What Every 21st Century American Should “Know”

The journal Democracy is running an article revisiting E.D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, and looking for readers to help generate an updated list like the one at the end of Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

Here’s the list I came up with, completely off the top of my head (i.e., involving less than a minute of thought, since that’s all the time for thought I currently have).

  1. Wounded Knee 1890
  2. Wounded Knee 1973
  3. The Fort Laramie Treaty (1868)
  4. Russell Means and/or Dennis Banks
  5. AIM (American Indian Movement)
  6. Ayn Rand
  7. Atlas Shrugged
  8. The Fountainhead
  9. libertarianism
  10. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)

The list is totally idiosyncratic, and focuses on things that I either happen to be thinking about lately (1-5, 10), or that I’ve thought a lot about at one time or another but that tend not to make it onto lists of this sort (6-9). Arguably, I’ve also cheated a bit because many of my items overlap (e.g., 4-5, 6-8), and one line of the list contains two items (4). Whatever. I still think the list consists of things that every 21st century American ought (in some sense) to “know.” I don’t have time to insert hot links into my list right now, but will do so when I get a chance (perhaps “IOU” should be on the list).

It’s an interesting question what “know” means in this context. I take “know” to mean “recognize as something important and to know something about” (to be contrasted with drawing a complete blank on encounter with the item).* It’s not entirely clear to me what epistemic value there is to knowing a lot of items in this sense; clearly, Hirsch thought that there was enough value there to serve the pedagogical goals of an ideal educational system. I read Hirsch’s book a long time ago and saw him defend its thesis in a lecture sometime in the 90s. I suppose I agree(d) in a general way that ceteris paribus, having broad cultural literacy, even in a weak sense of “knowing,” was better than not having any. But I don’t have strong views on the subject. I just think it’s fun (and easy) to generate a list, so I did.

At any rate, if there’s anything to Hirsch’s argument, I’d argue that my items belong on the list. But I’d be interested in seeing readers’ lists in the combox (obviously feel free to add to Democracy’s list as well).

*For related discussion, see Pierre LeMorvan’s “Knowledge, Ignorance, and True Belief” plus the paper by Goldman and Olsson he cites.

13 thoughts on “What Every 21st Century American Should “Know”

  1. My quick list:
    1) black conservatism
    2) the whole Pahlavi-Mossadegh affair
    3) libertarianism (people still have trouble conceptualizing it’s right-left crossover appeal)
    4) Latin America’s Western culture
    5) Dutch history
    6) South Asian-East African literature (lots of historical links between the two regions that could help conceptualize current US role in the world)


  2. I think both of these lists are really idiosyncratic and odd, at least if we’re aiming at what I take to be Hirsch’s original goal, viz. to provide a list of things that students should know about to provide a foundation for their further education. Should all Americans really be learning about Dutch history or BDS in seventh grade? Are these things really foundational? They might be things we wish more people knew about, but are they on the same level as atheism, astrology, bankruptcy, baptism, Chernobyl, civil disobedience, democracy, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” etc.? I guess I’m not best suited to assess any of these lists, because the whole point of making a list seems silly unless it’s just to illustrate some things that most educated people should probably know about (but really, if kids of the next generation don’t know about Donald Duck or Billy Graham or Harry Houdini or Carl Jung, I’m not going to think it’s a tragedy).


    • I don’t agree with your characterization of Hirsch’s list. As I read Cultural Literacy, the purpose of Hirsch’s list wasn’t to “provide a list of things that students ought to know to provide a foundation for their further education”–not in any sense that implied that the whole list had to be suitable for use in seventh grade. Nor was the list intended as foundational knowledge on which a superstructure was to be built. Hirsch puts it this way: “This list is provisional; it is intended to illustrate the character and range of the knowledge literate Americans tend to share. More than one hundred consultants reported agreement on over 90% of the items listed” (Cultural Literacy, p. 146).

      So the reference to “literate Americans” is to adults, not seventh graders, and the claim is that this is what literate Americans “know” once they reach adulthood (in a weak sense of “know-about” or “have a general acquaintance with”). The subtitle of the book (and the topic of the Democracy article) is “What Every American Needs to Know,” not “What Every Thirteen Year Old Should Be Learning.” Hirsch’s list is, after all, 64 pages long with 80 items on each page. It would be humanly impossible to make a list that long the basis of a seventh grade curriculum, and doing so wasn’t his intention. How many seventh graders know, or need to know, “prostate gland,” “psychoanalysis,” or “Marcel Proust”? (all on p. 198). You need to hit 40 for any of that to become relevant (and it all simultaneously becomes relevant the minute you do hit 40).

      As I’m sure you realize (since you quote some), the items on Hirsch’s list aren’t all at the same level of abstraction as the ones you cite–“atheism, astrology…” and the rest. He’s got Sarah Bernhardt, Chuck Berry, Camptown Races (song), On Top of Old Smokey (song), and (God help us) Casey Jones (song). After that dismal musical showing, I jumped for joy to see “AC/DC” on the list, but I have a worry it doesn’t mean what I’d like it to.

      His point is not, “These are foundational concepts you need in order to learn about higher-order phenomena,” but “Here’s a list of the sorts of things that make for a shared national culture.” “Shared national culture” includes items at all levels of abstraction and concreteness, and at all levels of fundamentality and trivia. His point was not, “You have to know the things on the list,” but “A culture will tend to malfunction unless it (eventually) inculcates a functional equivalent of this list in its citizens.” I’m not defending; I’m just reporting. In the post, I wasn’t buying into the whole thesis verbatim, I was accepting it in a very generalized way.

      I would defend my list, however. I don’t see what’s odd about it at all. The first five items are there to remedy the original list’s conspicuous neglect of American Indians. There’s an interesting blind spot at work there. When it comes to Indians, Hirsch is careful to include famous Indians (and Indian references) from the distant past: the Cherokee, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, The Trail of Tears. But he assumes that literate Americans need not know about the existence of a 20th century Indian civil rights movement. Meanwhile, there are abundant references to the 20th century black civil rights movement, and there’s explicit mention of the women’s liberation movement.

      The average American therefore seems to believe that Indian resistance to the United States government ended with Geronimo. But that’s not just false; it’s wildly false, and it’s something that needs rectification. The first five items reflect the fact that if literate Americans are supposed to know Columbus, Custer, and Wild Bill Hickok, they ought to know their adversaries, as well. The Russell Means link goes to an article in The Atlantic that makes the case that AIM was a historically significant (though now forgotten) civil rights organization. But you can’t understand what AIM was/is about in even a minimal way unless you “know” my items 1-5. (Incidentally, Hirsch has Stone Age, Stonehenge, and ‘Stone walls do not a prison make’. I’d replace the latter with Stonewall, as in the riots. Mutatis mutandis the same reasoning applies to the gay liberation movement as applies to AIM.)

      I won’t belabor the Ayn Rand reference. The “Ayn Rand” link goes to an article that explains her influence on the contemporary Republican Party, and I’m assuming that minimal acquaintance with Rand requires familiarity with her two most famous novels. I don’t think you can understand right-wing politics today without knowing who Rand was (or what libertarianism is).

      As for BDS: Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton have all made a self-conscious point of clarifying their views on BDS to the American people. Meanwhile, just this year, the Prime Minister of Israel made a special effort to travel to the US to make the case against it, describing it as a “strategic threat.” The Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ are pro-BDS; the Episcopalians and Mennonites have debated it; the Methodists have offered some support, and the Catholic Church has gone out of its way to reject it. So it can’t really be described as a fringe academic phenomenon. Hirsch’s original list has “Zionism” and “PLO.” A reasonable case can be made that BDS has superseded the latter. Assuming that the average literate American ought to concern herself our Israel policy–with our relationship to the largest beneficiary of our foreign aid–she needs to know what BDS is.


  3. Well, taken that way I’d agree that your and Brandon’s lists aren’t so odd. I admit that I know Hirsch’s ideas by report from some of his admirers and defenders rather than by reading the book itself. But if the point of the list isn’t supposed to be to compile things that are supposed to be foundational — I was using “seventh grade” flippantly, but the only people I’ve encountered who are major proponents of the approach are middle- and high-school teachers — then I’m even less sure it’s a worthwhile enterprise. I certainly don’t agree with the Democracy article that we need a new list. Like I said, if the point of the list is just supposed to be to illustrate some things that educated people should probably know about, then it all makes sense (but isn’t nearly so important a task as the Democracy article seems to suggest). But I took the point of Hirsch’s list to be to single out some items as essential to cultural literacy, so that if you don’t know many of the things on the list, you don’t count as culturally literate, and proper education needs to make people culturally literate and therefore should inculcate knowledge of the things on the list. I can’t see much value in trying to formulate a list of that sort, especially with items of such specificity as Chuck Berry and Donald Duck. I’m not sure there is a set of things that “every American needs to know,” but if there is, I don’t think it can consist of such concrete items as songs and sayings and cartoon characters or even many detailed historical events. I’d still say the same thing about BDS; I’d agree with much of what you say about it here, but why should that entail that every American needs to know about it? Or, frankly, even that every educated American needs to know about it in a level of detail that would amount to having an informed opinion? Given that the average educated American’s opinion on the matter will likely make no difference to her electoral decisions and that it can’t be obligatory for everyone to devote considerable time and attention to every important political issue, it seems a bit excessive to say that every American needs to know about it. The same goes, I think, for the details of the sordid history of U.S./Native American relations and (dare I say it) Ayn Rand. I think I know more about Rand than any other non-conservative, non-Objectivist-leaning person I’ve ever met, and I’m not a bit inclined to think that someone who knows less than I do about her is uneducated or culturally illiterate (though I do admit that I wish people who don’t actually know anything about her would shut up about her).

    Probably I’m just taking the whole thing too seriously, though. After watching last night’s Republican debate, I’m more inclined to say that what every American needs to know is how to spot logical fallacies and to see through rhetorical bullshit. But I do admit that I also think that probably everybody also ought to know some AC/DC by this point. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to know it, dammit.


    • I read Hirsch’s book about six years ago. He’s not as precise as he could be, but the book suggests that the point of the list is closer to “illustrate some things that educated people should probably know about,” than to “single out some items as essential to cultural literacy.” But it’s somewhat different from either of those.

      Hirsch’s overarching point is that participants in a common dialogue can’t do so unless they share a common vocabulary. Or perhaps the point should be put more cautiously: they’ll do a better job of having such a dialogue if they do share a common vocabulary. That point seems relatively uncontroversial. Think of the number of times one wants to illustrate some complex point in class, and one thinks of a work of art that illustrates the point perfectly. Then suddenly one realizes that no one in the classroom has heard of it. Yesterday I was in a master’s psych class, and the professor kept making reference to Woody Allen movies. No one in the class had seen any of his movies, and I’m inclined to think that some people in the class had never heard of Woody Allen. This doesn’t necessarily indicate culpability or stupidity on their part, but it sure makes a certain kind of conversation more difficult.

      The list is there to indicate, concretely, what a shared common vocabulary is like. The point is not: this is the definitive list; a culturally literate person should know everything on it, or even 90% of what’s on it, or else he’s culturally illiterate. His point is: in order to have a shared vocabulary that facilitates fruitful dialogue, you need agreement on a list of this size and this variation….kinda like this list, at least as a first approximation. He freely admits that his list may not be ideal. It’s just a first approximation. But if you iterated lists, kept them up-to-date, and cross-matched them with sets of competing lists, it would be possible to generate an ideal list. The ideal list would serve as a diagnostic tool for determining whether your society has a shared vocabulary: in other words, have we gotten to the point where most Americans know most of the items on the ideal list? That’s the aim. (In that respect “what every American should know” is hyperbolic, and not the part of the subtitle I was focusing on. I take the subtitle more loosely as meaning “what Americans should kinda-know.”)

      In a more general way, the list is there to serve as a substitute for the cultural knowledge that educated people once got via Homer or the Bible. If you’re inculcated in the Homeric epics, or the Bible, you don’t just know what abstract themes they broach (honor, faith…), but what Odysseus is like, the distinctive anatomical feature(s) of the Cyclops, what St Paul wrote (A: letters), etc. Obviously, we can’t hope for that in a multicultural society, so we aim for second-best, a Hirsch-like list.

      Is he right? I remember thinking that he was at least in the ballpark. If we lacked any semblance of a shared vocabulary, it wouldn’t matter if we’d all mastered informal logic. We’d still have trouble communicating with one another. Every argument anyone offered might be sound, but would be opaque to its intended audience. I know it’s a cheap-shot example, but try to imagine a conversation between Irving Copi and Aristotle (without a translator). Or more reasonably, a conversation between any member of this blog and John Stuart Mill. Actually, this kind of thing happens in interdisciplinary conversations, e.g., when poets try to have conversations with economists, etc.

      Is it excessive that every American needs to know about the stuff on my list? Yes. I don’t think that the list should function primarily as a test of individual cultural literacy. It should function as a diagnostic of the shared character of national discourse. In that case, the relevant question becomes: are x% of Americans familiar with y% of the items on the list? If yes (for the relevant values of x and y), good news: we have a relatively shared vocabulary. If not, bad news: we don’t. But it should be bad form to go around testing individual people to see whether they know who/what “Gunga Din” was/is, and then triumphantly declaring the “don’t-knows” as cultural illiterates.

      I think it’s unfair to attribute to me the claim that an item’s presence on the list entails “know about it in a level of detail that would amount to having an informed opinion.” That’s almost the opposite of the sense of “know” I was using (and flagging). I was saying that an item’s presence on the list should entail “knowledge” of the item in the weakest sense imaginable–mere familiarity with what the term refers to, in contrast with blank ignorance of what the term refers to (as in: “I have no idea”). “Knowledge” of BDS in this sense is merely knowledge that such a movement exists and that it aims to boycott Israel for its occupation of the West Bank. Full stop.

      Put it this way: I think the average American should at least be able to distinguish Palestine from Pakistan. But I often run into educated people who can’t. That seems seriously problematic to me. Here we’re talking about world geography at the fourth grade level. Again: shouldn’t a viewer of the Republican debate know what was wrong with Chris Christie’s describing the West Bank as “occupied” and then backpedaling and saying that it wasn’t? That’s world geography at maybe the ninth grade level. Is that too much to ask in a country so eager to bomb the shit out of everyone?

      I think most educated Americans know who Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were. It should strike us as a puzzle that they have no idea who Russell Means was or Dennis Banks is (unless they watched Last of the Mohicans–which missed the list by five years but def ought to replace Gunga Din). Hirsch aside, it does seem to me seriously problematic that American HS students are taught to regard the Union war leaders (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Custer, etc.) as heroes for having defeated the Confederacy but are not at all expected to know what role the very same people played in the Indian Wars.

      Again, my claim is not that people should know very much about Rand’s theorizing or writing. They should have heard of her and know, in general, who she is and what she stood for.

      But I do admit that I also think that probably everybody also ought to know some AC/DC by this point.

      I’m happy to report that if current trends continue, they will.


  4. “I think the average American should at least be able to distinguish Palestine from Pakistan.”

    It is depressing that anyone even needs to say this. I suppose we could say the same thing about it as I said about BDS; it just isn’t true that every American needs to know this. But perhaps we can say instead that anyone who wants to make informed judgments or contributions to discussion about world affairs or American foreign policy should know this. I’m still resistant to the idea of the list, even on the interpretation you’ve given it — I suppose it seems to me that a shared culture can and perhaps even should be more like a network of partially overlapping but diverse sorts of knowledge than it should be like a religion with its codified creeds, canons, and so on — but to the extent that we’re just identifying things that most educated people should know about, clearly the difference between Pakistan and Palestine is on the list, as is BDS on the minimalist conception of “know.” Part of what motivates my resistance to the list idea is that insofar as it is supposed to be a mark of an educated or culturally literate person to know the things on the list, the fact that many educated and culturally literate people might not know the things on the list and yet very quickly learn about them when they become relevant suggests that knowing the things on the list has at best a loose connection to being educated or culturally literate. That’s especially true on a minimal sense of “know”; I can gain that kind of knowledge of BDS in less than five minutes, I think. But I’m certainly on board with the idea that people should know about these things in that sense, and it’s a sad fact that so many people don’t.


    • The Pakistan/Palestine confusion is a very common one. I’ve encountered it a lot, and many of the Palestinians I met in Palestine complained about encountering it when they went to the US. They were also baffled by it, as if to say, “How could anyone confuse us with Pakistanis?”

      One guy encountered it in an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent at a point of entry. My absolute favorite part of the conversation:

      Border Control agent, looking with puzzlement at Sinan’s passport: Where are you from? What kind of passport is this?

      Sinan: It’s Palestinian.

      Agent: You mean Pakistani?

      Sinan: No, Palestinian.

      Agent: I don’t have “Palestinian” on my drop down menu. Are you sure you’re not Pakistani? It’s got to be Pakistani.

      Sinan: I’m pretty sure I’m Palestinian.

      Calling Dr. Hirsch.

      Turned out that you had to drop down on the menu to “Israel.” Not that the Palestinian Territories are in Israel, mind you.

      I actually agree with your reasons for resistance to a Universal Cultural Literacy list. That’s why I conditionalized my support for Hirsch: if (to the extent that) we need a single list, my items should be on it. You’re absolutely right to say that what’s essential to having cultural literacy is not knowing (or “knowing”) literally all the items on the list, but having the capacity to pick up a knowledge of previously unknown items on the list. But Hirsch’s point is that that capacity presupposes knowing a fair number of items on the list. So while the list isn’t literally criterial of cultural literacy, it still has a certain utility or diagnostic value. You can use it (or some modified version of it) to sort the culturally literate from the illiterate.

      I think this becomes particularly salient if you deal with–or teach–a population that has almost zero acquaintance with huge swatches of any plausible list of the Hirschian variety. I don’t know what students are like at Ohio, UT, or Rice, but Felician students are in the 1st-15th percentile of performance on tests designed to assess college-level learning, and I’ve had lots of first-year students whose combined Math-Verbal SAT scores were lower than 500. With this population, the Hirsch list really is diagnostic: take any random page of the Hirsch list and ask students what items on it they recognize, and it’s very likely that the answer will be nothing or close to it.

      No matter how you slice it, that’s cultural illiteracy, and it has the adverse effects that Hirsch predicts. Such students have enormous trouble reading college-level texts, and cannot carry on a conversation that involves allusions to what most readers of this blog would take for granted as cultural background knowledge. In fact they often resent such allusions as “wordiness.” In my experience, at least, this is pretty standard for what goes on in community colleges. Now consider that 40% of enrolled undergraduates in the US are enrolled at community colleges. I think it’s plausible to infer that cultural literacy is a serious problem in higher education. Cultural diversity and overlapping networks are valuable, but at a certain very basic level, we need to be able to communicate with one another against a single (minimal) backdrop of shared knowledge, and I’m inclined to think that as things currently stand, we can’t.


      • Ok, ok, I give in. I have had occasion recently to be reminded how spoiled I’ve gotten from teaching at Dartmouth and Rice. I graded papers this past weekend, and while I of course still had plenty of criticism, I was struck by how good even the freshmen were. But of course most of the students I’ve taught in the past four years have either come from wealthy backgrounds and received an elite or near-elite high school education, or have worked their asses off in less favorable circumstances to get where they are. I suppose there’s a reason why so many of Hirsch’s supporters are middle- and high-school teachers; that’s the place where much of this basic cultural knowledge needs to be inculcated. I’m still a die-hard pedagogical pluralist and will therefore always resist the notion of a single list or a single model of education for everyone, but on the weaker interpretation of what this thing is for I think he’s onto something.

        If I ever teach in high school, I will make sure my students know about AC/DC as well as Aristotle. I might not mention Ayn Rand, though.


  5. Pingback: “What every 21st century American should ‘know’” | Notes On Liberty

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