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.