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Customer Review

132 of 137 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected but OK, February 1, 2006
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This review is from: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Paperback)
First off I think some reviewers are giving people the wrong idea of what this book has to offer. I think they meant to review the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and not this book. After reading some of their reviews I purchased this book and it is not exactly what they led me to believe it was.

This book is made up of essentially two parts. The first part Hirsch put forth his theory that Americans are losing their ability to communicate effectively because they are lacking a common knowledge on certain core items. He sites back when people had a more standard education and were forced to read more because of a lack of television they were more commonly grounded in the same types of information.

To explain this theory simply he illustrates giving directions in a city when people assume you are a native to that city. The directions are simple because it is assumed one is familiar with certain landmarks (core knowledge). When giving directions to someone the believe to be a tourist, the directions get a lot more detailed because these people presumably lack the same knowledge of landmarks (core knowledge).

It is a very interesting theory and he backs it up with a lot of research. This book would be of great interest to anyone that is an educator by profession. It might be a little boring to anyone else. Some people have commented that this is a very conservative or right-leaning book. I really don't see that at all. He looks at this theory from the perspective of other cultures as well and the theory holds up. He does say that things people need to know to be culturally literate are often based on Western culture. This is true for the most part. He should not be vilified for pointing out the obvious. He doesn't say that one society is better than another. He just acknowledges that people of different cultures tend to have knowledge of certain things and that it is helpful to be familiar with those items.

The second part is an extensive list of cultural knowledge that experts have agreed on 90% of the time to be relevant. This is only a list. In no way does it define them or elaborate on them. That is what is supposedly spelled out in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, the book I thought I was getting.

If you are an educator or interested in educating get this book. If you are interested in getting an education then skip this one.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 12, 2008 4:19:20 PM PST
SB says:
"Some people have commented that this is a very conservative or right-leaning book. I really don't see that at all."

Hirsch is a liberal. I think it is really sad that anyone would think cultural literacy is a conservative or right leaning issue. Thanks for your review. It was very helpful.

Posted on Feb 4, 2011 9:25:53 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on May 5, 2012 1:15:28 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 16, 2011 11:02:56 AM PST
Hoke says:
It has been a while since I read it and is very difficult to say with any accuracy at this point. I remember that Shakespeare was a major "cultural literacy" subject and The Bible of course was the main one. Just imagine a "vanilla" Judeo Christian centric tradition of America's past and how cultural literacy of this sense is not so possible in a 31+ flavors America of today.

In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2012 4:03:46 AM PDT
Yes, that boggles!

In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2012 4:04:22 AM PDT
That's why one buys the book. No?

Posted on Dec 3, 2013 11:30:43 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 3, 2013 11:31:44 PM PST
M.K.M. says:
Okay, I glanced at your review before ordering the book but maybe I did not read the whole thing. It certainly did not sink in! I also thought I was getting what apparently is "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy." That is, a book filled with essential information that I can sit down with and memorize! I was so confused by this simple 500 term list at the end, without any definitions or explanations. So if anybody else does not understand, this is a good book but it is basically an essay or treatise on the subject of cultural literacy. It does NOT provide the actual information that every American needs to know.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2013 3:39:38 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2013 3:49:02 AM PST

Firstly, let me say that I applaud your interest in becoming more well rounded. The thing is that it is not really possible to find a list of all the "facts you should know" and simply by memorizing those, achieve "cultural literacy". Let me explain.

"Culture" refers to the basic background knowledge that underlies our language. Suppose, for example, you see a reference to "a siren's song". A list could tell you that it is a reference to a section of "The Odyssey" by Homer. It could tell you further that it means being tempted by something irresistible. It could even give you a "Reader's Digest version" (and that term is an example of a cultural data point one should understand) of the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. What it CANNOT provide is the EXPERIENCE of reading the story and having in imbedded into your subconscious for future reference in all of the richness of the full story.

When I read about "the siren's song" I do not just translate it to "temptation"! I instantly recall the entire story in full 3D with surround sound. For an instant I am lashed to the mast of that ship, being tossed by waves stirred up by the angry Poseidon. I cry out to my shipmates to untie me so I can find the source of that beautiful singing ... but they cannot hear as their ears are stopped with wax ... something I forced them to do so they would not heed my pleas to be released. The experience is powerful ... and that is what cultural literacy is all about. There is no shortcut to achieving it. One must put in the work to read many works of literature ... but then one gets SO MUCH MORE than just a list of terms. One connects to the entire cultural heritage in an important, and intimate way.

(One thing you might want to think about ... it is possible to argue that ALL language is nothing more than references to basic stories from our past. I won't try to argue that here, I'm just presenting that argument to support the importance of understanding those stories.)

Now, what would be a good list of things to read? That is what "The Great Books of the Western World" is all about. Or, pick up a copy of "The Lifetime Reading Plan"
It is a list of works that one should read in order to connect with our culture.

Just to give you a start, consider reading:

"Mythology" by Edith Hamilton Mythology

Aesop's Fables Aesop's Fables; a new translation

The Iliad - Homer The Iliad

The Odyssey - Homer The Odyssey

The Rubaiyat - Omar Khayyam Mythology

Shakespeare (all of his works ;-)

(Most of the important works of literature, and all of those I've cited, are available, free of charge, through Project Gutenberg and elsewhere ... just do a web search.)

Beyond the simple value of what I've described, consider the sheer joy and beauty to be had. For example, just a few snippets from the Rubaiyat:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and--sans End!

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd--
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed--and then no more of THEE and ME.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Surely you can see that there is so much more to the gaining of "cultural literacy" than memorizing a list of terms. Now if I say "the moving finger writes", you get so much more than you might if it were a term in a list!

Please continue your quest! (Oh, and the word "quest" refers to the "quest for the holy grail" in the Arthurian Legend. See how everything we say goes back to everything else? But then to REALLY understand it, you need to READ: "Le Morte D'Arthur" ;-)

KING ARTHUR AND THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE ULTIMATE COLLECTION - Including "Le Morte D'Arthur", Celtic, Medieval and European Mythology, British Myths and Legends of the Middle Ages

Lastly, if you have the book you might use that list in the back in this way: go through each term to decide if you really understand it. If it is new to you, then do a web search to understand it. If you find that it is a reference to a work of literature, put that book on your reading list. If you do that, you'll gain so much more than just a list of definitions can provide.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2013 8:28:04 AM PST
Hoke says:
Such a list might make a person more "learned" according to my 12th grade English teacher but, I am afraid, it will not be worth much else. The point of this book was to convey how much easier it was when there was a core set of teaching standards that were nearly universal in the U.S. While this was the prevailing teaching material it did not then, and certainly does not now, convey a proper reflection of U.S culture or any culture outside of the English department of a given school. Outside of church I am guessing the prevailing text that was read and had an impact on our agrarian society was a farmer's almanac. That was ages ago and is not really relevant to our lives or culture of today. If you read Hirsch's book it shows that the difficulty with our schools today is that they understand that they cannot force the same kind of uniform curriculum they once did across a much more diverse society.

If one truly wants to understand a culture they need to live in it. Current books, for better or worse, are more likely to be discussed by people and have an actual impact on the culture of today. Cultures are hard to describe. In someways they seem static but they are very dynamic and are constantly evolving. I was exposed to Shakespeare, Greek Mythology, and all sorts of classics that have played little to no impact on my life. Having lived for extended periods in cultures that were very from my own I can cite with confidence that the texts that Hirsch suggests have zero impact on the majority of the world's population that do not conform to the western idea of "learned" or "cultured".

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 22, 2014 3:03:00 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 22, 2014 3:48:28 AM PDT
Cultural literacy is not by itself a conservative or right leaning issue. It was the presentation of the topic that was right-leaning. In any set of assumptions about a topic, the author in question is making choices about what to include and what not to include. It has been about 25 years since I read the book so I am at this point unable to cite specifics from memory, but E.D. Hirsch leaves out so many important books, ideas and ultimately topics that are elemental to intelligent, critical thinking, that in fact, it wasn't just right-leaning - it was almost offensive to a well-read person because of its oversimplification of what (for other generations before Hirsch or us) were necessary for standard thought. E.D. Hirsch, however, provides a very primitive, simplistic conception of what is important for "cultural literacy". My opinion of the book at the time of its publication was that it did not even stand up to the literacy of a well-educated 10 year old. It simply left out too much information that is regarded as necessary to engender human thought, and yet included topics that were entirely thoughtless.

Posted on Sep 22, 2014 3:45:12 AM PDT
Hoke, I read this book 25 years ago, and it was at the time a book written, not at all for the culturally literate but, in fact, for those who were entirely illiterate. It was a television version of extraordinarily simply thought designed for a TV audience that occasionally reads books and has experienced phrases of thought, even if they don't know why or how or where they originated. But it was an indication of things to come and probably is to this very day a stellar example of why Americans were incapable then, and over the course of the next 25 years, of making selections and choices, that had a longtime horizon and would provide a long-term decision process to benefit the generation that would follow after them. It is a prescient book because it was the indelible handwriting on the bathroom wall that a generation now can visualize as a legacy when they bring their current children to the same school they went to in their old neighborhood.
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