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).
- Wounded Knee 1890
- Wounded Knee 1973
- The Fort Laramie Treaty (1868)
- Russell Means and/or Dennis Banks
- AIM (American Indian Movement)
- Ayn Rand
- Atlas Shrugged
- The Fountainhead
- 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.