Cultural Literacy According to E.D. Hirsch


According to E.D. Hirsch, to be culturally literate is to possess the basic
information to thrive in the modern world. It is the "grasp on the background
information that writers and speakers assume their audience already has." In
his book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch sets
forth 5,000 essential words and phrases of which each person should be
knowledgeable. The list ranges from idioms to mythology, from science to fairy
tales. Why has this list prompted a notable debate on our country\'s educational
standards? E.D. Hirsch believes that the literacy of American people has been
rapidly declining. The long range remedy for restoring and improving American
literacy must be to "institute a policy of imparting common information in our
schools." In short, according to Hirsch - the answer to our problem lies within
the list.

Hirsch\'s book explains the importance of the need of a higher level of national
literacy. His main argument is that cultural literacy is required for effective
communication and the "cooperation of many people..." Communication is what
Hirsch sees is essential for success in today\'s society. Communication is the
key to equality in America. With increased cultural literacy, an egalitarian
society is eventually possible. One common body of knowledge for everyone will
be the glue that holds society together.

Hirsch also points out the senselessness of concepts such as multi-culturalism
and multi-lingualism. He acknowledges the importance of the numerous cultures
and ethnicities of which United States is comprised. Hirsch mentions the
"hyphenated American: the Italo-American, the Polish-American, the Afro-
American, the Asian-American and so forth." He points out that he is in favor
of each minority\'s protection, nurture, and respect; however, he strongly feels
that people need to decide what "ŒAmerican\' means on the other side of the
hyphen...what national values and traditions really belong to national cultural
literacy." American cultural literacy should be based on our traditions --
morality of tolerance and benevolence, the Golden Rule, communal cooperation,
altruism and freedom. It is in this way that Hirsch argues those in opposition
of cultural literacy. Many opponents question Hirsch\'s view by questioning who
would decide this common body of knowledge for everyone. People debate what is
includedin "the list" on the basis of multiculturism. They ask, is the
knowledge equally important to every citizen of the United States no matter what
race, gender or religion? Hirsch responds by putting the emphasis on the other
side of the hyphen - the American side.

When reading Hirsch\'s book, I strongly agreed with his big picture of cultural
literacy and agree that it is important to establish a common body of knowledge
for students consisting of important facts. However, I think Hirsch takes it a
step too far by comprising a sample list that intentionally excludes Americans
that are of different origin. Hirsch needs to keep in mind that the United
States was founded on the ideal that anyone and everyone should be free and
equal -- no matter where they come from or who they are. In essence - multi-
culturalism is a part of America\'s foundation and I think that students should
be educated on that ground no matter what Hirsch\'s "list" says. I believe that
Hirsch\'s views regarding multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism are completely
one sided and too extreme to be applied in today\'s typical American classroom.

Although it is simple to imagine the glorious outcome of a nation that is fully
literate and educated in several areas, one must look at the details. In spite
of Dewey\'s revolutionary philosophy on education, Hirsch stands completely
opposite. Dewey\'s philosophy stresses the crucial role of experience in a
student\'s education and development. His system would prepare the student for
life in the "real world" -- for everyday interactions with peer and co-workers.
Hirsch criticizes methods advocated by Dewey and Rousseau by saying that a child
needs to "learn the traditions of the particular human society and culture it is
born into....American children need traditional information at a very early
age." But what role does traditional information play in today\'s society?
Hirsch longs for the historic educational system of memorization. He plans for
the student to use this information when engaging in somewhat intellectual
discussions and reading materials by preparing him for the author\'s brief
allusions and references. For the majority of Americans who are working blue-
collar jobs -- traditional information plays virtually no role at all. The
memorization of dates and names was simply a waste of time in the classroom;
their education is not being applied to their lifestyles. This sort of
education may be important for some