Culture, Literacy, and What Every American Might Need to Know

Hirsch (1988)Americans profess a profound belief in political equality, and yet we are uncomfortable, if political scientist Robert Putnam (2007) is right, with cultural diversity. This tension, which can be seen in the motto of the United States (e pluribus unam), acknowledges the extent to which our national identity emerges from widespread cultural contact that, though potentially a resource, can also, if it results in cultural fragmentation, provide to be a liability.

This possibility is one reason why E. D. Hirsch Jr. (1983) advocates for a cultural literacy, or a shared cultural context that, among other functions, serves as the basis for what Hirsch describes as linguistic literacy (165). This shared context, which Hirsch maintains is primarily created by English and history, is a prerequisite for interpersonal communication and social participation. 

Hirsch outlines and argues for this perspective in his book entitled Cultural Literacy (1988), which is where I get my title. In this book, Hirsch suggests that schools are failing because they use formalist approaches, which presume that reading and writing are skills that are separate from content, or pluralist approaches, which presume that all relevant cultural traditions must be represented in the curricula. In contrast, Hirsch advocates for a cultural literacy approach, which he illustrates with an appendix of “5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts,” and he maintains that the biggest beneficiaries will be ethnic and economic minorities, who, he insists, are least likely to acquire this shared context outside of schools.

Many have suggested a significant social and political function for the humanities. Some, such as Martha Nussbaum (1997 and 2010), maintain that the humanities, which Nussbaum defines as critical thinking and self-examination, human connection and concern, and narrative imagination, both cultivate humanity and are central to democracy. Others, such as Earl Shorris (2013), believe that the humanities can be a means for addressing poverty and other social inequalities. Few, however, go as far as Hirsch in offering this shared cultural context as not only what students should learn but, as he does in the subtitle of his book, what Americans need to know even as Hirsch sees, in the recent widespread adoption of Common Core State Standards, a public validation of his argument and approach (e.g., Baker 2013).

Critics nonetheless responded quite negatively, at least initially. Literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1990) quickly argued, for instance, that Hirsch’s notion of a national culture is either “meaningless” or “undesirable” and, regardless, impossible, at least as an educational approach that he advocates, which, if adopted, would only exacerbate the problems plaguing American schools. In a similar way, composition scholar Patricia Bizzell (1988 and 1990), to cite a second example, criticizes both the foundationalism of Hirsch’s approach, particularly for its lack of attention to the politics of canon formation, and his limited notion of literacy.

Since this initial reaction, critics have had more positive reactions. Newsweek magazine, for example, published a special report that reassesses Hirsch’s contributions in the context of what it calls Global Literacy — “[o]ur perspective,” editor Jon Meacham explains, “is that of an American publication, but our interests are global,” and this consideration is something, he suggests, the magazine will regularly revisit.

In a similar way, the editors of a scholarly journal published by Duke University sponsored a symposium on the work of Hirsch and Allan Bloom, another theorist with whom Hirsch is often associated, in the context of considering a liberating liberal education (Ellwanger and Cook 2009). Though Bloom still evokes (more) negative reactions, Hirsch receives a more positive assessment from critics who variously separate him from Bloom (Lazere 2009), justify his approach by appealing to his previous scholarship on genre functions (Clark 2009), and highlight the rhetorical awareness at the center of his approach (Cook 2009).

This reconsideration is, I believe, an important return to Hirsch’s approach. On the one hand, this approach presumes Benedict Anderson’s (2006) notion of imagined communities that rely upon print and other media to posit shared values and identities. Such presumptions are contingent upon cultural and linguistic boundaries that, as Sue Wright (2004) and others have argued, had to be delimited and legitimized (e.g., 70-71).

On the other, his approach offers a meaningful framework, as I recently experienced at my friend’s citizenship ceremony. It was held at the federal immigration building in the Loop — I was almost late because I hadn’t anticipated airport-level security screening but arrived in time for what was an unexpectedly moving moment. Officials, after offering opening remarks, played a video montage of immigrants who had come to this country in search of better lives. Then one read a long list of countries — more than fifty, if memory serves, from every continent — whose former residents were relinquishing their citizenships in favor of new, and American, ones.

The issue, in other words, isn’t whether Hirsch’s approach is arbitrary or arrogant, which he actually acknowledges (1988, 135-145), but if it offers a useful index for cultural identity, which we experience in our everyday lives, as debates over language policies can illustrate.

Conflicts over language policies exist, political scientist Ronald Schmidt (2000) explains, in communities with linguistic diversity and language contact and competition, as well as at least the expectation of activist states. These conflicts most readily appear in the United States, he reports, as debates over an official language, educational policies for minority children, and linguistic aspects of political and civil rights.

In these debates, some believe that English is threatened by linguistic competition from other language groups and that assimilationist policies are necessary to ensure national unity. Other, in contrast, believe that English hegemony is the result of unequal competition among language groups and that pluralist policies are necessary to ameliorate these conditions in a country that, not incidentally, has always been multilingual.

Both perspectives, Schmidt explains, share concerns about identity — the relation of selves to other selves and self-identities to group identities, as well as the role of group memberships in nation-states — and resource allocation. At the same, each perspective has different concerns about social goals and national identity — socialization and the common good in a land of opportunity for assimilationists and minority rights in a country constructed through conquest and imperialism for pluralists.

In fairness to Hirsch, I should acknowledge here that he officially supports multilingualism and multiliteraices, just not instead of a national culture and national language, which he suggests is more a debate over “the most appropriate degree of diversity” (93, 95). Like Hirsch, I have learned the usefulness of the nation as necessary cultural index, so I believe that a better response is one that considers meaningful updates to Hirsch’s to Hirsch’s perspective.

Perhaps the most pressing, in my opinion, is the need to integrate research in literacy studies. Hirsch posits linguistic literacy, once the appropriate cultural context is constructed, as a relatively unproblematic skill, but literacy researchers have been documenting these situated practices since even before he first published his arguments. At the same time, Hirsch’s approach could address more recent concern of some theorists who maintain that literacy researchers, in documenting local dimensions, have lost significant transcontextualized and transcontextualizing dimensions (e.g., Brandt and Clinton 2002).

In this, I am taking the lead of those, such as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (1997), who conceptualize of a more cosmopolitan cultural identity. Appiah’s approach is to recognize that different cultural groups belong to the same human community, which is based upon shared human principles, including and especially respect. His approach recognizes differences while remaining rooted within home societies in ways that are both liberal, or that respect and value individuals, and patriotic, or that acknowledge state institutions in which people live.

Regardless, any attempt to articulate cultural identity will have to recognize what USC media professor Henry Jenkins and his colleagues (2009) call participatory cultures, or those in which individuals can engage and create content and share this content and their expertise. These conditions, which these researchers demonstrate are supported by digital tools and technologies, facilitate peer-to-peer learning, challenge conventional perspectives on intellectual property, diversify cultural expressions, develop valuable skills, and encourage more engaged citizenship.

The challenge is that these conditions can challenge the nation-state as a cultural index. Some suggest that relationships among individuals, languages, and nation-states within global markets, for example, are changing in ways that result in neither “imposed Englishization nor negotiated multilingualism” but “imposed multilingualism,” which could be indexed to economic centers (e.g., Dor 2004). Such outcomes could complicate what Americans might need to know even in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

These conditions have already been the subject of insightful analyses, such as Robert McChesney’s (2013) recent book on the political economies of the internet. Their impact upon culture, language, and identity is something I’ve been trying to consider, but that is a different presentation for a different day.


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Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1997. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” Critical Inquiry 23: 617-639.

Baker, Al. 2013. “Culture Warrior, Gaining Ground.” New York Times, September 27. Accessed October 08, 2014.

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—. 1990. “Beyond Anti-Foundationalism to Rhetorical Authority: Problems Defining ‘Cultural Literacy.’” College English 52: 661-675.

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—. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books.

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McChesney, Robert. 2013. Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New York: The New Press.

Meacham, Jon. 2007. “What You Need to Know Now.” Newsweek 150: 34-37.

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Wright, Sue. 2004. Language Policy and Language Planning: From Nationalism to Globalisation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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