions about what these words and phrases might mean, I got the following results: one student out of 15 could identify Mahatma Gandhi; none had ever heard of Ernest Hemingway; none had a clue who Thoreau was; two could identify Job as a biblical character; one had a vague recollection of George Orwell; and as for “in the offing” or “excretions of our economy,” only one or two could do anything at all with these expressions.
This tells me that the level of general education is alarmingly low among the freshman population at my school. It further tells me that my students are not only hampered by a lack of factual knowledge, but that this shortcoming translates into problems with diction and literacy as well. Obviously, without continuous and rather pedantic explanations from me, my students can grasp only the surface meaning of McKibben’s essay. Their reading comprehension is flat, anemic, and literal rather than deep, rich, and associative. They don’t grasp the ominous implications of “in the offing,” and they miss the ironic overtones of “quixotic.” Take all the (un-footnoted) references to Gandhi, Hemingway, Miguel de Cervantes, Orwell, Thoreau, and the Bible out of McKibben’s essay, remove all the idiomatic expressions and cut the literary allusions, and you end up with a deflated text that looks as if it had been gone over by a censor’s pen in some weird dystopia. Little do we know that a large proportion of our young students are already inhabiting such a world.
Yes, I bought Hirsch’s book, and several of the ones that followed (What Your First Grader Needs to Know, and so on); I had the Boy to think about. But life intervened and I failed to become the teacher my mother had been. Still, this story turns out well—because, like me, the Boy is a reader.
And that’s where cultural literacy starts. (Just have a look at this list of author-invented words and you’ll see what I mean.) I learned it—or got some of it on me—by reading. (It helps that I had some wonderful, literate English teachers in high school and college.) But I’ll never forget the first time I read the phrase with bated breath and experienced the (ahem) shock and awe of spelling realization and contextual understanding. True story: my mother frequently used that phrase—with a twinkle in her eye, as surely one must when awaiting one’s five-year-old’s latest pronouncement—and every time, I thought of Tom and Jerry. That was my frame of reference as a five-year-old: Tom takes a bite of cheese (baiting his breath) and waits outside the little arched hole in the baseboard, through which Jerry can reasonably be expected to saunter at some point.
Go ahead, laugh! I am—with the sheer joy of remembering that discovery. In his book Language and Thought in Action, S. I. Hayakawa says, “In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to lead; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.”
I think that’s what cultural literacy is about—having lived (and perhaps lost) those other lives in books. (Because cultural literacy, friends, is not knowing how to use “Whassup?” in proper context.) Me, I like the living and the knowing. I know I recently said I don’t care what you read … but that’s not entirely true. I think it’s important to be culturally literate, which means sometimes you have to read great literature.
* Why, then the world’s mine oyster / Which I with sword will open.
—William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 2, scene 2
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