In 1988, a white Southern male university professor named E.D. Hirsch published a book titled: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His premise was that today’s students lacked the background information that is essential for coherent public discourse. That holding a common body of knowledge allows us to communicate essential ideas to each other. That such knowledge is essential to fulfill one’s responsibility as a functioning citizen in a democracy. He writes:
“Having the right to vote is meaningless if a citizen is disenfranchised by illiteracy or semiliteracy, Such Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension. Knowing that they do not understand the issues, and feeling prey to manipulative oversimplifications, they do not trust the system of which they are supposed to be the masters.…the civic importance of cultural literacy lies in the fact that true enfranchisement depends upon knowledge, knowledge upon literacy and literacy upon cultural literacy.”
Having recently seen college students at a university in Texas interviewed as to who won the Civil War and most unable to answer (though 100% clear about who Brad Pitt’s second wife was), having heard folks at a rally wave their fists in support of Space Force but unable to utter a single coherent sentence about what it was, having heard our President talk about Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive and claiming that the Continental Army took over the airports during The Revolutionary War… well, here were Hirsch’s worst fears on steroids. An ignorant populace led by an ignorant President without a trace of shame—indeed pride in—their ignorance.
When I first read Hirsch's book, I was already concerned about such spreading ignorance, the decline in reading, the rise of mindless of television and television itself headed towards cable TV’s 500 choices where no one can assume a large common audience (as happened when there were just three channels.) So it was at least interesting to consider that as a culture, we should discuss what felt essential to our American identity.
But as I read on, the disappointment set in. From a music teacher’s point of view, there was so much left out. According to E.D. Hirsch, every American should know:
- Donald Duck but not Duke Ellington
- St. Nicholas but not the Nicholas Brothers
- Andrew Jackson & Stonewall Jackson but not Michael Jackson
- Jefferson Davis but not Miles Davis
- The John Birch Society but not John Coltrane
- Charles I but not Ray Charles
- Billy the Kid but not Billie Holiday
- John D. Rockefeller but not Rock ‘n’ Roll
- Blue-chip stock but not THE BLUES!!!!!!
Meanwhile, there were 22 European Classical music composers listed and it was essential that every American child should know about opera and string quartets, should be able to identify an aria, a fugue, a sonata, a symphony. But the 12-bar blues, that powerful and influential musical form born and bred in the United States of America? Optional. Didn’t make the list.
So when I teach the 12-bar blues to my 8th graders (something I feel is essential), I use this book as an example of an enormous deficit in our culture by asking these questions:
1) If you agree with the premise (as I did), who gets to decide what the 5,000 important things are? Wouldn’t it at least require a committee that included Native Americans, African-Americans. Asian-Americans, Latinx folks, women, poor people, rich people, middle class people, straight people, gay people, disabled people, artists, working class people, scientists, athletes, etc. etc?
2) Why did a straight white male feel that he had the authority to decide?
3) Why did the book become a National Bestseller?
4) And then on a deeper educational level, what changes by memorizing a list of 5,000 things that could help you win Jeopardy? What is the deeper story connecting them, the narrative that makes sense of them, the moral arc that leans them towards a renewed commitment to the justice promised by a democracy?
It would be easy to call E.D. Hirsch a fool, an arrogant elitist or a racist for leaving out the above black American heroes and musical styles as he did, but in fact he described himself as a “liberal, almost a socialist” and Wikipedia states that “over the years, he has expressed deep sympathy for underprivileged minority youths and has stated that he specifically designed a curriculum to ‘place all children on common ground, sharing a common body of knowledge. That's one way to secure civil rights.’ “
Why would he deprive these “underprivileged minority youths” of both the pleasure and necessity of knowing Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday? Why would he assume that other Americans can understand our country without knowing the stories of these two (and so many more) geniuses? Why would he think it more important that every American kid grows up knowing about the fugue, but not the 12-bar blues?
What first appears as cognitive dissonance— a liberal who means well omitting these keys to our culture—is absolutely consistent with our practiced ignorance and white privilege. He begins by assuming that his white male University privilege is sufficient to the task of deciding what is essential in American culture. He blindly trudges on without feeling the need to consult folks different from him as to what he might be leaving out. His editors at Random House don’t see the problem and nor do two hundred readers who sent in 3,000 additional suggestions for the second edition, 343 of which were added (but still not the blues). Then the book receives the cultural stamp of approval by becoming a national bestseller and spawning seven other best-selling spin-offs. (What Every Kindergartener Should Know up through 6th grade.) At every step along the way, you can see that poisonous underground stream of white privilege at work. Because it’s more invisible, it is more deadly than the roaring waves of White Supremacy, but both are driven by the same history.
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