Mike Wallace brings us a segment from a mid-1980’s edition of 60 Minutes about the problem of cultural literacy and its meaning to democracy. Wallace spends time in the classroom of Jamie O’Neill at South Puget Sound Community College discussing the results of O’Neill’s test of knowledge, trivial and essential, and discovers that most students fall well short of expectations on the exam. The segment is set up this way:
…poorly informed. How poorly educated a lot of Americans are about what things we do know and don’t know about geography and history, current affairs, literature. For instance, there are some college students in this country who think that Kurt Waldheim is a TV anchorman and that James Joyce was the first female Supreme Court Justice.
The story gets at some very important points, but might raise some eyebrows with those who see cultural literacy exams the way I do. First, exams of this type are biased towards a particular set of cultural values, almost always ignoring the idea that cultural knowledge is specific to the needs of varying cultures, and no one test can possibly account for all of them. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. became famous for his creation of the Cultural Literacy movement, with a book of the same name. Since the mid-to-late 1980’s, Hirsch’s Foundation of Core Knowledge has pushed the movement and published the The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. In fact, to tie in my recent posts about Neil Postman, particular the last offering with Richard Heffner and The Open Mind, Postman had this to say in his interview with Heffner about Informing Ourselves to Death:
But so far it seems very clear to me that the great crisis in American, especially, by the way in education is that we are overwhelmed, flooded, drowning in information. No one knows what to do with it. No one knows how to classify it, and it’s I think, the great sort of symbol of this problem is to be found in that E. D. Hirsch book, Cultural Literacy in which he proposes a s way of educating, educating our students that we, we make sure students know this list of 5,000 names and places and dates and aphorisms and so on. And that was in the index of his original book, but since then he and his colleagues have produced The Cultural Literacy Encyclopedia so that there are probably 20,000 names and places and so on that you’re supposed to know. And, but of course, much of the list is arbitrary because for every item he has that you…he thinks you should know, you could name ten things that you do know that are not there. So that this is endless, and the, the great omission in Hirsch’s book is that he has no reason for anyone knowing all of these things except that they are part of what he calls our “culture”. But this is the whole question. If culture is communication and if it’s shared information, then what is our culture now? We have 15,000 newspapers in America, about 15,000 magazines. There’s 60 billion pieces of junk mail come into our mailboxes every year. There are millions of computers and millions of television sets and radios and it’s all jut pouring out stuff and no one has any sense of what to do with it.
Postman’s critique of Hirsch and the idea of cultural literacy stems from the idea that the information itself is irrelevant as long as it has no meaning to the learner. Meaning is at the core of learning, since it’s the human struggle to achieve meaningful existence that drives the need and the desire to learn. Knowing who Jonas Salk was seems fairly meaningless if you’ve never met anyone with polio, and if the prospect of having such an experience is slim to none. Understanding the history behind the cure for polio is far more important and meaningful if its tied to the general history of longevity, health, medicine, and so on, but in order to engage in such an exploration, one has to identify the important pattern that connects the information to their own lives.
Both John Dewey and Paulo Freire hit hard at the personal connection to information in their theories of education. Personal experience and the ability to find meaning in one’s explorations is at the heart of their work. Imposing someone else’s idea of what constitutes core knowledge simply colonizes a learner’s mind with information designed by an authority figure of some kind. It ignores both the process of learning at its most basic level and the purpose of learning at the same time.
Still, there is something troubling about a group of adult students who don’t know where Beruit is, despite the United States engaging in military action there with soldiers killed in action. There’s something troubling about an adult student not knowing what a Contra is, despite the United States’ involvement in covert operations in Central America in which the open murder of women and children took place. We see this kind of story all the time today, when we conduct surveys of the American public regarding the “important” news of the day, involving elected representatives, tax money, electoral politics, and the rest. Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya…the most outrageously stupid of these ideas, to go along with evolution and climate change denial.
The 60 Minutes piece gets at a critique of television, briefly, when O’Neill notes that the deep reflection that comes from literacy is lost on the television generation, where information is treated with fleeting and intermittent coverage. The piece also notes the decreased aspirations and expectations of parents in a society where so many struggle just to get by. The critique goes no further than to make that assertion, but there’s plenty of critical work out there showing that leisure time has decreased exponentially over the last several generations due to longer working hours, multiple jobs, and the like. The ability for a family to live on a single income is gone. The ability for a family to enjoy quality hours of “together time” has been eclipsed by the need to produce more for the same money. The effect of all of this is less attention for children, less modeling of learning behavior, and the prioritization of the vocational aspects of education over those life-centered activities that produce deeper, more meaningful, knowledge…not to mention the decrease in civic engagement which has turned families inward and away from meaningful engagement in the social life of their community.
What does it mean for our democracy? Unless we decide that we’re going to fix the underlying economic climate of the average working family, it means we’re surrendering more and more of our learning to television, the Internet, and our outmoded and failing schools. It means that we’ll increasingly surrender our local needs to the arbitrary acquisition of cultural literacy in the form of Federal and State mandated curricula, reinforced by demoralizing and pointless testing. It means that the political class will be able to frame issues in whatever self-serving manner they desire, and a sheepish public will follow along helplessly, assigning blame for their woes in all the wrong places. While we focus on breaking teachers unions, fighting over tenure and accountability, and wrestling over textbooks and such, we’re ignoring the most significant threats to learning and democracy…fiddling while Rome burns.