Cultural Literacy

Every morning when the newspaper comes, my dear husband always hands me the most important section first:  the comics.  One of my favorite comic strips is one called Zits, about the life and trials of raising a teenage boy.  A couple of days ago, the teenager’s father asked him if he had seen the Yellow Pages, and the boy replied, “Not since I sat on it in my highchair.”  I used to always look in the Yellow Pages if I needed to look up the phone number of a business.  Now, however, I find it easier to look it up on the computer. Today’s youth, though, probably have never used the Yellow Pages.  Then a couple of days ago, I saw this Zits strip:

Most kids these days have always used cell phones.  Many homes don’t even have land lines anymore, so how would kids know about dialing “1” before calling out of their area code, or know what long distance meant?

This made me think about a book I read many years ago, Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch.  Hirsch talks about the body of knowledge that all Americans should know in order to understand what they read and to effectively communicate with one another.  He advocated that this core knowledge be taught in schools because students who did not have this knowledge were at a disadvantage in literacy.

For example, when we read about somebody who is a scrooge, we know that refers to a person who is miserly or tight-fisted.  How do we know this?  Because nary an American doesn’t have some connection to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in some form or another and know what kind of a man Ebenezer Scrooge is.  If they haven’t read the actual story, they have seen one of the many film adaptations of it.  From studying mythology, a person would know why Atlas Tires is a good name for a company who wants to project the image that they can carry you safely on any trip you take in your car.  That person would also know that you were speaking of someone’s weakness when you mentioned his or her Achilles tendon.

The recent Zits comic strips brought to mind that this body of core knowledge is constantly changing.  New words are periodically being added to the dictionary as technology advances and cultural and world situations change.  A few recent additions to the dictionary are the following words:  tweet, bromance, sexting, flash mob, vlog, Bollywood, and fist bump.  Many older people have no frame of reference for these words, just as many younger people wouldn’t know what the Yellow Pages are for.

I don’t know how you keep it all straight!  Kids these days speak a language I don’t understand, and no amount of my “core knowledge” has prepared me for it.  While surfing on the web this morning, I came across a site that offered free online tests of cultural literacy.  They were entertaining, and I did quite well on every one I’ve taken so far.  I wonder how many of today’s young people can score as well as I did.  Yet, how well does my grasp of those facts help me to function in today’s fast-changing world?  Not very, I’m guessing.

You can’t teach a child, or anybody for that matter, everything, so obviously, you have to pick and choose what’s important to know.  How do you know what to leave out in order to include what’s new?  Are different generations having trouble communicating with each other since each has a different set of core knowledge?  I’m certainly willing to learn new things and incorporate them into my frame of reference, but I hope the younger generation is, too, because certain knowledge is too precious to lose.  I’m dreading the day when my youngest grandchild says to me, “Clark Kent changed into his Superman costume in a what?”

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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30 Responses to Cultural Literacy

  1. The world is changing fast, it’s hard to keep up with all this technology. I didn’t know about dialling 1 first for long distance, we don’t have to do that here. 🙂

  2. Jenny says:

    Susan, I see the many differences already from my childhood to my children’.

    Your post make me think of the “Mindset List” Beloit College puts together for the faculty every year:
    the actual list from the college’s website:


  3. I thought your comment, “Certain knowledge is too precious to lose” said it all. I worry that we are moving at such a fast speed that eventually all we may be concerned with is what is right in front of us…we will lose some of our precious history.

    • Coming East says:

      I agree, LDC, but I’m also concerned that we will keep teaching what we’ve always been teaching and not incorporate enough of the more recent. It’s hard to know the right balance.

  4. Huffygirl says:

    Great points Susan. I try to keep up on the younger folk’s cultural mythology by reading gossip and entertainment magazines, and asking my 32 year-old son to fill in the gaps I don’t understand. I don’t think the young people work as hard learning our mythology though.

  5. winsomebella says:

    So much has changed in a few generations and the cultural divide keeps getting deeper. It certainly keeps us on our toes, doesn’t it?

  6. When I told my kids I didn’t have a TV or phone while growing up, their response was: how did you watch TV or call your friends?
    The world is so different these days. With OUR special situation, it doubles the amount of learning, need to catch up with the new set of jargons in two languages. But it’s fun. Thanks for your very interesting post!

  7. Dor says:

    Great observations! Made me think of the FB Dictionary my young granddaughter made up for me. I still haven’t memorized the symbols. The only thing I remember is “lol” 🙂 and that definitely applies to this, your latest posting.

  8. Goodness, just a portable phone, one that’s not wired to the wall was a quantum leap for me. I do remember blushing and refusing a phone call when my daughter tried passing it to me while I was in the bathroom. Sheesh! Let me see…I can’t think of anything more off hand…it’s a blur.

  9. E.C. says:

    ~applause~ Great post. It’s so true. 🙂

  10. Leah says:

    Great post! And it’s so true! There is a completely new set of jargon and out-dated technology that today’s young generation don’t even know. Even expressions like, “You sound like a broken record” will have no meaning to kids. It’s crazy how much has changed in just a few decades.

  11. How funny! And I hope London still has their gorgeous phone boxes, at least! One of my younger students asked me what “IM’ing” was…my kids grew up instant messaging during their teen years, now that’s gone by the wayside!

  12. notquiteold says:

    My brother’s kids are young. One day when I was baby-sitting, the five-year-old wanted to call Grandma. I said, “Okay, let’s dial her number.” and the kid said “What’s ‘dial’?”

  13. Shary Hover says:

    Sometimes I can’t understand what my neices and nephews are talking about. But then again, sometimes I baffle them, too. Maybe we can keep learning from each other.

  14. judithhb says:

    Life is moving at such a rapid pace today. My grandchildren were intrigued when I told them that I was 10 years old before TV came into our (and other people’s) homes. And no cellphones – how did we communicate without texts they ask.
    I enjoy reading your posts. They make me think. Thanks. 🙂

    • Coming East says:

      It would be fun to make a list of things that today’s kids have always had and the things that have disappeared or nearly disappeared and kids know nothing of, such as phone booths and rotary phone.

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