Book Review: Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch

Hirsch’s great career of attempting to fix the many problems in American public education began in earnest with this book, first published nearly 30 years ago and just as relevant today as it was then. In fact, this book was first published almost exactly one year after my own birth. In many ways, I see it as a sort of educational autobiography; I’ve added a sub-sub-title in my own copy: “The Miseducation of David Withun.”

Those who know me and the passion I have for the humanities are often shocked when I discuss my early education. While growing up, I had the great privilege of reading some of the greatest works of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind. The titles of works I read during my teenage years which come readily to mind include the Bhagavad Gita, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Confucius’s Analects, the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Dhammapada, the Koran, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, to name but a very few. What particularly impresses most with whom I discuss my childhood education, however, is not this list of great books I had the opportunity to read. It is that of all of these books I read precisely none of them in school nor were any of them ever assigned or discussed by any of the four high schools I attended in three different states. In all of my high school career, I was only assigned a total of three books, all of which were written by contemporary authors and I have happily forgotten the contents and even the title of each. What should most astound anyone who learns of my education should not be that I somehow, by the grace of God, gravitated to great literature and so was able to find success and the life of the mind in spite of the 13 years of mandatory brainwashing I was subjected to at the hands of the American public (un)education system. What should most astound is the vast multitude of my peers who were not so naturally attracted and who will have no opportunity, through no fault of their own, to experience the great joys of these works and the inner life they cultivate.

Hirsch tells the tale of where these peers of mine have gone and what can be done to save today’s youth from a similar fate. His accidental discovery of the idea of “cultural literacy” was the result of a study conducted on the literacy levels of community college students in contrast with students at an Ivy League school. What Hirsch found was that the difference was not, as had been previously assumed, one of the ability to read letters and words, but of the ability to understand the text through assumed background information. Community college students consistently scored well below their peers in Ivy League schools on reading tests not because they could not sound out the letters or understand the vocabulary as well, but because they did not know any of the names, places, and events that were being discussed. It was the cultural vocabulary that was lacking.

The culprit here, as in all of those pitiful piss-poor schools I attended, is, as Hirsch explains, the progressive education system which has substituted “skills” for real knowledge and a haphazard multiculturalism for a real induction into the wider milieu of our nation and civilization. The great progressive plan to increase the self-esteem of, for example, African-American children by teaching them about African-American heroes and role models like George Washington Carver (yes, the peanut butter guy) over and over again for 13 years has backfired in a tremendously terrible way. The result is that, as we have seen in recent events in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, for example, there are now several generations of urban minorities who not only live in poverty but, worse by far, live in a world that is incomprehensible to them. One recent news story, for instance, reported that most protestors did not know the difference between an indictment and a conviction. The failure to understand this basic element of the American criminal justice system is a failure of the American public education system. No doubt, the same who do not understand this small aspect of American justice and government find much larger, more complex aspects like the bicameral legislature and the electoral college even further beyond their comprehension. The result is mistrust, a conspiracy theory mindset, and, eventually, the violent outbursts which consistently accompany the dazed and confused mindset cultivated by the inability to understand one’s surroundings and accurately articulate one’s thoughts and feelings.

The answer is not beyond our reach, however. There is a means by which to remedy the damage, though great it has been, to the United States and its people by the pipe-dreams and farcical hogwash propagated by the masters of progressive education. Hirsch again provides this means via his list, spanning over 50 pages in an appendix to this books and later systematized in his Core Knowledge Curriculum, of basic terms and concepts necessary to cultural literacy. What Hirsch has provided us in this short book is the surest means by which we can salvage American public education and, through it, the future of American democracy.


Book Review: Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr attempts to understand and evaluate the various ways in which Christians throughout history and today have understood the relationship between Christ and culture. These he divides into five types:

1. “Christ Against Culture” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

2. “Christ of Culture” — Those who attempt to domesticate Christ within the confines of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in already.

3. “Christ Above Culture” — Those who believe Christ to be reconcilable to culture, in some sense, yet apart from and transcendent of it.

4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are opposed, yet man must necessarily live within both realms, whether simultaneously or intermittently.

5. “Christ the Transformer of Culture” — The conversionist model, as he calls it, posits that culture can be transformed through Christ.

Niebuhr does an excellent job a number of fronts. Perhaps most importantly, in a work like this, he allows each of these positions to speak for itself. He refuses to caricature and he does not offer criticism of a given position until he has allowed that position to explain itself fully. When he does criticize, his criticisms are consistently fair and incisive.

Niebuhr’s approach allows him to admit each of these positions into the mainstream of the heritage of Christianity and so into the collective Christian consciousness. The end result is one that explains and critiques without being weighed down by judgment and agenda. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and the various culture contexts in which it has found itself as well as the new cultural contexts in which it finds itself today, both as it spreads to lands where it has not previously reached and as the traditionally Christian societies of the West experience numerous and rapid shifts in culture and mores.

Our Dark Age

Every period in history is remembered in popular consciousness by a set of characteristics which have attached themselves to it. Although this popular characterization of a given period is often little more than stereotype and caricature the power exerted by this collective summarization of an epoch nonetheless permanently colors perception of the period. These characterizations frequently even become the title by which the period is remembered, guaranteeing that any time the period is mentioned the immediate implication of the truth of this characterization will follow inevitably. The Renaissance, for example, is characterized as a great period of “rebirth” and of the flourishing of the arts.  The Scientific Revolution as, of course, a period of revolution in the sciences. At some point, every historian wonders how his own era will be characterized by future generations; how will the present age be remembered by those a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now? What summarization or title will be bestowed upon our era? In addition, the conclusion one reaches about the reputation of the present among those of the future has imminent ramifications for potential courses of action to improve the heritage bequeathed to posterity by the current generation.

To arrive at a conclusion concerning how our age might viewed in retrospect, one of the soundest methods is the use of historical knowledge as a measuring stick by which to evaluate the present, one of its most traditional and important usages. In a comparison with previous eras in history, our age bears the most striking resemblance, unfortunate though the fact may be for us its denizens, to the two great dark ages of earlier times in Western Civilization, namely the Greek Dark Age and the Medieval Dark Age.

Both of these dark ages are characterized by the dissolution of centralized governmental and military authority. In the case of the Greek Dark Age, the authority which dissolved was that of the old order of the Greek peninsula, the Aegean Sea, and surrounding areas which is best exhibited by the wealth and power of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples. With the onset of the Iron Age and the ostensible Dorian Invasion, however questionable the size and nature of the latter event may be, a fracturing of institutional unity gave rise to a fracturing of cultural and intellectual unity in a world of increasingly prevalent sectionalism. The inception of the second dark age of Western Civilization arose from similar circumstances. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD removed from the western half of the Mediterranean Sea and most of Western Europe the institutional and cultural structures which had maintained some level of stability in and among societies. This institutional collapse was swiftly followed by a period of rapid cultural and intellectual decline coupled with ceaseless warfare among various tribes and peoples competing for dominance within relatively insignificant realms of power.

The cataclysmic event which triggered the onset of the current dark age is almost certainly World War I. Merely contrasting a map of Europe before and after the war is ample evidence. A look at the events “on the ground,” so to speak, is even more revealing. Through  Europe, and much else of the world, political structures collapse and disappeared altogether or were replaced by ideologies which arose from the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, ranging from Marxism and other socialist philosophies to the radical, notably not Classical, forms of republicanism and democracy advocated by some 18th and 19th century thinkers. Throughout the civilized world, the old structures of government which had united various peoples under a single figure and various empires under a universal civilizational outlook were abolished. Along with these institutions went the cultural and intellectual unity of Western Civilization and of the old order in a supracivilizational sense.

Greece emerged from its dark age at about the time of the poet Homer, in the 7th century BC, and the flourishing age of Classical Greece followed quickly. The Medieval Dark Age ended with the rise of Charlemagne and the dawn of the Carolingian Renaissance at the turn of the 19th century AD. Although it is less clear in the case of the Greek Dark Age, there is sufficient evidence to establish the thesis that the various elements of a vibrant culture were kept alive during both of these dark ages by the fastidious work of certain concerned groups and individuals.

In the better documented case of the Medieval Dark Age, more often than not these individuals were the Fathers of the Church and other great Christian thinkers. Cassiodorus and Boethius, contemporaries who lived in Italy shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for example, each recognized the precarious nature of their age and the tremendous task which their circumstances had placed before them. Each sought to preserve the greatest elements of their Greco-Roman heritage while allowing these to pass through the formative lense of Christianity. The result was that when the dark age did finally end some 300 years after this men lived, the ensuing era, which lasted nearly a thousand years, was a period of rapid scientific and technological progress as well as intellectual and cultural flourishing which remains still the greatest period in all of the history of Western Civilization.

If we are greet our current circumstances soberly, we must be honest about the perilous time in which we, who wish to bear our heritage and to pass it on to future generations, find ourselves. We must work with the same assiduity as our great forebears to preserve and improve about our great Western tradition. We must form the same sorts of assemblies for this task which our fathers before us formed. And we must continue their great work. If not, our progeny will have us to blame for the destruction of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.