Cultural Literacy

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 1987)

Cultural Literacy probably ought not to be considered “professional literature” if only because it is aimed at a popular audience. “Proflit” is of interest to and is read by only a handful of narrowly focused specialists – by definition. Worse, Cultural Literacy has achieved a considerable measure of actual popularity – or notoriety – depending on your views on the subject. Most of all, it is an accusation of the education profession, smacking, at times of argumentum ad populum demagoguery.

Although Hirsch directly addresses literacy as reading and then goes on to grind various conservative socio-political axes, Cultural Literacy is not without implications for the teaching of writing. Let us look for a m moment beyond such issues as whether English should be constitutionally mandated as the nation’s official language to save the United States from a fate worse than Belgium’s or Canada’s (one of the author’s socio-political contentions).

The central premise upon which all the book’s arguments are founded is that there is far more to reading than decoding words. These skills are usually in place by the end of the third grade. Interestingly, differences in reading ability along socio-economic class lines do not begin to emerge until about this time; in the early grades, children from disadvantaged homes seem able to learn to read with a facility no less than that of their more fortunate classmates. After that, the gap widens rapidly. Why? Because decoding words is one thing; making sense of a passage of text is quite something else. If Johnny can’t read, it is because he doesn’t know enough. He can decode the passage, but he doesn’t have an adequate context to interpret it. Hirsch cites numerous examples, some statistical, some anecdotal. One of the more memorable of the latter concerned a passage about Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. In an experimentally administered reading test, a group of community college students experienced great difficulty with the passage and for the most part failed miserably to answer what would seem to be obvious questions about it. The vocabulary was simple, and students on the whole did well on a separate vocabulary test on the “harder” words from the passage. Yet they failed to grasp the passage as a whole. Hirsch attributes this failure to the student’s ignorance of Civil War history. They didn’t have any context from which to interpret the passage; they didn’t know what it was talking about.

Socio-economic discrepancies in reading ability occur, postulates Hirsch, because children from advantaged homes often (but not always) pick up more background information from their (generally better educated) parents. It is information of this sort that writers (generally literate people themselves) assume on behalf of their readers, and must assume in the interests of efficiency and clarity of expression. Children from less advantaged homes are more dependent on the school for such knowledge. And the school, charges Hirsch, fails to provide it. Why? Well, we could just blame it on John Dewey and let it go at that, but it is the explanation that is of interest to us here.

To Hirsch, the philosophical boogeyman is Formalism – the idea that academic skills exist apart from subject matter and can be taught in isolation from subject matter, or, at least, any matter will do as a vehicle to teach the skill. For example, reading and writing viewed thus are sets of decoding and encoding techniques. What particular matter is decoded or encoded is beside the point; once the techniques are mastered, they may at will be transferred to any remotely similar subject matter. A current example just coming upon the scene is the teaching of Thinking Skills (this is my example, not Hirsch’s). Thinking about what? No matter. As an administrator in my district recently enthused, once we teach a child How to Think, then later he will know How to Think about whatever he may wish to think about. Teach the Skill of Thinking. Formalism.

This is bad? Yes, says Hirsch. It has been responsible for the de-emphasis of subject matter in the nation’s schools. He cites two studies of American secondary curriculum, each acclaimed and enormously influential in its time. The earlier is the Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, 1893. Its emphasis was on subject matter as common shared experience for all students, college-bound or not. The following passage from Hirsch citing the report itself is fairly long, but instructive of Hirsch’s values:

The…report assumed that all students would take the same humanistic subjects and recommended giving a new emphasis to the natural sciences. It took for granted that secondary school offerings would continue to consist of just the traditional areas that its subcommittees had been formed to consider – Latin, Greek, English and other modern languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, natural history, botany, zoology, physiology, history, civil government, economy and geography…. All sections of the 1893 report stressed the importance of integrating the contents of the subjects. It was emphatic, for instance, in holding that English composition should not be conceived as a skill in isolation from subject matter, and in one passage it explicitly rejected what I have called educational formalities in English.

The conference doubts the wisdom of requiring for admission to college set essays…whose chief purpose is to test the student’s ability to write English. It believes that there are serious theoretical and practical objections to estimating a student’s power to write a language on the basis of a theme composed not for the sake of expounding something that he knows or thinks, but merely for the sake of showing his ability to write… Power comes through knowledge; we cannot conceive of observation and memory in the abstract.

Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918) explicitly rejected the earlier focus on subject matter. Instead, it stressed the seven fundamental aims of education in a democracy: “1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical Character.”

And, says Hirsch, it is this latter report that has set the tone for all that has followed in American education ever since.

The mischief, Hirsch believes, has been a resultant fragmentation of curriculum in American schools. Subject matter, no longer paramount, has come increasingly to serve these societal agendas. And with the perception, based on the work of Thorndike and others about this time, that different students have different abilities and different needs, has come the belief that different students not only should study different subjects, but should be exposed to different extents and depths of subject matter. And so the common core of cultural experience once offered by the nation’s schools has been sacrificed to the “shopping mall” approach.

Many of Hirsch’s arguments are compelling, far more so, to me at least, than many educator-critics give them credit for being. Many, but not all, unfortunately. Some invite the very sort of abuses he inveighs against. For example, he concludes the book with an appended list of some 500 terms – “What literate Americans know,” a disappointingly trivial “solution” to some problems that demand some serious re-evaluations of our educational philosophies. I can see it now: a new graduation requirement, a required course called Cultural Literacy in which every Idaho senior will be required to memorize Hirsch’s list, and if he passes the proficiency exam thereon, will be granted a seal on his diploma declaring him Culturally Literate. Compared to the prospect of such silliness, a course in How to Think almost makes sense.

So, what has any of this to do with writing? After all, Hirsch starts out with the question “Even if Johnny can read, why can’t he understand any part of it?” The point of connection is to be found in the concept of Formalism. The teaching of writing has long been plagued by Formalism at its damndest. First, the student must learn to name the parts of speech. Then he can parse sentences, then diagram sentences. Once a student has learned to diagram proficiently, he can try his hand at writing various kinds of sentences on his own. Once he has mastered the sentence, he can graduate to the paragraph, and when he can write perfect paragraphs, with topic sentence underlined, of course, he may be permitted, as the summation of his educational career, to write a whole five-paragraph theme. That’s what Hirsch calls Formalism. I exaggerate slightly for effect, but only slightly. And we have outgrown this sort of nonsense, haven’t we? Most of us, at least?

Perhaps. But old habits are hard to break, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. As I read book after book on the new Process Writing, I wonder if we have not substituted one Formalism for another. Then, freedom from error was an end in itself and transcended actual content. Now, if a student keeps a journal, peer edits, does (four, six, eight, umpteen, depending on who you read) revisions, we assume that meaning will accrue. Then, it mattered not so much whether the student said anything, so long as each of his five paragraphs had topic sentences; now, does it matter so long as he follows the Process? Could it be, to extend Hirsch’s argument, that much student writing is vacuous and dull because many students don’t know enough about much of anything to write about it intelligently? Could it be that Process emphasis on personal writing is a tacit admission of this? And how is a student to write insightfully about his experiences and opinions if the has not enough external information to provide a context for his internal experiences? How can he interpret himself any more than he can interpret that passage about Appomattox?

One may wish to dismiss Hirsch’s book. There is a tone of shrill fault-finding and finger-pointing that is offensive to thoughtful and concerned teachers. His ideological toadying to the William Bennett ilk of conservatives is downright distasteful. Yet his underlying premises and some of their underlying implications are worthy of consideration, even if not in the sense that the author intends.

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