PiU (samedi) wrote,

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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.
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