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PARTING SHOT

Q: What happens when common knowledge is no longer common? A: Cultural illiteracy.
By Chris Tucker |

Education is not a sexy topic and reform movements do not yield quick, splashy results. So our attention wanes. In 1985, recall. Texas was going to be a model for the nation, proving with a burst of idealistic reforms that a typical Southern state could propel its schools into the 20th century.

And now, two years later, it’s back to the past-about 1947, it appears. Due to an accident of timing-his SMU sleazemanship was not revealed until after the election-Bill Clements became governor, and quickly set out to dismantle the school reforms and choke off funding for the system even at its current modest levels. Clements continued his fanatical opposition to new taxes (except, of course, those Mark White took the heat for) and threatened to veto any tax bill. He embarked on a magical mystery tour of the state to push his Forties message. It was vintage Clements, the act of a mean-spirited man who is about as remote from the problems of a fifth-grader in South Dallas as he is from Plato’s notion of the philosopher-king. At this writing in early May, it’s hard to see a happy ending to Clements’s shameful spring, barring an infusion of courage in the House or miracles by Ross Perot. Pardon my pessimism, but as the Texas Observer recently noted, Clements has never given a damn for public opinion unless he was about to face the voters-and he has told us he will never again run for office. If the governor is as good as his word (and he might be, at least on this), education in Texas is in for a rocky four years.



MEANWHILE, OUT IN THE GREAT WORLD beyond the Governor’s Mansion, some people continue to behave as if education matters, even if the stuff costs money. Consider a recent book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia.

According to Hirsch, the cultural baggage of the average literate American includes some 4,800 names of people and places, titles of books, paintings, and poems; names of inventions, battles, chemical elements; a few dates (1066,1492, etc.); and a smattering of cliches and old sayings. A random sample from his gargantuan list will suggest what cultural literacy means to Hirsch: Adonis, Bay of Pigs, caveat emptor. DNA, epoxy, Faust, Final Solution, Goldilocks, hitch your wagon to a star, inference. John Bull, kosher, libido. Magellan, NASA. nova. Our Town, the Pietà. prodigal son. Que será será, rigor mortis, satyr, Spanish Civil War. Taj Mahal, Ulysses, the Vatican, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” yin/yang, and Zeitgeist.

Even this sample will show that Hirsch is no pedant demanding that we sit home at night translating Dostoyevsky into French or running over our favorite quadratic equations. The book is descriptive, not prescriptive; he’s talking about what most literate Americans already carry around in their heads-the kind of thing we mean when we say. “Well, that’s common knowledge.” It’s the cultural glue that holds us together, that makes allusion and shorthand conversation possible among adults.

To get the picture, imagine a continuum running from absolute ignorance to the kind of esoteric knowledge usually possessed by scholars and specialists. Now take the subject of World War II. Starting at the zero end, can we imagine an adult who does not know the basic facts of the war-the dates, countries involved, causes, results? But push it further and ask yourself what you know and what you ought to know. Should everyone know who Churchill was? How about Chamberlain and Albert Speer? Major battles? Should names of generals and concentration camps make up part of the average person’s knowledge of the war? Hirsch’s list contains Goebbels and Auschwitz and Patton, but not Treblinka or Rommel or The Bismarck. Where does the common knowledge we expect of everyone shade over into the private reserve of experts? Answers to such questions must be shifting and subjective, but they’re fun to ask. Cultural Literacy will help you find the gaps in your cultural inventory.

As for the state of our schools, Hirsch is more Jeremiah (p. 181) than Follyanna (p. 196, after pollution and before Marco Polo). He warns that our rich cultural heritage cannot be preserved and passed on without concern, hard work, and the willingness to pay for good teachers. Hirsch became alarmed over the decline in “mature literacy” among college students while working with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, soon to release findings that will shock. Two-thirds of the seventeen-year-olds tested could not place the Civil War in the correct half century; a third did not know that the Declaration of Independence was signed between 1750 and 1800; a third were unaware that Columbus sailed for the New World before 1750. (Think of it: they may believe that Ben Franklin was a contemporary of Columbus. Who knows? Maybe Franklin discovered electricity so Columbus wouldn’t have to sail in the dark.) And Hirsch has anecdotal evidence from academic horror stories: the woman who thought Latin was the language of Latin America, the young man who sang out “The Alamo!” when asked to name an epic poem by Homer.

Hirsch stresses that the main value of his master list is the challenge it poses to cultural relativists, who are aghast that anyone would bind our children in the dead husks of tradition; and to educational formalists, who see reading and writing as neutral, mechanical skills that can be learned through books with any kind of content, however little they tell children about what has happened in the world. Such people are responsible for the pathetic state of most textbooks today. Those who disagree with the master list approach, Hirsch says, should come forward and lay out the specific content they would have young people learn.

Thinking about our state’s ongoing crisis in education, I came across Hirsch’s description of his father, a businessman who, when urging colleagues to buy a certain stock, would often write, “There is a tide” in the corner of a memo, confident that associates would fill in the passage from Julius Caesar. “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Clements and his myopic sailors are hugging the shore, niggling over the price of sailcloth. Now is the time to sail. Obviously, a strong educational system will lead on to fortune, for our state and our children. Meanwhile, the tide is rising. Fast.

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