Hirsch's Cultural Literacy

A reflection on E. D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" project for EDUC 902. For more information, see this linked post.

I dislike Hirsch's Cultural Literacy project in so many different ways and from so many different angles. I want to reject and refute the project on the following grounds:

  • Why are we treating “cultural literacy” as anything more than what we, as a species, have been doing for thousands of years? Is this really a new idea?

  • By developing a “dictionary” of “cultural literacy,” it is presupposed that we could, in fact, collect and complete such a listing. I reject this assumption.

  • Assuming that we could develop a complete “dictionary,” to what end? Again, assuming students could “master” a common cultural literacy, what then? Will all our problems be solved? Will test scores go up? Will we all live happily ever after?

  • Since Hirsch has taken care of the American cultural canon, who will write the other cultural canons of the world? Then what?

  • Can cultural literacy be summarized into bite-sized “knowledge” chunks? Put differently, can I take a child, plant cultural definitions into its brain, and get as result be a cultured, fully-functioning member of society?

  • Does the idea of a program based in cultural literacy move education any further towards anything? I doubt it.

  • Beyond these, I beg the question: So what? So a student knows the largest city in Maine, what a “glass ceiling” is, and who Sartre is. So what? (Assuming I can quantify/qualify a student’s knowing, and that “hard” facts actually exist as immutable objects.)

I’m not enrolled in the idea that “cultural literacy” is really anything different than what we already have with national, one-size-fits-all curricula. The distinction has been made elsewhere that current curriculum is filled with skills rather than facts or knowledge. While the educational psychologist finds the distinctions of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be useful, I doubt the need for the distinction - at least in the format of KSA.

It seems silly for me to have to list out these points of contention rather than just saying: “No.” My final question: What’s next when we realize that this doesn’t work?


EDUC 902 - Cultural Literacy


  1. Great Article. Thank you for sharing! Really an awesome post for every one.

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