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cultural literacy

A recent entry by cathepsut (and the accompanying comments) related to historical subjectivity has reminded me about a book I found at the public library a few years ago -- Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch Jr. With a title like that I had high hopes for what the book might contain, but in the end I was pretty disappointed. To be honest I didn't even read more than two or three pages, so my judgment might be a little hasty, but what I saw wasn't very encouraging.

One of the first complaints fielded by Mr. Hirsch is that 90% of graduating university students in the United States cannot identify the date when World War Two began. [×] Now, despite my shock at the news that more than half of the sixth grade students in the nation are unable to locate the United States on a map of the world (according to a newspaper article published several months earlier), I think that basing part of your argument on a question related to the onset of WWII is completely absurd. What kind of answer is Mr. Hirsch expecting? 8 December 1941, when the United States declared war on Japan? 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland? The latter of those is what most professors would accept as the correct answer. But what about March 1937, when Prague was occupied? 7 July 1937, when Japan invaded China? 3 October 1935, when Italy attacked Ethiopia? Or why not 22 August 1910 when Japan annexed Korea?

The standard story is that the war lasted from 1939 until the surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945 aboard the USS Missouri. However, Ukraine fought against both the Germans and the Soviet Union during the war, with resistance fighters still operating as late as 1956. The Soviet Union occupied the Kuril Islands as the fighting wound down in the Pacific; Japan still claims the islands as their own and neither country has signed a peace treaty, so technically they're still at war.

While it may be true that the American education system glosses over or ignores certain events and personalities there is only so much that can be taught in schools, and as budgets continue to be cut it's becoming more difficult to obtain a well-rounded education outside the realm of private schools. I agree that there is a chronic problem in the United States when it comes to knowledge about the rest of the world (for example, a previous vice-president is reported to have said "Now that I'm in Latin America I wish I'd taken Latin in high school so I wouldn't need a translator" during a conference in South America); however, there is only so much that can be blamed on schools - the rest comes from what appears to be an ingrained belief in our national subconscious that we're better than everyone else. Will an improved "cultural literacy" really solve that problem?

And, more to the [original] point - can anyone really say what they would do if faced with a situation involving a different culture and a different time to the one they currently inhabit?

[×] Chances are it was a multiple-choice test and students weren't able to guess the right answer, but even with that my point still remains.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 8th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)
I remember reading, back when I was still in high school, that American students could not so much as pick out which half-century the American Civil War took place. Admittedly, back then, I remembered more because of a bit of Revolutionary War trivia* that I'd picked up than because I myself remembered the exact dates, but there's still far less excuse.

*Supposedly, the original draft of the Declaration of Independance included a bit against the practice of slavery. The southern states naturally objected, and John Adams fought to keep the bit. Ben Franklin told him to calm down and let it go, and Adams responded that they had to keep it, because if not, "there will be trouble a hundred years hence -- posterity will never forgive us."
Jan. 10th, 2006 12:42 am (UTC)
While the inclusion of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property / happiness" is something I've seen several times I had never heard about Franklin and Adams debating slavery as it pertained to the Declaration of Independence.
Jan. 10th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
My source was the notes on the script of the musical 1776. The musical does include the debate about slavery, but not the particular phrase I mentioned above: the author commented that he didn't dare, because it would come off as far too self-conscious.
Jan. 10th, 2006 08:30 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I imagine you've seen the musical? After reading some of the quotes from the movie version I'm be interested in seeing it, although I have yet to put any effort into tracking down a copy.
Jan. 11th, 2006 12:58 am (UTC)
Oh, yes -- the movie version, alas, as the stage production in which my mother played Cesar Rodney (she can sing tenor, so she's gotten cross-cast more than once) was while I was at college and couldn't get down to CT.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 10th, 2006 12:50 am (UTC)
I am much better at European geography than I am at North American geography, especially when it comes to places in Canada. If you really want to test your knowledge though there is an online German dart game that uses a map of Europe ... the link is if you're interested and/or bored.
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Jan. 10th, 2006 08:33 pm (UTC)
I've tried the map a few times in the past with varying levels of success. On one occasion I was 4km away for Brussels and Paris, but that's the best I've ever done. I'm usually 300-400km off for Moscow and I accidentally put Bucharest in Bulgaria on my first attempt.

At least the Netherlands is small enough where den Haag isn't much of a problem. ;)
Jan. 8th, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC)
I hate you for posting interesting entries when I have no time to comment.:P
Jan. 10th, 2006 12:55 am (UTC)
Isn't that how it always works though? ;)
Jan. 9th, 2006 12:42 am (UTC)
I love rants and rambles, particularly when they come from you. I'm overdo for one myself.

I could tell by the title of the book that it's one of those "wisdom in a bottle" books, full of dumbed and watered down tidbits that offer little insight or wisdom.

I think what is more important than the day the war started is what impact WW2 had on the 20th century and how it continues to influence us today. *That's* what history is about.

I think having a strong grasp of current events and world history (European and non-European) could help erode sense of national supremacy. eg, pur health and education (ironically haha) systems stink compared to those in other Western nations.

On the other hand, I was reading about Germaine Greer's argument that female circumcision should be taken into cultural context, which I find horrendous. That doesn't mean we're superior to African cultures in which this act is present, but I think we need to expedit its extinction. And now I sound like a professor, yikes.

Jan. 10th, 2006 02:08 am (UTC)
I love rants and rambles, particularly when they come from you. I'm overdo for one myself.

I never feel very confident in any of my rants or rambles - I start to mention what's on my mind, but when I'm finished writing it feels like I've only scratched the surface of what I really wanted to say. I'm looking forward to your next one though.

After the ideological warfare that accompanied the Cold War it feels like anything related to socialism or increased government is treated with blatant hostility. Nationalized health care? Oh no, we don't want any of that "commie nonsense" here, etc. And who has time for music or art classes when (gasp!) math scores are so low? I agree with you about broadening class material to encompass non-US topics ... why save it for university-level courses?

As for female circumcision, Katherine Dettwyler makes a similar suggestion in Dancing Skeletons, and she mentions how women in Mali (where she was doing health research) were shocked to hear that she had been able to find a husband without being circumcised. In Australia men are cut along the underside of the penis from one end to the other as an initiation ceremony into manhood - leaving a fairly large scar as a result - and that's not a custom I would choose to practice if given a choice. But what do you do when a behavior is so ingrained in a society that people don't want to change?
Jan. 11th, 2006 01:24 am (UTC)
But what do you do when a behavior is so ingrained in a society that people don't want to change?

I know, that's the problem. But I remember reading a story of an circumcised African woman, and the procedure (done by an old woman with a rusty razor) left her maimed to the point it took her hours to urinate because it would come one drop at a time. It's a custom, but what if it's also inhumane?
Jan. 12th, 2006 12:09 am (UTC)
Selective pressure - such as giving medical aid or assigning priority to public service projects to those who prohibit female circumcision - might help encourage people to drop those customs, but at the same time that also makes it easier for racial prejudice to influence how people are treated.

It's a difficult question.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )