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 “American’ 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 ould 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 ne 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 llusions 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 people in the United States, but not everyone can memorize dates and names, the truth is – not everyone needs to. Therefore, I think the best kind of education will combine the theories of Dewey and Hirsch.
This could be done by involving hands-on experiences in addition to a lesson or lecture. Too much of either type of education simply won’t be advantageous to students once they are out of school. I found Cultural Literacy particularly interesting because of the fact that I am attending Colgate University, a liberal arts school. It is the mission of a liberal arts school to educate each student in several different areas and for each student to become knowledgeable of a core curriculum. In a sense, this is what Hirsch wants for every school in the United States.