Cultural Literacy

RottenAppleby Bruce Price   12/9/13
It’s a pattern for almost 100 years. The so-called professional educators, the Education Establishment, are good at creating unworkable methods based on goofy sophistical theories. (The good developments in education don’t come from these people.)

You want progress? You want good news? You want people who are actually trying to make kids learn more? Then you start to look at people like Rudolf Flesch, Siegfried Engelmann, Samuel Blumenfeld, and more recently Professor E. D. Hirsch.

Hirsch was always in education in the sense that he was a brainy professor of English. But that was way up in an ivory tower at some place like Yale. He was most definitely not a member of the much-maligned (at least by me) Education Establishment, nor was he a crusader.

Then came the moment of epiphany (probably one of many). He realized his incoming students, and most of the people walking around in the street, didn’t know much. Compare Jay Leno going “Jaywalking.”

Due to the deliberate malfeasance of our public schools, the average American can hardly be expected to find Alaska on a map of the world or to know who Thomas Jefferson was. It’s disgraceful.

Hirsch set out to create a remedy. He wrote a book called Cultural Literacy in 1987. This book sketched out what all citizens should know. It was quite controversial, especially in liberal, progressive circles which foolishly disdain the idea that there is ANYTHING which all citizens should know.

He wrote another famous book called The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. and several others. In general, Hirsch was a scold and a nuisance to an Education Establishment which seems to prefer keeping everyone living in the dark, if you can call it living.

Don’t imagine that I exaggerate. You can find quotes all the way back to John Dewey basically taking the Party Line that, hey, kids don’t need to bother with all that knowledge stuff. Apparently, the left has figured out that if you don’t know anything, you’re a lot more pliable. Today, thanks to the triumph of this anti-intellectual campaign, citizens are ignorant, the media investigate hardly at all, and we seem sometimes to be living in an alternative fantasy universe — the one reported by the Associated Press.

Fortunately for the country, Hirsch is a determined sort of person. He developed his ideas into an entire curriculum, still being rolled out, which is called “Core Knowledge.”

There may be a thousand details we could quibble over. But on balance, this is wonderful news. Classical academies like this thing. It works in poor eighborhoods where children come from homes that are not full of books or cultural discussions. It gives everybody a chance to participate in the American dream.

I’ve been harping on the knowledge issue for several years. It’s frustrating. The ignorance in our public schools is deep and seems deliberate. It would be very easy to fix. If you teach children one fact each day, which is virtually nothing, that means 200 per year, and more than 2000 by the end of high school. Do you think the kids coming out of high school today know 2000 facts? Do you think they know 50 facts? I was talking to a student at James Madison University and he mentioned a woman in his class who indicated in a conversation that she didn’t know who George Washington was. This woman graduated from a school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a state alleged to have the fourth best schools in the country???

Try to imagine what the other states must be like. Well, I can help you. There is a new reality show on television. They asked a young man, he looked about 22, this question: “The Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War — which came first?” He picked the wrong answer. How is that even possible? Well, that’s what you wonder if you’re lucky enough to have been educated. But if you’ve recently graduated from an American public school, you might well be thinking, well, which one is it??

Bottom line. Make your local schools adopt Core Knowledge or something better if they can find it.


More about Hirsch and his ideas: The Core Knowledge approach — is it right for every school?

More about knowledge: Let us now praise knowing stuff

100 facts every high school graduate should know: The QUIZZ
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Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org
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22 Responses to Cultural Literacy

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Try Bruce’s The Quizz. I missed two or three of them. It’s a good refresher course. If you can honestly get all of them, good for you. You somehow made it through the government schools without becoming an idiot and/or have done some remedial reading. Or maybe you were just lucky enough to have gone to a good school. Or it wasn’t luck at all and you worked very hard, despite the sometimes mediocre curriculum and teachers.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I knew almost all of them, I suppose, though I didn’t see a list of answers so there are a few I can’t be sure about (I assume the pole vault record is about 15 feet, for example). Of course, all 3 answers are correct for the last question (about fencing).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Actually, the pole vault record is a bit over 20 feet, which is why I have always been amazed at pole vaulters. Since I was a child, the record height has increased by several feet.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I knew the Nile was the longest river in the world, but couldn’t definitively recall whether it was 3 or 4 thousand miles long.

    Without common knowledge, we do not have a common culture.

    If no knowledge is more important than any other knowledge, then all knowledge is equal. Knowing something about the Simpsons is equally important as knowing that water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 and 100 degrees Centigrade. This type of thinking leads to a huge amount of wasted time later in life when people are expected to perform.

    Learning facts is not difficult, but is often boring. When studying German, I tried to memorize ten new German words a day. How did I do this? I wrote the new words and their English equivalents at least ten times. I guess this is not considered sophisticated enough for today’s students.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I knew the Nile was the longest river in the world, but couldn’t definitively recall whether it was 3 or 4 thousand miles long.

      No, I wasn’t sure about that either.

      The others that got me were:

      • The size of an acre
      • The pole vault record
      • And I couldn’t quote a line of American poetry. Sorry, I’m just not into poetry, and anything I do know is by an Englishman.
      • Oh, and I wasn’t sure about exactly how long winter would supposedly be extended if a groundhog sees his shadow.

      An ambiguous question was “Can bats see in the dark?” Well, they can echolocate, but as far as I know, with their eyes they cannot “see” in the dark.

      Another was regarding the size of the moon. Yes, its diameter is about 1/4 that of Earth. But the actual volume of the moon is about 2% that of Earth.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        “An ambiguous question was “Can bats see in the dark?” Well, they can echolocate, but as far as I know, with their eyes they cannot “see” in the dark.

        Another was regarding the size of the moon. Yes, its diameter is about 1/4 that of Earth. But the actual volume of the moon is about 2% that of Earth.”

        I sometimes have trouble with these types of tests because of the ambiguity. So what I do is go into the type of detail you mention when I can. But often such tests do not allow for anything other than A, B, C or D.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I sometimes have trouble with these types of tests because of the ambiguity.

          I remember having an argument long ago with a social studies teacher over when WWII started. I insisted that it was when Germany occupied the Sudetenland in 1938. What is war (other than civil war) than taking over neighboring countries by whatever means? And the appeasement of Hitler by the wobbly Neville Chamberlain was just another small “cold war” battle won. The hot war would follow in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. But there were several “cold war” steps that led to this including Germany’s bold reoccupation of the Rheinland.

          I lost that argument. I could also be a bit of a smart ass as well, so it works both ways.

          And, goodness, I’ve run across plenty of multiple choice test questions that just are wrong.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Actually, one could take it back to the Manchurian Incident. I think the best standard might be the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, since Germany and Italy became involved very early, and long before it (and their involvement) ended, Japan had finally gone to war with China. From that point, one or another of the major belligerants was always at war.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Good points, Tim. In fact, Germany had started its strategic war long before the wobbly West (other than Churchill) was willing to acknowledge it.

              It’s the same thing regarding Islam.

            • faba calculo says:

              One could argue for just throwing everything from the start of WW1 to the end of WW2 in. And frankly, running things on for a few years after the end of WW2 might also make sense. One of the biggest history surprises for me is how many Germanic people not from Germany died in expulsions following the so-called “end” of the war. Estimates range from half a million to two million.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                One reference book I have suggests that World War II didn’t really end in Ukraine until the mid 1950s.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I would say the Marco Polo Bridge Incident as the latest point for the start of WWII.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Apropos of nothing. When I lived in Tokyo, my doctor was a White Russian, whose family fled Russian after the October Revolution. They ended up in Manchuria which the Japanese later invaded to establish Manchukuo.

              When he was an adolescent, he was semi -adopted by a Japanese Field Marshal or General, (I don’t recall which) who loved and raised horses.

              Because of this connection, my doctor studied and completed his education in Japan. He remained there practicing medicine in Tokyo. I know he spoke Russian, Japanese and English. Perhaps he spoke other languages as well.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    One thought that occurred to me in thinking about your earlier piece on learning facts is teaching through anecdotes. For example, one day the sometime Mexican dictator Santa Anna was walking with an American aide in New York. The latter noticed that Santa Anna occasionally bit off a chunk of something to chew, tried it out, and the result was the chewing gum industry. This can be used to teach about botany (the gum is made primarily of chicle from the sapodilla plant), economics (the chewing gum industry is American, not Mexican), geography (sapodilla is indigenous to southern Mexico), and history (the story of Santa Anna, a major figure in Texan and Mexican history in the first half of the 19th century).

    Another interesting and useful anecdote involves a Masai village who, upon hearing about the 9/11/01 attacks, sent Bush a cow in sympathy for our loss. This tale can teach about anthropology (the importance of cattle to many African tribes, including the Masai), geography (the Masai are an East African tribe scattered through Kenya and Tanzania), and recent history.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    The problem with your suggestion is the teachers who presumably would be imparting such information to the little darlings would have to have the knowledge to do so.

    How many Americans have even heard of the Masai, Kenya or chicle.

    Of course, Texans know about Santa Anna and how his rear was kicked by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I certainly knew about the Masai by high school if not sooner, from anecdotes I read various places. The other items I knew about in grade school, though generally not from school itself. A thirst for knowledge has its effects, which is one reason I did so well in general knowledge quizzes. This is especially so if you have access to plenty of encyclopedias (though one set we had was old enough to treat Piltdown Man as genuine, so there are also potential dangers) and a fascination for both geography and history. Being an army brat didn’t hurt either.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    We had a 1958 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia and got a yearly update for many years. I loved to pull them down to read as well as the two large World Book dictionaries we had.

    You appear to be another “fount of trivia” as my wife likes to call me.

    What is amazing to me, is the fact that more information is easier to access than any time in history and so many are not taking advantage of this.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      What is amazing to me, is the fact that more information is easier to access than any time in history and so many are not taking advantage of this.

      So true. It would seem the spirit of enlightenment (real, not faux) has been eclipsed by other considerations. For all practical purposes, “stupid” is in.

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    Another method of teaching might make use of various forms of puzzle (I do a lot of them every day to keep my mind exercised). For example, we have this riddle we like here: Which weighs more, an ounce of feathers or an ounce of gold? The correct answer, of course, is an ounce of gold: Feathers (like most things) are weighed using avoirdupois, at 28.35 grams to the ounce, whereas gold and silver are weighted using troy, at 31.103 grams per ounce.

    On the other hand, paradoxically, a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, because avoirdupois has 16 ounces to a pound compared to 12 for troy.

    There’s also apothecary weight, which adds a couple of measures even smaller than ounces — drams and scruples. (We should make liberals use this, so that they will at least have some scruples.) But the almanacs no longer include it, so I don’t know the precise details. (Sometimes I do rely on looking things up.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The correct answer, of course, is an ounce of gold: Feathers (like most things) are weighed using avoirdupois, at 28.35 grams to the ounce, whereas gold and silver are weighted using troy, at 31.103 grams per ounce.

      LOL. Good trick question. And it spurred me on to look a few things up as well and thus to hopefully reduce any potential Jaywalking faux pas if the situation should arise.

  7. Timothy Lane says:

    The Human Events website has an appropriate article by Tom Bogar (author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, which is on my Christmas list this year) on “Why History Matters”. He mentions that while he was researching the book, the manager of an upscale restaurant asked what he was doing, and when he mentioned his research she was stunned to hear that Lincoln had been assassinated. I also notice that one of the respondents (the most recent as of when I read it) was by one Bruce Price.

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