Cultural Literacy

E. D. Hirsch is famous now for his insistence that there is a body of knowledge that all children should learn, lest we turn into an unconnected society of people with so little in common that we lose our focus and direction as a nation.

This concept appeals to people on many levels. It sounds logical. It appeals to anyone who benefits from compulsory schooling, from government to unions to special interests to textbook producers and many more. It’s comforting to think that we can fall back on what everyone should know, that the argument can remain in the confines of determining the subjects to be covered and not branch out into broader and more demanding considerations.

The questions for this conversation are: 

Do you believe there is a body of knowledge everyone should hold in common? If not, explain why not. If so, who do you think should define it, do you think obtaining it should be compulsory, and who do you think should enforce its attainment?

For more on what education should look like, see: What is Education?


5 Responses to Cultural Literacy

  1. tdbwd says:

    I think it would be highly improbable for any society to develop without a body of common knowledge. It’s actually the artificial interference of state schooling that tends to reduce the common body of knowledge to the most trivial things possible. Our American society is a prime example. Children locked up all day with other children are isolated from the adult (or former adult) world of important common interests that have to do with government, commerce, relationships, etc. The problem has worsened in our society, because we now have several generations of adults who grew up without the influence of a mature culture, and children have even less to draw from.

  2. Janet Bell says:

    I do believe that there is a body of common knowledge that all man should know: where we come from and where we are going. Unfortunately, the government has succeeded in eliminating the teaching of this knowledge in their school, and is working hard to make us believe the lie that the people of this country are “protected” from having to know it. It is found in the oldest history book in the world: The Bible. Also the oldest science book, morality book, civics book, human behavior book…..

  3. the Fish says:

    There is a body of knowledge everyone should hold in common which the American mass schooling system is not imparting. Leaving aside necessary skills, such as literacy* and numeracy, knowledge of the history of human activity and thought—politics, philosophy, art and literature—is necessary for an informed and educated citizenry. However, though the definition of this common knowledge will probably overlap a great deal for most people, no one entity may define its limits for any community, family or individual, any more than we can hope for a final definition of the perfect diet or exercise regimen. Furthermore, from the premise that a particular condition should be so it does not follow that said condition should be enforced. Most certainly we do not want the government to impose any such definition on its citizens.
    We all hope and strive towards an educated citizenry, just as we hope for a strong and healthy citizenry, and a kind and generous citizenry. But we do not—yet—ask the government to cook our dinners, schedule our recreation, or arrange our church services. Even as I wrote that last sentence it startled me to realize how much the government has already encroached on the first two areas of personal freedom and responsibility, mostly through the schools.
    To enforce the acquisition of this knowledge would, ironically, deny the very lessons to be learned from it. Since mental enforcement is the very thing which a free society should guard against, a government that would do so can not afford to teach freedom. Once allow government to power to decide what our children learn, then the long slow slide into slavery begins.

    *(The original sense, not the educratese sense. OT: My local middle school replaced what once was “English” with two concurrent classes entitled “Language Arts Literacy – Language” and “Language Arts Literacy – Math”.)

  4. Dana says:

    Yes, starting with the fact that the primary institution of society is the family. Thus its basic and fundamental rights should be respected and protected, meaning that the state has no business interfering and demanding that one thing or another should be taught.

    If this is respected and each individuals worth is respected (as opposed to being compromised through forced conformity), society will benefit greatly.

  5. Sopater says:

    As far as public education is concerned, reading, writing, arithmetic, science, spelling, history… etc. Yes. As adults, we need language skills, math skills, critical thinking skills and a good understanding of where we came from and how we got here as well as an opportunity to learn about how much we don’t really know.

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