Cultural Literacy

O'Brien, Tom

GUARDING THE GUARDS OF TRADITION CDLTDRAL LITERACY WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW E. D. Hlrsch Houghton Mifflin, $16.95, 251 pp. Tom O'Brien very teacher will have a horror story to back...

...The student was a skilled writer, reader of poetry, and a fine musician...
...Letters of not more than 250 or 300 words naturally have a better chance of being published...
...If Santayana was right about history, some of Hirsch's dates are useful, maybe even in breeding resistance to war...
...Shakespeare's racial, sexual, and class prejudices) need not be enslaving...
...Knowledge is not always power if creativity is dulled in acquiring knowledge...
...Surely he also knows how often the Romantics reflected long and deeply on the revolution in France and understood it not just as a political event but as a cultural overthrow of traditionJn need of balance...
...One senses, behind Hirsch's strawman, the southpaw-bashing so au courant in the neoconservative air, or fog, around the Capitol...
...Hirsch is a Byron scholar, and surely knows romanticism's dark side...
...The day I returned the essay, we were reading John Hersey's Hiroshima, and she began the class by asking, with a dismayed look, "You mean we did this...
...But in our century and our country especially, Hirsch shows that the displacement of knowledge from the center of education has resulted in a public school curriculum too centered on a student's prior experience, everyday world, and present tense...
...Which is what he does, starting with" five dates (1066, 1492, 1776, 1861-5, 1914-18, 1939-45...
...542: Commonweal Commonweal welcomes letters on subjects treated in its pages...
...In higher education, for example, despite calls for a vigorous core curriculum to provide what Hirsch would call "extensive knowledge" in several fields, many faculty resist such reform because it would mean thinking beyond specialization, and might involve rewriting a syllabus...
...their ideology (cf...
...JOHN B. BRESLift, S.J., edited The Substance of Things Hoped For (Doubleday...
...Hirsch shows that lack of REVIEWERS ROBERT G. HOYT was the founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter, and, more recently, was the editor of Christianity & Crisis...
...The great secret of bureaucracies, as Dickens wrote in Little Dorrit, is "how not do it," and some of our nation's venerable tenured aristocracies have mastered it to the hilt...
...Many on the left since then Lukacs writing on Scott or Tolstoy, Germaine Greer on Shakespeare have insisted that one can read past literature by focusing on the best in the old authors...
...History-teaching, as Austen joked in A'orthanger Abbey, has often seemed designed to torture students, not arouse their curiosity...
...to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great uncle, orgrande dame, whom they never saw.'' Romantic, and even some radical thought is not so addicted to half-truths as to think that a brave new world can evolve from mere opposition to the mistaken facts, or mistaken emphasis on facts, in the old...
...Mine involves a bright student in a history and literature class on modern war who had just written an " A" paper on how Benjamin Britten's The War Requiem synthesizes liturgy and Wilfred Owen's poetry...
...The problem isn't student intelligence...
...the problem is the disservice done them by curricula that neglect "facts" in the name of "skills...
...Further, the "tracking" of early subpar readers into reading-poor grade-school courses condemns them to a cycle of ignorance (another student in my war course came for help precisely because she had always been relegated to "art" courses in high school, and was tired, she said, of "not knowing anything...
...But Hirsch still claims that provisional lists of "what every American needs to know" can be provided...
...Not all reformers are so narrow, but many feminists, socialists, civil rights and anti-war activists have claimed that learning the facts of the past means that students will more readily accept concepts, metaphors, and legends about traditional roles, leaders, or power structures as if reading The Iliad made war mongers, or reading Aristotle made sexists...
...hence the academic struggles over defining canons...
...At Catholic colleges, professors can count on students with at least some knowledge of the religious and philosophical tradition of the West...
...Students learn to read comfortably but more narrowly...
...Hence, in public school reading lists, the end of the classics (even Shakespeare) as proper study for the average student...
...As Hirsch points out, a tyranny is implicit in curricula that deny children's natural curiosity about their past...
...To use two of Hirsch's terms, "intensive" development of skills has replaced ' 'extensive" knowledge of cultural tradition...
...still, he thinks shared discourse requires some agreement over what we expect fellow citizens to know...
...something with which a student easily can identify...
...One movie critic even claims, similarly, that despite Hollywood's lowest-common-denominator marketing, young audiences may actually like something better than the average teen movie...
...Contrary to common belief, the many recent books and reports about American education reflect little consensus...
...TOM O'BRIEN, film critic of Commonweal, chairs the humanities department at Manhattan School of Music...
...Tom O'Brien very teacher will have a horror story to back up E. D. Hirsch's best-selling complaint about education...
...The watchdogs of such a tradition must be guarded carefully...
...Hirsch's style is not always inspired...
...Hirsch is conscious of their concern, and the need to prevent ossification of tradition, but he writes passionately to prevent our being ensnared by these absurd half-truths...
...knowledge can be debilitating: in a democracy increasingly dependent on technology, an illiterate citizenry is not free, but enslaved by not knowing...
...He wrote Cultural Literacy after becoming concerned when Virginia college students did not know who Grant and Lee were, and adds reams of other anecdotes and parallel evidence...
...Rather than blaming TV, he claims cultural illiteracy derives from pedagogical ideology, especially "romantic formalism," the belief (first prominent in the 1920s) that reading any text gave students skills transferable to all others...
...A corollary went that texts should be as simple, accessible, and relevant, i.e...
...But in general traditional exposure of American children to classics, even in diluted form, is virtually non-existent, except perhaps in sectarian schools...
...It was a Romantic, Charles Lamb, who anticipated Hirsch's point about curiosity in his beautiful opening to "Dream Children": "children love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children...
...She was a typical American college student, as E. D. Hirsch points out: factually or culturally illiterate...
...Hirsch has a different target...
...Any list by any (especially a self-appointed) guardian, Hirsch concedes, will be a problem...
...Such a classroom program means that children have little exposure not just to ' 'the best that has been thought and said'' but also to the plain facts of history, geography, and letters...
...his second chapter contains too many graphs to prove his point on the value of knowledge...
...Some opposition to intensive reading in "relevant" texts developed in the 1970s, when Bettelheim complained that modern utilitarian school curricula ignored myth and magic...
...In Hirsch's view, romantic formalism has been abetted by ideologues convinced that knowledge of tradition means enslavement by it...
...Hirsch is fair in conceding that the grandfathers of romantic formalism Rousseau, Wordsworth, Dewey were rightfully angry at dry-as-dust-dead-asdoornail teacher-centered training, with Gradgrindian memorization of facts the norm...
...A cultural vocabulary, he claims, is like a linguistic one: in motion constantly, never completely stable...
...She just hadn't heard...
...Cultural revisionism is one of our best traditions...
...My main complaint is his term "romantic formalism...

Vol. 114 • September 1987 • No. 16


 
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