Cultural Literacy Redux

I know I bash on the late-1960s morality play that is the “XX” blog over at Slate a lot, but outside of this little pocket of cliched topic sentences in search of evidence, Slate really is a great site. Troy Patterson is a big reason why this is so. Aside from being Slate‘s resident man of taste and class, he also has real chops. He’s the only person at that site (maybe save David Weigel) who I trust to use a term like “Tory” in an intellectually honest way. So I can’t say I was surprised to see that Patterson’s a man who takes E.D. Hirsch’s work seriously.

For those unfamiliar with Hirsch, he’s the kind of academic who would never get a tenure-track job today, even though, as Patterson points out (with an assist from one of this blog’s patron saints, Christopher Hitchens), many states are coming around to the idea that kids actually need to learn content in order to acquire skills. The fact that Hirsch’s concept of “cultural literacy” was ever controversial is evidence of the sad decadence and arrogance of some influential English and “Education” departments since the 1970s, when “theory” came into fashion and substituted Orwellian jargon for intelligence. Now, let me be clear (thanks for that phrase, Obama), most English departments are filled with people who really don’t care about what Derrida wrote (or said, or uttered, or whatever stupid word he mandated that we use). But even many of these people have to pretend like Derrida (or Foucault, or Butler, and…) is responsible for more than like 3 useful pages of ideas. One day this will change, but by then English departments may have specialized and de-literatured themselves out of existence.

In any case, Hirsch was and is a real weirdo: a tenured English professor who cares about teaching more than anything else. And not only teaching, as most profs will defend to the death their right to teach graduate seminars, but teaching K-12. What kind of suicidal English professor cares about kids he’s not actually teaching at the moment? One who understands that he will have to teach them at some point. More importantly, Hirsch is the kind of guy who actually thinks about the world beyond the classroom. While his love of testing and data makes me uncomfortable, if I had to pick a side in the education debate, it wouldn’t take me long to choose his over Dewey’s disciples preaching confidence over competence. Competence breeds confidence in the long run, and Hirsch understood that the best way to help the poor is to give them an education that will allow them to converse with and challenge those in positions of power. This is something David Foster Wallace also understood, and if you haven’t read “Tense Present” recently, go do that right now.

Back to Patterson though. I would have loved to see him extend his discussion of how the internet has changed what should be on Hirsch’s famous list of 10,000 terms/ideas/people/events that all Americans should know to consider how it has changed attitudes toward the value of knowing anything at all. Patterson writes:

Is it too bold to suppose that one must now know 10,000 basic things? Obviously, a lot has happened to general knowledge since the book’s publication, not a little of it connected to what now appears to be a lacuna on Hirsch’s list—a gap that developed between International Monetary Fund and interrogative sentence. The Internet is a force of information inflation, and much of the stuff on the list remains relevant, give or take a few relics and some slang terms (pop the questionbite the dust) now fully embedded in mainstream vocabulary.

He’s gazing down on what’s important here, but perhaps it’s too mixed up and awful for him to really get into. I know that feeling. For the last few years I’ve had students sincerely question why they should have to remember (let alone memorize) anything, as the internet will always be there for them as a handy outboard brain. Thankfully, some of my students look horrified when they hear a classmate say this, but the fact that this scene keeps playing itself out is worrisome. I tell them that the internet is not going to be there for them when they’re having a conversation with some smart guy/gal who might be able to give them a job. If they don’t know (or have to look up cultural references on their iPhones) mid-conversation, s/he ain’t going to be impressed. This obviously isn’t the only reason why remembering stuff is important, but if the fact that a job in an increasingly awful and bifurcated economy might hinge on it won’t sway people, I don’t know what will.

And people accuse us humanists of being romantics…

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