Book braindumps: E. D. Hirsch, Jr. – Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know

May 21, 2017 – 5:28 pm

Once upon a time in grad school, I wrote memos on the stuff I read. This post is about a book by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., written in 1988 (it shows) and titled “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.”

The phrases “Every American” and “needs to know” immediately sensitize me to an epistemological, homogenous, and nationalistic orientation — there’s knowledge out there, and everybody within the boundaries of this country ought to know that same knowledge. There are some pretty big assumptions in these kinds of statements, but — okay, let’s see what these assumptions might take us! There’s certainly some nifty prospects in them.

And sure enough, before we even leave the preface, Hirsch reminds us that e pluribus, unum. “[C]ultural conservatism is useful for the purposes of national communication. It enables grandparents to communicate with grandchildren, southerners with midwesterners, whites with blacks, Asians with Hispanics, and Republicans with Democrats — no matter where they were educated.” (p. xii)

I do think this is a valid argument. Shared knowledge does enable communication. However, it doesn’t ensure it — and a huge, explicit, deliberately shared corpus of knowledge certainly isn’t required for it; you can bootstrap and figure out from remarkably few things. One of my fondest memories of World Youth Day in Krakow was meeting a Deaf young man from Germany who knew as much ASL as I knew DGS (German sign language), which is to say… basically none. Over the course of one long evening, lit by flashlights and cell phones in a grassy field (we were camping), we slowly pieced together enough for conversation. Typing, gesturing, pointing, going back and forth… it worked. I watched more skilled signers from many different nations work out things with a fluency that stunned me; creoles were assembled as if from thin air (actually from lots of experience and expertise), as bits and patches of people knowing some of each others’ languages came together and jumped into making common ground where previously there was very little.

Actually, yes. That’s it. You don’t need to preload people with lots of common knowledge. You can co-create knowledge together in the moment, too. I’m not knocking a good educational background — it helps, it’s important, it does smooth communication and enable a richness of understanding — but it is not a hard prerequisite for what is happening here.


“To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” (p. xiii)

Oh boy. Unpacking that in the context of each (curricular) culture is loaded. I mean, yes, arguably… in most of the world, learning dominant culture things are needed to thrive, but it takes so much energy if you’re not already a fully accepted prestige-level member of that dominant culture.

Also, I don’t fully understand why this book has two prefaces. One is for the “vintage edition,” and the book I hold in my hands from the Fox Branch Cambridge Public Library is the vintage edition from Random House… maybe there was another, non-vintage, Random House edition… but there was also maybe an earlier book titled “What Literate Americans Know” published by Houghton Mifflin and with additional authors Joseph Kett and James Trefil? Librarians, help me!

On pages 10-12, Hirsch recaps a talk by Orlando Patterson. In that talk, Patterson argues that that cultural literacy was a prerequisite for a person, especially a minority person, to hold power. Patterson points out that cultural literacy is not “socially neutral” — it works towards a society based on merit.

So, first of all: I do appreciate that Patterson (and Hirch) acknowledge this is not socially neutral. (Nothing is.) But also, as a STEM practitioner… this is the myth of meritocracy that’s so endemic in my field. It’s the notion that if we are to have equality of power across currently disparate groups, the minorities better catch up and do all the majority things, which they can, because it’s a meritocracy open to all, right?

And there are many good things to this view! I do think there are some majority-culture tools and structures that can be profoundly helpful — libraries and written information access, colleges and the notion of higher education and scholarships to help people get there, no longer barring people from specific paths of study because of race or gender or nationality or disability or… (well, theoretically no longer barring them, anyway) so that people can get the same information…

But it’s not just about the same information. The majority cultures also need to learn and shift their literacies to be broader and more flexible, or we perpetuate colonialism. I mean, isn’t this asking for minorities to think like the dominant group? Or is it the start of the argument that you need to get into a system in order to really change it, unless you light a powder keg fuse? I think of Audre Lorde’s statement that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. I’m not sure how to interpret the broader context of that statement, and whether I agree or not. More thinking here to do.

On page 30-31, Hirsch points out that rote learning isn’t bad; lots of cultures require children to rote-learn many things (religious ceremonies, etc.) as a way of passing on “the weight of human tradition across many cultures.”

And I think: is this why I like new fields, where these things are still forming? Is this also something inflected by access for me, where I can build in access from the ground up in the things that I help to create — and don’t need to catch up in a massive, thick world built for people who aren’t like me?

My inner critical theorist comes out again some pages later, on p. 136, when Hirsch talks about building the list of “what all Americans should know” with his team. Basically, how did they know they got the list right-enough? They asked people, and they agreed.

“In consulting others about our initial list we did in fact discover a strong consensus about the significant elements in our core literate vocabulary. My colleagues and I were not surprised at this agreement, but we were gratified to find that the consensus did indeed exist far beyond our narrow circle and extended to educated Americans of different ages, sexes, races, and ethnic origins.” (p. 136)

Seems simple enough on the surface, but… I want to say, instead, that this extends to literate Americans of all types that have learned to act like cishet middle-class abled white dudes, etc. Also, who wants to bet the colleagues putting this together were largely fitting that description?

Basically, you’re working with the definitions of cultural literacy as the power dynamics currently prescribe it, so there would be some agreement because there’s some stability to that. Now, going critical on this: who has decided what is in and out, and who gets to learn it? These are the sorts of engineering epistemology questions we’re starting to raise in engineering education research with a critical turn. (For instance, why indigenous building knowledge isn’t valued as engineering knowledge, etc.)

I’m being unfair to Hirsch a bit, though. It was 1988. And they do acknowledge their positionality and the social construction of knowledge.

On page 136: “We do not claim that the initial list is definitive… its design must be somewhat arbitrary for mechanical reasons alone. Further words that literate people associate with individual items could be represented by further entries… We therefore had to rely on our own experience and judgment in deciding what is central and what is subordinate in compiling such a list.”

They also have a lovely bit shortly thereafter on how any bounds they put around the “things Americans should know” are inevitably going to be arbitrary, since knowledge connects and at some point you need to figure out how far you’re going to go down the rabbit hole.

Alright, I made a braindumping blog post! Awesome. My formal reading notes have far more depth and detail, but blogging out loud about the things I’m reading helps me think… and I have missed being here, doing this kind of writing. I’ve been a little burnt out with scholarly writing, honestly. And I’ve also worried that, now that I’m starting to think about becoming faculty instead of a student only, this will seem “unprofessional.” But… faculty have messy early thoughts, too. And it’s okay for people to see that. When I publish, when I submit to conferences and books and journals… I do refine things more, put order to them — but this is a stage of thinking, too. And I do love it, and love sharing it, so… here we go. This is part of who I am as a scholar, too.

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