Cultural Literacy

Today I’d like to write about another classic book about education I’ve just read: E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.  Then next week I’d like to compare it to another famous work I just read, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

The main thing I knew about Cultural Literacy was that it was considered controversial when it was first published.  It was grouped with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which was published during the same year, 1987, right at the start of the first scrapes in the culture wars.  Knowing Bloom’s book quite well, I had some preconceptions about Hirsch’s book.

Bloom wrote straight out of the University of Chicago / Great Books tradition, and makes probably the strongest attack I’ve ever read on 1960s egalitarian, counter-cultural rebellions and reforms, arguing that the cultural relativism that resulted from the democratic attacks on the American university has impoverished the modern college and, by extension, the modern student.  You can imagine that Bloom was considered an “elitist.”

Allan Bloom died within a few years of his book’s publication; E.D. Hirsch became, in his words, “a pariah” in the educational community because his book was perceived as pushing a specific canon of dead, white males to be studied in schools.  But at the same time, I had also read that Hirsch’s book was widely misunderstood.

So I was particularly interested to read what he actually wrote.


The first thing that stands out about Cultural Literacy is how short it is.  It is only 145 pages of writing.  The famous appendix — the huge list where Hirsch outlines all the terms he believes “culturally literate” Americans should know — is just 69 more pages.

The appendix was the controversial part — probably the only part most people read, I’d guess.  You can imagine the reactions: Why does ED Hirsch get to decide?  What gives him this right?  To paraphrase the writer Ted Sizer: It’s not what knowledge everyone needs, it’s whose knowledge.

That said, I found myself less interested in Hirsch’s list — which is just one guy’s list after all — than in the other 145 pages, where he justifies it.  What was his idea behind doing this? What the heck is “cultural literacy,” anyway?

What is Cultural Literacy?

By “cultural literacy,” Hirsch basically means the ability to understand a body of cultural knowledge important to our shared culture as Americans.  He does not, like Bloom, necessarily mean certain Great Books that all Americans have to have read. Quite the contrary — he makes it a point to say that his list does not contain works, only titles (The Aeneid), characters (Falstaff), and even specific allusions (“there is a tide”) with which literate Americans are at least glancingly familiar.

Basically, cultural literacy is all the background knowledge you need to understand mainstream American culture.  While for Hirsch most Americans are well-versed in their primary culture, which is local or regional, to truly participate fully as an American citizen — civically, economically, and culturally — one must speak the broader cultural language — whether in understanding common phrases, knowing specific cultural references or shorthands, or in mastering the tools of Standard Written English.

What are Cultural Literacy’s Goals?

There are two main goals here: one small, and one large.

The Smaller Goal: Reading Fluency

The smaller goal is that for children, cultural literacy is basically background knowledge, which Hirsch claims helps students to learn to read because they’ll understand the context of what they’re reading about.  For example, if a student reads a hard passage about baseball, he’ll understand a lot more of it if he knows what home plate and a dugout are — rather than if he’s ignorant of the sport but adept at employing “reading strategies.” 

This is basically the same argument that’s behind the the fabled 30 million word gap that un-read-to and un-talked-to youths experience in relation to their more literate peers.  If you know more words going into school, you’ll learn more easily because you’ll have more context.

According to Hirsch, schools don’t help overcome this imbalance.  He believes that schools, in thrall to what he calls the misguided child-centered theories of John Dewey and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasize content-free skills (“reading strategies,” for instance) at the expensive of cultural knowledge.  The content to which they expose students is almost entirely incidental, and not at all systematic. Hirsch’s argument is that since many students don’t arrive knowing this cultural background information, it’s a school’s job to teach it to them.  And you need to do it early — if you want too long, the disadvantaged kids will be too far behind. Hence all the famous subsequent Hirsch titles: What Your First Grader Needs to Know, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know . . .  and so on.

The Broader Goal

If Hirsch were just talking about a list of words that little kids should know to prepare them to decode passages in their first grade textbooks, that’d be one thing — and probably not all that controversial.

But Hirsch was arguing a broader point. Specifically, he defends himself against charges of elitism by writing, on page two, the goal of cultural literacy is “not only greater economic prosperity but also greater social justice and more effective democracy.” 

While many people criticize lists like Hirsch’s, arguing that control over what Americans must know promotes the agenda of the powerful, Hirsch denies this.  In fact, he makes the classic Essentialist argument — he argues that a more traditional education is actually the best way to advance a liberal social justice cause.  It is always best, writes Hirsch, to make your arguments using the tools of mainstream, traditional cultural communication (Standard Written English, familiarity with foundational American documents).  Hirsch gives the example of the Black Panther newsletters in the early 1970s which he believes are highly effective forms of political protest because, while they are radical in message, they are traditional in form — written in Standard Written English and alluding to classic American documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

In one of his most damning sentences, Hirsch writes, “To withhold traditional culture from the school curriculum . . .  is in fact an unprogressive action that helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” 

What’s Controversial About This?

Again, anytime you have a certain group of people dictating what “mainstream” culture is, things get touchy.  Hirsch tries to head off this criticism, saying that he is not trying to establish a set canon of works or knowledge, but merely trying to capture a good bit of the working knowledge students need.  In his mind, he’s saying out loud what everyone else knows but tiptoes around. He also says that this body of knowledge is constantly changing based on new cultural contributions — this is his way of heading off the elitist criticism.  Minority or marginalized groups are updating the mainstream cultural knowledge needed in this country all the time, although Hirsch believes enough of it is unchanging that consensus is certainly possible about what to teach at any one moment.

The problem is that many people would quarrel with the very notion of there being any one set body of knowledge that is uniquely American.  And if there is such a thing as a “Language of Power,” the power is representative of discriminatory privilege that some citizens enjoy. These critics would object to the idea that there should be a language of power, or any one set body of content that all students need to know.

I want to add to this one of my own beliefs about the wars over what should be taught in schools.  It seems to me that if advocates of social or political change wish to best accomplish such goals, it is imperative to understand our history and the cultural, political, and literacy thinkers and forces that have shaped us.  What profits us to simply dispense with the traditions that have shaped this country? So often it seems to me that in a rush to improve the conditions of schools, or of other civic institutions, or of our country in general, we neglect to understand why things are the way they are in the first place.  How informed, then, can such attacks be, without understanding the history? To simply dismiss the American founders, or the Enlightenment thinkers, or hundreds of years of American or western history — everything up through the year 2008, perhaps — as antiquated, racist, sexist, classist — has often struck me as not only arrogant, but dangerously dismissive.  I see this impulse in the desire by modern multicultural educators to create newer, more “inclusive” curricula. I worry that such approaches — along with the ubiquitous focus on process- or skills-based instruction that Hirsch also laments — neglect understandings of important thinkers and writers and movements that have shaped our culture.

What is the Criticism of Hirsch?

The trick, of course, is that many educators believe that schools can shape the texts and ideas that literate Americans are familiar with, and therefore can contribute to the creation of a more inclusive or democratic “canon” or shared cultural fabric.  Hirsch believes that national cultures are inherently inclusive; he cites the example of 19th Century London, whose English was influenced by immigrants of all classes, regions, and incomes.  But you could certainly argue that this apparently organic system of selection as to what every literate American must know is not purely objective; if you have cultural power, chances are much greater that your ideas and culture will become dominant.  Again, Hirsch claims to simply be descriptive, not prescriptive; he’s merely recording what culturally literate Americans do know, not what they should. But surely critics would argue that the system itself is rigged toward the dominant social classes — their books are included as being important, their traditions are reflected in history books, and, since they run the media, their preferences are reflected in what Americans, broadly, are talking about.  Instead of being apolitical, like Hirsch, and then backing away, claiming that teaching students to understand the world as it is is the real tool for change, I can imagine change advocates saying instead that it is schools’ job to create a better world by purposely tipping the scales toward the inclusion in our cultural conversation of previously marginalized voices. Schools, even in their curricula, should be engines of deliberate social change.

Again, Hirsch devotes a lot more time to these ideas than you might think.  He spends an entire sub-chapter talking about the importance of toleration, localism, and minority identity in American traditions.  But he is also quite convincing on the need for a national vocabulary in order for Americans to be able to communicate and to effectively self-govern.  If someone says, “The Republicans have become the party of Jefferson Davis, not the party of Lincoln” — and you have no idea who either of those guys is — you just lost an opportunity to participate in the discussion.  If your teachers had decided not to spend any time on either of those guys because they didn’t seem worthy of study, or if you had just spent your entire social studies curriculum toiling away at “current events” or “contemporary problems” . . .  you might have come across enough references in your contemporary readings that you might know who Jefferson Davis was — but probably not. If someone makes an allusion to how we’re all trying to leave the cave and the shadows that we see there, if you’ve not been taught Plato because your teachers objected to a dead, white male curriculum, you have no way to participate in this conversation.  Hirsch believes that this ultimately means not only is your individual economic and cultural potential limited, but so is your ability to participate in democratic self-governance. If you can’t understand what’s going on at the table, you probably won’t have a seat at it.

What’s Hard about this for Teachers?

It’s not like most schools don’t subscribe to the “Language of Power” doctrine.  I believe they do, in a way. Even if they don’t always do so consciously, most American schools are sort of set up to automatically push middle-class, largely “white” values.  It’s not like almost every school in the country isn’t pushing Standard Written English. And while it’s true that many schools do prioritize skills over content, it’s not like most schools aren’t trying to get students to understand at least some important cultural content knowledge.  But just because you teach this stuff doesn’t mean it’s going to get through. Just because we all have a list of what students need to know does not mean it’ll be easy to teach it.

In practice what’s hard about this is how teachers must bridge the divide between what Hirsch calls their primary culture — which is often very localized, regional, and narrow — and their secondary, more shared culture as American citizens, which is necessarily wider and more remote from them.  Put simply, learning cultural knowledge that will one day help them function is much more difficult if that “culture” seems very remote from your own. What does a kid from the trailer parks of Vermont care about The Bard, The Prince, or even the Constitution?  That’s just the trick — you’ve got to make them care . . .  and that’s easier said than done.

Do I Buy Hirsch’s Argument?

I do and I don’t.  Oftentimes, correlation does not equal causation.  Most of the businessmen who can quote Shakespeare are successful because they grew up rich and went to fancy schools, where they learned lots of Shakespeare.  Quoting the Bard is a product of that wealthy background that helped them be successful — not the cause.

And surely just being able to understand the news is far, far different than being successful.  Being able to write well does not equal the ability to participate in society.  

That said, it certainly helps, doesn’t it?


In the end, Hirsch’s work has endured specifically for one rather narrow corner of his argument: that teaching content improves text-based literacy.  His wider notions of a set body of content that all Americans must know in order to be culturally literate, while influential, has proven too controversial in both theory and in practice to have a strong effect on American schools.  The fact that the United States’s major attempt at a national curriculum — the Common Core — is largely a list of just the kind of content-free skills that Hirsch hated signifies the extent to which Americans have backed away from trying to establish a Hirsch-like body of content for all students.  

In a way, I think of a list of necessary content as being a little like hate speech codes: If you could write one that would ban all the truly bad stuff but allow the good stuff, it’d be great.  But it’s impossible to do that in a way everyone would agree on it — so that means you should only move forward if you’re prepared for your favored position not to count.

As Americans, we can’t even agree on which American figures our history textbooks should include — or even what to say about them.  Based on that, it’s impossible to imagine culling together a descriptive list of what all “literate” Americans should know.

That said, do I agree with Hirsch that cultural knowledge is important?  Absolutely. Do I agree that context is important not only for learning to read, or to create kids who know what’s going on — but also to create kids who know the possibilities that exist in the world for them?  Again, I agree absolutely. I intend to teach my son all about the world so that even before does learn to read, he will have a wide background of content knowledge about a variety of things. It’s just important stuff for a person to know about.  Is it wrong that some people’s knowledge is not honored in a traditional school setting? Of course, and that’s something important for schools to constantly keep in mind. But I do believe, ultimately, that what Hirsch says — that there’s a wider, cultural body of knowledge that you have to be conversant with if you want to participate meaningfully in society.  

In the next post, I’d like to compare this book with Paolo Freire’s classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.