I found this oddity of a title, Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch, in my street's box while passing by on my way from an event. It is hard to characterize the book. Published almost thirty years ago, it looks to have functioned primarily as a defense of white cultural hegemony. The book seems to have arisen, if not from, then in tandem with the Reagan administration: an essential promoter was William Bennett, U.S. Secretary of Education, who is blurbed on the back ("This important book could, and should, change what goes on in our nation's classrooms. It makes the critical point that we learn how to learn by learning something") and who is credited in the book's preface for his enthusiasm in "champion[ing] its ideas."
More than 3/4ths of the book (per page count) is devoted to a list, "the Thinking American's List" according to the cover, and it is this that has attracted my attention more so than the interior. It is hard to say exactly what the organizing principle is behind the list: are they items that a literate person should know, or are they what literate persons (in the U.S.) already professed to know? The list is compelling, but strange. Apparently the whole of it is not available online, but if you click the title link above, Amazon.com's "Search Inside the Book" feature will bring up portions. The first and last pages look like this:
Not immediately evident are the selection criteria for terms—why were some things included and others omitted? Furthermore what is the use of topics without any contextualization? "1492"? "1939-1945"? Presumably Columbus sailing the ocean blue or the Second World War are of significance, but of what use are the freestanding dates?
Also blurbed on the back jacket, Richard C. Anderson, Director, Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, proclaims "Hirsch makes an eloquent and, I believe, persuasive argument that cultural literacy is not inconsistent with cultural pluralism". Not inconsistent, one presumes, if those subject populations can only be made to toe the line with colonialist aspirations. He also declares, "Hirsch's erudition inspires awe"—a bit hyperbolic, that.
The skeptic in me wonders if this might not have been a first salvo in the "dumbing down of America" which has been superbly effected in the years since Reagan, exclusive of certain pockets here and there. The text itself does not inspire me. One learns that "Confucius is as wise as Socrates", for example, which is essentially meaningless in any context. Far from being "the Thinking Person's List", the idea seems to be: Here are things you don't need to think about, just memorize a few key phrases.
It would be nice to read a modern-day deconstruction of the book, the list, and (apparently) the phenomenon, by the hands of a Ta-Nehisi Coates, who might, through retrospective analysis, explain what it was all about. I was alive at the time, but can't make head or tail out of it.