The Decline of Cultural Literacy and the Educational System's Responsibility

In E.D. Hirsch’s essay, Literacy and Cultural Literacy, he proclaims that America’s cultural literacy has declined, and that cultural literacy is the most important element in a functioning democratic society. His most important claim is that the members of this society must have shared background information in order to communicate with one another. Communication is the key element in American society. He then points out that the educational system is no longer committed to its responsibility of educating its students in mainstream literate culture. He argues that this loss of commitment is the reason for America’s decline in cultural literacy. In order for our society to function, schools must return to a traditional mainstream approach. If they do not, cultural literacy will continue to decline, and America will inevitably lose its means of communication, leaving its society to fall. It is now, more than ever, the educational system’s responsibility to hold America together by making the younger members of society culturally literate.

Hirsch’s argument is not necessarily that “class-bound, white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant” materials are the most important materials for education, although from his Shakespearean example it is almost implied (300). Rather, he wants to point out that “our aim should be to attain universal literacy at a very high level” (286). By aiming for cultural literacy, we are aiming to improve our society. Having the same background knowledge, people will be able to communicate with each other in a way that will make our society stronger. Every person belonging to this society must be literate. However, it is not enough to say that literacy is a “skill,” but “that it requires large amounts of specific information” (286). This information must be shared amongst the people of America in order to obtain a high level of cultural literacy. Hirsch points out that we need to reach this level “to achieve not only greater economic prosperity but also greater social justice and more effective democracy” (286).

Hirsch uses the Aristotelian notion of moral excellence to show that he is trying to improve society with his ideas about cultural literacy. He believes that to have a functioning society we must acquire a “high level of universal literacy” (293). He takes an approach that shows how literacy among all Americans is important to keep this functioning society. “The powerlessness of incomprehension” condemns Americans because it hinders our ability to communicate with one another (294). If we cannot communicate, our nation cannot run properly. People need to be culturally literate to become active members of their own society. It is important that people are active members because to have true equality they must be able to communicate effectively. This, in turn, implies that “universal literacy is inseparable from democracy” (294). To have a truly democratic nation people have to have the same shared background information in order to keep that democratic nation running. Hirsch uses this argument to convey the importance of having an equal society that is able to communicate different ideas through shared information.

In order to use their “right to vote,” people need to attain a cultural literacy (294). Voters cannot understand the topics and the view of a particular political party on these topics without the information that should be common to all Americans. Therefore, illiterate people cannot play an equal role as a functioning member of their society in the same way as literate people. They are cut off, and are not a part of society, because they lack the knowledge to effectively participate in it. It is a person’s duty to society to acquire a certain cultural literacy because “true enfranchisement depends upon knowledge, knowledge upon literacy, and literacy upon cultural literacy” (294). Many people are not active members in our country because they lack the knowledge to be active. They do not need a detailed memory of everything they read or hear, but rather the “ability to grasp the general shape of what we are reading and to tie it to what we already know” (295). Hirsch points this out to show that everyone can be active members of society because they only need a vague memory of the subject’s background information in order to effectively communicate. This is how society functions, but it cannot function without the shared background information among its members.

Hirsch attacks the educational system for not providing the necessary background information that students need in order to enter a culturally literate society. He effectively breaks down the problem to show that the school system has weaned in its commitment in properly educating its students in order to shame them into changing their curriculum. It is the educational system’s responsibility to provide children a homogeneous background because “the school curriculum is the most important controllable influence on what our children know and don’t know about literate culture” (299). Since the system is in essence controllable, what students learn should be controllable. However, this is not the case because students are not acquiring “that middle ground of cultural knowledge” they need to effectively communicate after they graduate and enter the workforce (299). The schools’ inability to have a controlled curriculum by offering “highly varied” courses is essentially the force driving the decline in cultural literacy (300). By not offering a common curriculum to all their students, schools are not providing the necessary information to them. In an attempt to provide diversity in the educational system, the system itself has effectively pushed the decline of cultural literacy farther down. Objectors have argued that “universal cultural literacy would have the effect of preserving the political and economic status quo” by teaching a curriculum that is “class-bound, white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, not to mention racist, sexist, and excessively Western” (300-301). Hirsch argues against this, stating that it “is paradoxical because in fact the traditional forms of literate culture are precisely the most effective instruments for political and social change” (301). In order to change society, people must be culturally literate. They must have the essential homogeneous background knowledge to communicate effectively new ideas.

One of the major enthymemes used by Hirsch argues against multicultural education within the educational system. His major premise is that students today are no longer culturally literate. The minor premise is, as opposed to educating students in traditional mainstream culture, schools are offering diverse multicultural curricula. His conclusion is that schools should take a homogeneous mainstream approach, and move away from their multicultural approach for literacy rates to rise. The reason for the decline in cultural literacy is a direct result of “faulty policy in the schools” (299). Their current policy involves courses that are highly diverse in content, which results in the lack of shared information that students receive. Hirsch then argues that “it would be hard to invent a more effective recipe for cultural fragmentation” (300). By offering varied courses, schools are taking away their students’ ability to communicate effectively with not only the generations preceding them, but also one another. Hirsch argues that a multicultural approach is wrong because students need to be culturally literate by means of traditional homogenous mainstream materials. “Literate culture is the most democratic culture in our land,” and it allows for the culturally literate to communicate fairly and to express new ideas (300). If the educational system does not move back towards a mainstream program, then it will be the direct cause of a communication breakdown amongst American citizens. By taking away the means for students to communicate effectively, schools are breaking down democracy in America. Communication is the key element of a democratic society, which cannot function without shared background information among its members. Schools are the utmost authority on what students learn, and it is their responsibility to give students an enriching culturally literate education. Hirsch believes that without cultural literacy from the schools society cannot function and

To assert that they are powerless to make a significant impact on what their students learn would be to make a claim about American education that few parents, teachers, or students would find it easy to accept. (299)

By this statement, he wants his audience to understand that cultural literacy must begin from within the educational system. The schools have become unfocused on the key issues about literacy and education, which is that a universal literacy involves common information that should be shared among the students. This information is the backbone of our democratic society. The schools are not powerless in properly educating their students because they have been teaching a diverse curriculum that has allowed for a decline in cultural literacy. Hirsch argues that in order to ascend the steps back up to a highly literate society, the educational system must tighten their courses and offer a mainstream curriculum.

Hirsch raises some key issues in his essay about the state of education today and American society’s declining means of communication. His argument proves to be effective because he is writing about the key issue of a functioning society, which is cultural literacy. He has strict views on what mainstream culture is, and that is where his argument loses some of its luster. He does not effectively address what mainstream material is, but his argument that it must be taught is well grounded. Literate culture “is not usually one’s first culture, but it should be everyone’s second,” because that is the most effective way to communicate (300). Hirsch believes that school systems should recognize this need of sustaining a literate culture, and use this recognition in properly educating students. The next logical step in the process of educating students in mainstream culture is to pin down what mainstream culture is, and then move forward with a plan to make America a culturally literate society.