Discussing Cultural Literacy

socializationDiscussing Cultural Literacy


This is a conversation on a home school email group I belonged to over 10 years ago. I recently found it in an old file, and found it interesting. It is a discussion about “cultural literacy,” a theory related to education. It was presented in the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch in the late 1980s. He did research that showed that while readability is an important factor in reading comprehension, background knowledge is even more important. He concluded that schools should teach a curriculum that helps students understand things that writers take for granted. The book became a best-seller, but the ideas were controversial, being attacked as conservative, white and reactionary, as well as accused of ignoring learning styles and failing to provide information on minorities. He wrote “Core Knowledge” books for Kindergarten through sixth grade. Hirsch felt that the American education system, while teaching “critical learning skills” fails to teach important content, and thus fails to develop students with the knowledge they need to understand to develop successful reading comprehension…. Here is part of the home school email list conversation we had:
I think that the cultural literacy approach is compatible with a general unschooling approach, as it introduces a simple, solid base, from which unschooling families can choose their own pathways to follow. The series is American, but it should not be too difficult to adapt, by finding equivalent Canadian materials, especially in the areas of Canadian history, literature, and culture.


You can use the books as a guideline, and/or read them aloud and discuss them together daily. About 30 minutes a day is recommended for the read-aloud approach, not a very big investment in time, to give peace of mind that you are covering the basics while generally engaging in an unschooling approach. Short items (poems etc) are provided in full; longer items are paraphrased, or the key points are quoted, and you can use those as starting points to motivate your children to go into more depth in areas they find interesting.


Along our home school journey, I have tried BC Correspondence Curriculum, I have tried using the IRPs (course goals: scope and sequence) from the BC Ministry of Education, I have tried out scope and sequence charts from US publishers. The Correspondence Curriculum, while thorough, and doing most of the work for you, the parent/teacher/facilitator, is heavy and deadly unless your child loves workbooks. The IRPs are often difficult to understand, and you have to come up with ways to implement them. Scope and sequence charts are helpful in giving you an overview, but again you have to find the actual materials to fit.


That’s why I like the Core Knowledge cultural literacy approach; it not only gives you a starting place, but also provides the basic information in a format which can be handled quickly and easily, and provides motivation for your children to explore areas of interest in greater detail, using more of an unschooling approach.


Someone on this email list earlier recommended the book, Tales from Shakespeare (by Charles and Mary Lamb) as a way to introduce the plays of Shakespeare. I was doubtful, but took it out of the library (along with a thick volume of the complete works of Shakespeare) and started to read one “tale” to my children each evening (about 15 to 20 minutes per tale). My kids range in age from 8 to 16, and little niece and nephew, ages 4 and 5, also like to listen in to the oral reading. Reading aloud is an approach that seems to be enjoyed by people of all ages. Next thing I knew, my kids grabbed the Complete Works, and started reading the entire plays they had just heard in “tale” form. The reason I mention this, is that this is the kind of approach that the Core Knowledge series takes.


…. I taught English and Social Studies at the Secondary level in public schools, and I really did find that many kids know so little of what “culturally literate” adults assume as common knowledge – and make reference to in the books they write for children. This is one of the reasons I find this viewpoint so interesting; so much of our literature is “loaded” with allusions to history, literary characters, and so on.


For example, there has been a long thread on this email list re the Narnia books. While the books can be entertaining on a superficial, plot/story level, they are much more intriguing if you understand the allusions to Biblical stories, Greek mythology, British geography and history, and so on. So many students (and adults too) not only do not understand what they are reading beyond the most superficial level, because of their lack of knowledge of these basic, “culturally literate,” facts; furthermore, their own writing becomes shallow and less interesting as a result.


Also, I think this relates to common dislike of math and science, because without a broad knowledge of the basics of our general culture, it is difficult to see the potential relevance of these subjects, and how they fit into the real world. And it definitely results in poor communications, and difficulty in truly participating in the democratic life of the community and nation.


As a teacher at the secondary level, I found it awfully frustrating to try and teach critical thinking skills, when students simply did not understand the allusions that writers (and teachers) take for granted, and use constantly in writing and speaking. I also found this lack of background knowledge stunted student ability to communicate in their own writing and thinking, beyond the narrow bounds of their personal daily lives.


All the while that I’ve been thinking about UNschooling, I think I’ve been just kind of assuming that parents would just “naturally” introduce their kids to the basics of cultural literacy… like reading them nursery rhymes when they are small, talking about history and news and such in daily family conversation, reading classic novels together as a family, listening to a wide variety of music styles together, and so on.


But when I started reading Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy, it just struck me that an awful lot of people do NOT do that naturally. This whole concept of a common body of literature, history, basic mathematics and so on, that in a sense defines a culture, and also provides an avenue of common thought and communications, as well as providing a basis for democratic discussion, is something that it seems is being torn apart in modern society. I was reading the preliminary listing Hirsch and others compiled in the Cultural Literacy dictionary, and found that almost everything listed there means something to me; not always an in-depth knowledge, it’s true, but enough to understand what is being said when those things are alluded to.


Lack of this basic kind of knowledge and understanding was one of the biggest blocks for students I taught at the Secondary level. They really couldn’t discuss political or ethical or even scientific or historical ideas in any kind of critical, thoughtful way, because they didn’t have the “handles” that open the doors of communication to people who have this common body of knowledge in common.


When many of the students read literature or even non-fiction, they understood in only the most superficial ways, because they did not understand the allusions writers commonly use. When they wrote, their writing was often cumbersome, because they were forced to explain things in superficial, dull details, being unable to use common allusions and metaphors.


Whenever I would quote, or the books we were exploring would quote, from Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek mythology or whatever, I would just get blank looks. Common sayings (for example, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”) had no meaning to them. It was terribly frustrating to me, because in our family we use these kinds of references all the time, and even the little ones have some understanding. But many teenagers don’t “get it” at all. Actually, neither do many adults (one of the reasons I enjoy these email lists: you can actually find people to communicate with thoughtfully!).


So when I read Hirsch, I could clearly understand the source of so much of my frustration in teaching, and much of the students’ own frustrations with school.


I also think that this is something that unschoolers need to consider seriously. A lot of people who are unschoolers are actually providing this basic core knowledge for their kids right from birth, without even realizing it, but that is because they already possess it themselves, and in their experience that is NORMAL living. But for a growing number of people, it is not normal.


So, in a sense, I am rethinking unschooling, or at least rethinking my assumptions of what “normal family life” includes. I think for a lot of people, these kinds of facts and information would be something they would have to TEACH their children consciously (and probably meanwhile also be learning themselves), because it is NOT part of their life-long thinking.


For those of us who have grown up with this cultural literacy as an assumed part of existence, I think it is still valuable to sit down and think about what we “know” and how it affects the ways we thing and believe. Also, we need to ask ourselves how we can help others learn, and how we can encourage others to unschool (or at least home school), without realizing that a rich unschooling (and/or home schooling) environment does assume this mass of “common core knowledge.”


… Thanks for your input, Juanita. I’m not a “main curriculum guide” kind of person anyway, but I am trying to examine all the viewpoints in educational theory since I’ve been home schooling, and I like to have available as many of the viable choices as possible. I have five kids, five ages, five personalities, five variations on learning styles… you get the picture! Anyway, in the last year and a half of home schooling, I’ve learned far more about educational history, philosophy, methods, and sociology than in the 15 years or so I worked in the public school system and my 5 years of university. I think I’ve actually learned more useful information off this list in the past month than I learned in all my time in the Faculty of Ed!


My 16 year old mentioned yesterday that when she and the other older ones were young, I spent so much time reading them nursery rhymes, fairy tales, etc., and they still know them by memory. But she was concerned that I hadn’t done the same with our now-8-year-old. So I got out the big nursery rhyme book, and started reading it with him. Turns out that he knows lots of them by memory, too… even though it is true that we really hadn’t formally done much with them when he was the “appropriate” age: he’d only heard them (over and over, I guess) when he was under 2 years of age. But he still remembers and enjoy them… And, by the way, so do the 16 year old and the 3 children in between, who had all gathered round while I was reading to the 8 year old last night. And then they themselves got us into an interesting discussion of the history and meaning of some of the rhymes, and how writers and speakers allude to them. And of course our young one is interested in other “basic cultural literacy” facts too… yesterday he was playing by himself, talking aloud, and “DNA strands” were part of his discussion! I didn’t even know what they were until well into my high school education!


A good starting point for a “well-rounded education” eh? Anybody out there still believe there is some value in the concept of the “Renaissance man”?


…. This was one of the reasons I quit teaching Social Studies at the secondary level – I really tried to avoid the “worksheet approach” but the kids were so used to it, they really resented me trying to broaden their horizons and help them to think critically and creatively. Unfortunately, due to years of the worksheet approach, and all that goes with it, they hadn’t absorbed much of the basic cultural literacy that clearly is required as a basis for critical thinking.


This is my approach to education anyway. We did try Ministry of Education Correspondence courses for a couple of the kids, and it was a total disaster from our way of thinking. Narrow-minded, confining, boring… although “highly academic” compared to many of the public schools which are supposedly following the same curriculum (which I have taught at both secondary and elementary levels).


But I am convinced that there is a basic body of knowledge that is essential to intelligent conversation in our culture, both written and oral communications, and also communications via the arts. Having taught in a school district with a large minority population (First Nations) with educational values and needs that differ from the general “white” culture, as well as “low” educational levels in the general community due in large part to an historically resource-based economy (in which formal education was in the past not required for reasonably well-paying job, and therefore not seen as an important life goal), I found it frustrating to try and teach critical thinking skills (based on the politics, history, literature etc of the larger society, and reflected in the text books and curriculum), when students simply did not understand the allusions that writers and teachers take for granted, and use constantly in writing and speaking.


It certainly also caused major difficulties in cross-cultural discussions about issues like land claims: interestingly, non-native ignorance of basic native understandings is likewise based to a large degree on not having the cultural literacy of native nations.


…. I understand this well. Our kids love anthologies of all kinds, and I so often find that after they’ve read a paraphrase or a short selection from a longer work, they do head for the library to find the full version, or to find more works by the same author, or to find out more about the topic.


Do your kids like to read anthologies of famous quotes, sayings, proverbs, etc? Our kids sure do! They often end up including sayings that appeal to them, in their conversation, writing, and as the basis of stories and discussions. I think this is “cultural literacy” in action.


Isn’t it neat to see the different viewpoints? We have some wonderful discussions about how the same topic can produce such widely varying opinions and applications; and enjoy finding out what has brought people to such different conclusions (history, beliefs, culture, etc).


… Okay! We are using Saxon math now; and to make math fun, are also using stuff like Math-It and Math Magic, as well as integrating practical math into as many of our daily activities as possible. I tend to be pretty eclectic, but it is good to have a basic overview list to make sure you’re not missing anything that is essentially basic.


…. Not a problem at all. I am a Christian, but I believe in learning at least all the different mainstream thoughts, as well as a variety of less recognized ideas, and then applying critical learning skills and our personal value system to what we’ve learned. Worthwhile information and ways of thinking can be gleaned from all kinds of viewpoints.


… Biography is an area we’ve neglected. This might be a good inspiration to get us going in this important area. I think it is important to know a bit about all kinds of things, in order to be able to communicate with all kinds of people. Besides, you never know what might turn out to be a consuming interest!


…. I don’t rely on Hirsch’s books to develop cultural literacy, though they are a useful guide. I do a lot of cultural literacy stuff through unit studies, and encouraging linkages between subjects by whatever means is appropriate at the time. I don’t always read from Hirsch. I may get a video out of the library, or take the kids to see an exhibit, or live theatre, or a movie, or whatever. Then when we discuss, the links become evident to them – and sometimes even to me!


Mostly our “program” centers on the children’s interests, but are linked through various resources, to areas I feel they need exposure to. I encourage their interests to the point where they want to expand on them, and as they expand their research and exploring, they inevitably end up expanding into other domains or areas of study or skills. I, of course, facilitate this by helping them find resources that will take them into other areas of study or skills.


… We’ve added classical works we found on the internet to a potential reading list. I plan to take the books out of the library and pass them under my daughter’s nose to pique her interest. Might even find a video related to the topic. And I couldn’t help noticing that one of my children had a complete version of Aesop’s Fables out last week and was reading it. So ‘the time is ripe.’ (Where *does* that line come from?!).


…. I didn’t start home schooling with this knowledge. I had to learn it as I went. I’m not sure it is a *teaching* thing so much as an interest thing. I think a good home school has parents who are learning as much as the children are. When I started home schooling it was like I had a wonderful *excuse* to go back and read some stuff I’d always wanted to read. We started with little children’s books, because that where the kids were at. As they grew older and more interested, we moved into the more complicated material. Now my oldest is ready for the *real* stuff. And at the same time, I am constantly amazed at how interested and alert the young ones are as the older ones read and discuss the more complicated things. Have you ever watched a five year old soak up Aristotle?!?


… I just make sure we ‘spread our net wide’ and ask lots of questions of people from different cultures and backgrounds. What we did do that was different from a lot of other home schoolers I knew, was to read to the children for fun, every day. I think that is key to the entire process of acquiring cultural literacy.


… If *minority* students lack enough knowledge of the *mainstream* culture to be able to communicate in depth about important issues (issues that inevitably affect them too), they may find it very difficult to share the significance of their own cultural background with others.


In our schools, where the majority of the students are native, we have special courses on native language and culture, special “cultural events” and so on. But the vast majority of the teachers are non-native, the textbooks in core subjects are the textbooks used nationally or provincially (which means they require a basis of mainstream cultural literacy to understand adequately), the provincial graduation standards are based on those core courses… And despite the special courses and special events, the native students do suffer from the sense that their culture is considered insignificant, though at the same time they are fiercely proud of it.


There is a growing move to bring “local culture” out of the school and back into the community by emphasizing cultural training in the extended family and in community daily life (which of course was where education – in almost all cultures – traditionally happened). Hirsch himself discusses how culture and language/ literacy are bound up in each other. Expecting the public schools to be the sole purveyor of cultural worth is a serious mistake, I think. “It takes a whole village to raise a child…”


In order to communicate effectively, children must be knowledgeable. Understanding the others’ point of view is the most effective way to reach agreement with that other person. And how can you do that if you don’t know where they’re coming from? Expecting the “government” (public school educational system) to do it all for your children is what has happened in the past century or so, and we can see the results of that! (Or in the case of some cultures, being forced by the government to give up their culture).


We need the diversity of cultures to make this country, this world, work! Each culture has such a unique point of view that can only be advantageous to each and every one of us, regardless of which culture we’re from.


And if the “whole village” is helping to raise the community’s children – in this day and age the whole village consists of people from many different cultures, religions, etc, so the children benefit was a wide knowledge base and experience of so many diverse thinkers!




Date: about 1998




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