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Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
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Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

3.6 of 5 stars 3.60  ·  rating details  ·  738 ratings  ·  81 reviews
In this forceful manifesto, Hirsch argues that children in the U.S. are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society. Includes 5,000 essential facts to know.
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 12th 1988 by Vintage (first published 1987)
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Interesting contribution to the debate on National education. The gist of the book is that literacy is misunderstood. One can be proficient with a skill as a reader without having mastered comprehension of text. In other words the finite skill of interpreting letters into words and speed at which the reader translates them is only a small portion of comprehension.

Unfortunately, the Rousseau/Dewey approach to education rejects content heavy curriculum because they believed it distracts from the...more
The best part of this book was the reference to "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" by Gilbert and Sullivan. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I can get down to some more specific critiques.

But before those critiques, I feel I should offer a disclaimer. I was homeschooled. I also go to a small private university with rigorous academic standards that I have started to realize are not standard college/university fare. Personally, I have always had a thirst for knowledge, someti...more
Skylar Burris
I read this when I was in college because it was written by one of the professors at my school. I think it helped kick off the furor for higher standards and, eventually, a common core. Still, nothing like a common "cultural literary" standard has ever been implemented--i.e. a large, common vocabulary of people, places, concepts, etc. There is a small common vocabulary, however - things you are bound to pick up in 90 percent of schools, but this common cultural vocabulary seems to grow smaller w...more
To some degree, E. D. Hirsch’s contention that we need a type of “cultural literacy” or common coinage to communicate with one another intelligently—his notion of the liberal arts—is akin to applying a cosmetic. Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams) would have viewed Hirsch's project skeptically. Adams possessed “cultural literacy” in abundance yet he pauses at the end of each chapter in his carefully wrought autobiography, to remark that his education, so far, “was a failure.” What Adams s...more
Overall best book on education that I have read. Excellent work. Interesting thesis: There are FACTS out there that educated citizens must know. Teaching skills is not enough. The reason is because communication of any sort is based on shared knowledge. Picture a Venn diagram: you and I can only communicate within our shared experience. Thus, a well-educated society is a society whose citizens have a solid grasp not only of their culture and language's shared knowledge, but of that of other cult...more
it's a great idea, and hirsch acknowledges the difficulty in the task of assimilating such a list as culture is in perpetual shift (things could easily go west, using his compass system), which i think would even effect some of the base items he'd find immovable from cultural literacy.

i probably shouldnt have even read the book as im not even really aware of the educational issues in the past few years, besides a little bit of stuff from geoffrey canada, considering this book is almost 30 years...more
Just finished re-reading this 1988 book, which has become something of a classic of the educational policy debate. I'm always intrigued by canon-building and personally think there is plenty to be said in favor of some subset of the public school curriculum being nationally agreed upon. This is an idea that has somehow become the property of conservatives, who are faced with a balancing act between wanting to mandate a shared body of knowledge and supporting local (i.e. not federal) control of s...more
This book is not enjoyable to read. It does have a very interesting thesis. The main idea in the book is that the education in America has changed in the last 100 years and the results are that children today struggle with reading and comprehension. Hirsch cites lots of research to validate his claim that reading and the comprehension associated with it require a certain amount of basic background information. The children with high vocabularies comprehend more of what they read. The vocabulary...more
This text left me nodding vigorously at some sections and wanting to rip out the pages of other portions. Hirsch gives an impressively extensive background of the establishment of the English language. When my students ask, "Who made these grammar rules and spelling decisions?" I can now give them quite a long answer. I love a book that makes me think, and as an educator, this text truly made me ponder my beliefs about education. Hirsch contends that literate adults know things that illiterate a...more
Educators of all levels should be encouraged by this book, even though it was first published in 1987 by University of Virginia English professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr. His contention is that literacy is a function of background knowledge, without which the mere fact of being able to read the words is meaningless, mere mechanics. Comprehension requires this background knowledge, and this Hirsch calls “cultural literacy.” For educators, this means teaching content and not just process or skill. It is...more
This book tries to tackle the illiteracy of our nation by claiming that we can't communicate if we don't have a shared core background knowledge - so schools should teach such a knowledge. Having seen high school kids not know things I assumed to be the most basic, fundamental ideas of our society, I do see some merit to this.
Apr 22, 2008 Tori rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Educators
Recommended to Tori by: Carl Walley
Shelves: about-teaching
Hirsch can kiss my a$$, as can anyone else who has ridiculously conservative (and uninformed!)ideas about turning our public education classrooms into corporate machines. That said, I feel it's important to always know what "the other side" is up to, and that was my main focus when reading this literary gem.
Useful as a goad to irritation. I enjoyed it but the idea that one person can select things that "EVERY" American needs to know is kind of silly. I did think there were a lot of good points in the book, but a lot of important need to know stuff was left out.
This book was interesting in theory. But like a lot of "theory" books, difficult to get people to do what is suggested. This goes back to Plato's Republic where the "intelligentsia" was to lead the masses to a Utopian society. Nice thought, difficult to enforce.
This was more in depth than I was looking for, geared more toward professionals working in the field of educaiton. The Cultural Literacy Dictionary gives a summary of this book in the beginning and that was all I really wanted.
Lindsey (Babies, Books, and Beyond)
Interesting idea, but really boring. The only part I liked was the list at the end of all the things that all Americans should be able to recognize.
Angie Libert
An excellent history of education philosophies in America's recent past with explanation of why it has failed and what to do about. Reading this book has brought to life The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which before reading this book was just a big book full of random facts. I now see more clearly why this Dictionary is a benefit in a pursuit to be literate, or at least more literate, and have a unified thinking society.


--"Universal literacy is inseparable from democracy and is the ca...more
Bottom line: in order for people to communicate effectively they must speak the same language. Beyond the language itself are the cultural references that help us to speak in a kind of shorthand. Cultural references include a cursory understanding of our shared history, at least a glancing familiarity with classic literature and art and a basic knowledge of physical science. When the public education system abandoned the memorization of facts as "drill and kill" learning they set in motion the d...more
This is not a fun or enjoyable read, but is interesting! It's academic in nature. I suppose I have more patience for this kind of read now than I did when I first read it at 19!

Hirsch's main argument is that education needs to incorporate "cultural literacy" - an understanding of important historical & cultural references - in order for children/society to have good comprehension and literacy. Literacy is not merely decoding words, it is having a good comprehension of the words being read....more
An important book. Just Google the theory. It is about the measurable, essential virtue of being literate in a culture. For example, American culture or your company's culture. As Hirsch illustrates, there is a huge difference between being able to read/listen with a dictionary-level understanding of the words and context, and reading/listening with a knowledge of culturally relevant references.

As an experiment, try reading the English version of a local news story in a different country's newsp...more
Andrew Klem
This is a very good book. Even if you do not agree with Hirsch insofar as education goes, his analysis of why conversations with strangers can be difficult is fascinating. I hear there was a lot of controversy surrounding this book in the late 80s, and while I understand why, I think he was correct in most of what he says. The most interesting thing he argues is that the Western "canon" is inherently subversive, and he uses the Black Panthers' appropriation of the Declaration of Independence as...more
Are you interested in reading? How we learn to read? How we understand context? Then this book is a MUST read. A clear and to the point argument for why exposure to both cultural terminology and vocabulary are vital in order to develop into a good reader. A blistering and long-overdue evisceration of the modern educational idea (actually, not so modern, it was put forth by Rousseau, and popularized by Dewey)that somehow children learn on their own when left to themselves. That may be fine for sm...more
J. Alfred
I had a teaching teacher (professor of education) who hated Hirsch's guts, and at times during this reading I could sort of see her point-- there are phrases and themes that seem profoundly fishy in here-- and yet I can't help but agreeing wholeheartedly with his central thesis, which is that education should be broad with deep grooves, or, to use his terminology, to be intensive in matters of personal interest, yet extensive for everyone. To put it more polemically, there is nothing wrong with...more
Keith Shovlin
Purchased after reading Teaching Democracy. This book helped me grow my cultural understanding at a much wider rate. Excellent and should be required reading in college.
Julie Suzanne
May 30, 2009 Julie Suzanne marked it as to-read
I'm going to read this out of curiosity; I remember learning about this in high school and I agreed with the premise then. I realized that I'd never have understood Z if I never knew X. I believe that a lack of knowledge of some very basic things does keep our children from understanding most satire even when they are developmentally ready to handle it, and I see that their reading comprehension suffers tremendously when they don't have the prior knowledge necessary to make meaning to texts that...more
Great reading, thought provoking...just how literate are the people in the U.S.?
Mr. J
Nov 07, 2008 Mr. J rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those in the Bible Belt
The vast majority of Americans are not culturally literate. This should be no surprise since our schools are designed to fail. Europeans favor scholarship over student's enjoyment of studies. For this reason they eventually learn to enjoy scholarship down the road as "fun time" is over after preschool. Engaging lessons -- my ass. Americans are doomed to failure until culture is injected into the system and evangelical teachers have their certifications revoked.
I studied E.D. Hirsch's theory in graduate school at U of L. His thesis is that one needs to have the cultural background in religion, history, art, music, literature, etc. to understand reading. Essentially, there are certain things that every literate person knows e.g. Adam and Eve, Genesis, Abraham Lincoln, Gettsyburg, Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, etc. Students who lack such core knowledge have great difficulty understanding texts.
I found this book stimulating and informative. Hirsch can be a bogeyman among progressive educators, but he marshals data from psychology and cognitive sciences to support his key point: reading ability requires elementary skills that most illiterate adults possess, and extensive background knowledge which they do not. I highly recommend this book to all educators and to anyone interested in educational theories.
The title and description are very misleading as to what this book is about. I thought it would be a review of culturally significant events/people/terms, but instead it was an argument for teaching cultural literacy in the K-12 classroom, with only a list of what is important specifically in the back, with the responsibility of the reader to find these items in other sources. Disappointed.
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Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. (born March 22, 1928) is an American educator and academic literary critic. Now retired, he was until recently the University Professor of Education and Humanities and the Linden Kent Memorial Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Virginia. He is best known for his writings about cultural literacy.
More about E.D. Hirsch Jr....
What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know: Preparing Your Child for a Lifetime of Learning What Your First Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good First-Grade Education The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy What Your Preschooler Needs to Know: Read-Alouds to Get Ready for Kindergarten (Core Knowledge) What Your Second Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Second-Grade Education Revised

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“Differences in reading ability between five-year olds and eight-year olds are caused primarily by the older children's possessing more knowledge, not by the differences in their memory capacities, reasoning abilities, or control of eye movements.” 2 likes
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