Cultural Literacy
What Every American Needs to Know
by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1987
205 pages

September 2012

Civil discourse in a vacuum

What E. D. Hirsch, Jr. attempts to do in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and in much of his work thereafter, is to reverse the cultural illiteracy that over several generations has drained basic knowledge about American history and values, and indeed information in general, out of individual Americans and hence necessarily from the American body politic. I continue to be appalled as I encounter allegedly educated adults who don't know — and sometimes, on hearing, cannot even believe — common facts and events and values that I knew or understood in junior high school.

Peace in Union, Thomas Nast (Raphael Tuck postcard) One example Hirsch provides, poignant insofar as it is comprehensible, is that of American college students who are given several paragraphs to read about Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865. While the students were able to understand the words of the passage, it essentially was meaningless to them because they didn't know who Grant and Lee were.

As it happens, this particular passage is adapted from Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War (3 volumes, 1961-1965), which I read as a teenager. While not everyone is a Civil War buff, we cannot feel comfortable with the quality of participation possible for young citizens who do not even recognize two of the major figures of America's second great defining crisis. So many American values were battered and redefined and reforged in the Civil War period that today we still feel those hammering vibrations.

Notice in the black-and-white postcard of Thomas Nast's painting "Peace in Union" (1895), the Prussian-born Raphael Tuck, on his postcard printed in Britain forty years after the event, saw no need to provide details of the Union or Confederate generals, the event commemorated, its location, or its date. (The information is not on the reverse, either.) It was a major historical event that everyone knew and recognized.

The importance of what we've lost

Not to beat the dead horse of "educated ignorance" any harder, what did we use to have, and why? For the first several centuries of American colonization and nationhood, schools and colleges taught American history and values, and how these exemplified Western history and values. Math, science, geography, and all the curricula of facts were taken for granted, as was the ability to read and appreciate the great authors; and — insofar as it was possible to teach — the ability to express and employ these facts and ideas. As Hirsch makes clear, this is not a luxury:

We must assure that new generations will continue to be enfranchised in our medium of national communication as securely as they are enfranchised at the polls.

I'd put it that it is quixotic to expect mature decision-making from an electorate that lacks a reasonably mature level of knowledge about how our civilization got where it is, and how it works, or may be hindered from working. Hirsch looks to the American Founders with their evocation and embodiment of the great Western tradition — and the Founders' expectation that we could and would maintain this knowledge through succeeding generations, by education:

The founders of our republic had in mind a Ciceronian ideal of education and discourse in a republic. Cicero claimed that he could explain Greek science and philosophy or anything else to his fellow Romans in ordinary Latin terms, and he did. Our founders greatly admired Cicero's aims. Thomas Jefferson used the concepts in the Declaration of Independence and constantly referred to Cicero's writings in the notebook he kept. John Adams quoted Cicero at length in his Preface on Government and said of him that "all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher combined."

The Ciceronian ideal of universal public discourse was strong in this country into the early twentieth century. In the Roman republic of Cicero's time, such discourse was chiefly oral, and the education Cicero sought was in "rhetoric" rather than "literacy." But the terms are equivalent. Literacy — reading and writing taken in a serious sense — is the rhetoric of our day, the basis of public discourse in a modern republic. The teaching of Ciceronian literacy as our founders conceived it is a primary but currently neglected responsibility of our schools.

How did we skid so far downhill from the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century ideals of American education? (It's a failing of the post-modern West in general, but we will follow Hirsch in sticking to the American situation.) Surely we could have continued substantive education: America has not been physically overrun and had its schools and libraries devastated by foreign armies. Despite the money and hope and anguish poured into education, heaps of homework assigned as early as kindergarten, students spend less time in "content courses", and take away fewer facts from all this schooling — and without facts there is no understanding.

That we have chosen not to maintain historical values, suggests that America is in fact being culturally overrun by internal forces indifferent and even inimical to American and Western basics of individual knowledge and individual freedom. This is not a drift, this is a choice. We cannot maintain our individual freedoms without history and principles bright in the minds of Americans, because we cannot manage our government through civil discourse if ignorance and falsehoods swamp our basic and essential knowledge.

Re-gathering the building blocks

Hirsch and fellow professors Joseph Kett and James Trefil provide a 64-page Appendix, "What Literate Americans Know". This consists of words, names, and phrases of all kinds. It might be sobering to learn how much or how little of this list is recognized by high-school students; university students, bureaucrats enforcing regulations; Congressmen writing laws. Note that this is not a sealed, official list; nor are students or citizens expected to be able to write a thesis on any of these. But they should recognize and understand these terms when they are read or heard.

I'll point out a quick dozen personal favorites (disproportionately more names than words or phrases) just from the A's:

(The links are within Troynovant: more or less relevant, whimsical, and/or serious.)

Although a proverbial phrase I use above (beating a dead horse) is not listed in Hirsch's Appendix, horse-presence having lapsed in this motorized age, I especially am gratified that the timeless Lincoln-Douglas debates and plenty of other key Civil War names and issues are included. For if we are aware of the severity of the problem and the great stakes at issue, we may succeed in turning this illiteracy around before the American citizenry devolves irretrievably into benighted peasantry. For (as included in the list), venturing for the Golden Fleece is not for the faint-minded, yet hope springs eternal.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s
Core Knowledge Foundation

Children can’t think if they don’t learn facts
The academics who criticized rote learning are wrong —
it is at the heart of all knowledge
by Harry Mount, The Telegraph

The Top 5 Lamest Core Courses
by John Zmirak, Intercollegiate Review

Peace in Union
by Thomas Nast
1895 (original painting)
Galena and U.S. Grant Museum
Raphael Tuck 1906 postcard at TuckDB

American Civil War at Troynovant
1860-1865; freedom & slavery,
campaigns & battles

Schooling at Troynovant
school, college, learning

WordPoints at Troynovant
reading & writing, editing & publishing


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