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E. D. Hirsch and the Notion of "Cultural Literacy"

By Jonathan Larson

"Cultural Literacy" is a book I have read and often recommend because the idea behind it is sound, (the same is true about the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy .) The notion that everyone in a culture should start on the same page is almost beyond debate--yet the sad fact is that a person could know everything in both books and still be utterly ignorant.

Mr. Hirsch's sections on history are particularly egregious. His description of the Vietnam war is false, absurd, and totally out of step with international scholarship on the subject. God help us if Americans actually believe what he writes! Equally absurd is his description of World War II. By any objective measure, (battle length or numbers, size of armies, casualties, destruction, etc.) what we call World War II was a fight between Germany and the Soviet Union with some minor and irrelevant clashes along the periphery. Any other reading of the facts is nothing more than crude nationalistic propaganda.

I realize it will be hard for Americans to realize that we had almost nothing to do with the defeat of the great German Armies; or that D-Day would have been a flop if the Allies had confronted something more serious than teenagers and old men armed with outdated equipment; or that the American military had as its primary function the killing of Indians for most of it existence; or that the war against the Vietnamese people had something to do with colonialism. But is it not time for us to start telling the truth about our recent past?

Worse than that, his description of the Holocaust is racist. While he does acknowledge that groups other than Jews died in Nazi death camps, he minimizes them. The fact is that as many Catholics as Jews died in Poland and the attempt to wipe Warsaw from the map was more organized, violent, and effective than the campaign to eliminate Polish Jewry. As many Belorussians died as Jews in the Soviet Union. As for total elimination, no group was wiped out more completely than conscientious objectors--every single one was killed in Germany. If Mr. Hirsch thinks the death of a Jew is more important than the death of a Norwegian Social Democrat, it would be polite, if nothing else, if he would keep his racism out of print.

But Hirsch's sins of commission are slight compared to his sins of omission. I realize that he teaches at Mr. Jefferson's University, so it is probably politic to stress the classics, but the days when an 'educated' person could be a useless drone with some high-brow avocations is over. I believe even (or especially) Mr. Jefferson would be appalled at the underlying assumption that to have practical knowledge is not important. (As nearly as I could tell, the only agricultural or industrial process he has in his dictionary is "vulcanization" and even there, he talks about Roman religion rather than the process itself.) Now it may be a fact that most 'educated' Americans think milk comes from a supermarket and gasoline comes from a filling station. But such ignorance is our curse. While an 'educated' American can say with a certain pride that he cannot program his VCR, our economy is being swamped by a nation filled with people who can build VCR's and sell them affordably half a planet away.

But even if Hirsch is unconcerned about the economic dislocations which arise from his 'only the slaves have to know anything useful' thinking, he might consider his survival. We have produced enough clorofluorocarbons to punch a hole in the ozone the size of Antarctica. This is not an act of God but the act of humans--mostly American humans. We are killing ourselves because of the way we live. Worse than that, these problems are so large they can only be addressed by concerted public action which presumes in a democracy, an enlightened electorate. Yet because of assumptions like Hirsch's, we persist in electing technological and agricultural illiterates who somehow believe that we are going to solve these problems legally and bureaucratically. His book claims it has what every American needs to know, yet as far as I am concerned, until every American knows how his car produces nitrous oxides, how his food is grown, or knows the chemistry of what is under his kitchen sink, he does not have the time or energy to learn about the Greek god of boozing, who Ruth was, or why Lear had trouble with his daughters.

Still, I do not argue with the main points in Cultural Literacy--only with the outdated aristocratic notions of what constitutes an 'educated' person. In fact, I even like Hirsch's list--after a fashion. I had a classical education and it was fun to read those facts which I memorized long ago and have not discussed since. But most of the list is utterly irrelevant to the needs of contemporary society. It may be nice to know everything (with the exceptions outlined above) in his dictionary, but if that is all Americans know, they do not have sufficient knowledge for their very survival.


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