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Self-Help for the Culturally Illiterate : Another Book of Lists: Essential Facts and Dates That 'Every American Needs to Know'

September 20, 1987|JACK SMITH

IMPROBABLY, A BOOK called "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know"(Houghton Mifflin) was a nationwide best seller during the summer, when our reading tastes are supposed to turn to light fiction.

Its author, E. D. Hirsch Jr., a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that teaching our children how to read is not enough: They must be taught to recognize thousands of facts, names, phrases, quotations and titles that represent the basic information of our culture.

He calls this information "the shared knowledge that we have been able to take for granted in communicating with our fellow citizens."

He cites various surveys to document our young people's appalling ignorance. Two-thirds of 17-year-olds do not know when the Civil War was fought; half cannot identify either Churchill or Stalin; many Virginia students did not know who Grant and Lee were.

He quotes a Los Angeles educator, Benjamin J. Stein: "I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one who could tell me when World War I was fought. Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought."

Hirsch concedes that young people know a great deal, but what they know is "ephemeral and narrowly confined to their own generation." He notes that young people "strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations."

He holds that this ignorance is a serious problem for the nation. "Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information that the symbols represent, can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community."

I suspect that what has made Hirsch's book so popular is not its earnestly argued text but an appendix in which he has listed about 5,000 words, people, places, events, titles, phrases and quotations that are, he says, the symbols of our common knowledge.

At the outset he lists famous dates such as 1066, 1492, 1776, 1861-1865, 1914-1918, and 1939-1945, all of which every literate American knows.

The list goes through the alphabet, including such persons as Achilles, Muhammad Ali, John Audubon and Humphrey Bogart; such places as the Acropolis, the Panama Canal and Wall Street, and such familiar sayings as "All's fair in love and war," "All's well that ends well" and "Easy come, easy go."

The appeal of this list, I suspect, is in its familiarity. Most of us would know most of the terms and would conclude that we are therefore culturally literate, which is a good thing to be.

You aren't expected to define each term thoroughly--simply to have some idea of its meaning and its place in space and time. One need not have read the Iliad but ought to know that Achilles is its hero; one is also expected to be familiar with the phrase Achilles' heel .

Hirsch and the two colleagues who compiled the list are hoping to expand it into a dictionary listing the associations conveyed to literate people by each term.

That won't be easy. He wonders whether all the following should be listed under Lincoln:

"Gaunt face with a beard; log cabin; Honest Abe; debates with Douglas; Gettysburg Address; stovepipe hat; Emancipation Proclamation; 'With malice toward none, with charity for all'; John Wilkes Booth; 'Tell me what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, so I can get it for my other generals'; 'One aye, seven noes, the ayes have it.' "

Of course such a definition would not enlighten us unless we knew a great deal more about Lincoln; unless we knew who Grant, Douglas and Booth were; unless we had read the Gettysburg Address, and so on. The remark about Grant is meaningless unless we know who Grant was and that rivals had complained to Lincoln about his drinking.

So memorizing Hirsch's list isn't going to do us much good. Behind our familiarity with each symbol is a great deal of information that we have had to acquire over a lifetime.

Of course, that is what Hirsch is proposing--that our children be taught specifics as well as skills, so that all those symbols mean something to them.

While I was thinking about all this, I took time out to work the Sunday magazine crossword puzzle with my wife. It occurred to me that crossword puzzles are a test of cultural literacy.

I was filling in the squares and calling out the clues. "Severely slashed," I read. "C, blank, blank, blank, O, blank, blank, blank, B, blank blank blank."

Almost at once, she said, "Cut to the bone."

I was astonished. "Very good," I said. I gave her another one, with several clues.

It took her a minute. "Most unkindest cut," she finally said.

Excellent! Right out of "Julius Caesar," and on Hirsch's list!

I just read her the definition of 23 across, without clues. " 'Skimping'; 14 letters."

Wise by now to the reiteration of the verb cut, she said, "Cutting corners."

Only the Shakespearean phrase is on Hirsch's list, but the others might well be. They are all a part of our common language.

I was gratified to find out that my spouse is culturally literate.

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