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Whad'Ya Know? Another View on Cultural Literacy

Kaufman, Jay S.

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In Brief

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

– Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

The association between education and good health has been observed widely, and a large number of epidemiologic studies over the past decades have included attained educational level as an exposure or covariate. 1 The basis for this association is no doubt multifaceted, including connections (education provides access to elite social networks), credentialing (degrees confer entrée to positions of power and authority), confounding (those with the wherewithal to obtain greater quantity and quality of education also have the wherewithal to obtain a greater quantity and quality of other goods), and content (education actually confers some useful information that helps people gain advantages in life). 2 The essay by John Kelleher 3 in the current issue of this journal suggests an improved exposure assessment method for the latter of these components of education, the useful content of a quality education itself. This suggestion relies heavily on the notion of “cultural literacy” introduced in the 1980s by educator E. D. Hirsch. Cultural literacy is the theory that there are certain things that everyone in a modern society ought to know, and that it is the possession of these various pieces of knowledge that confers to individuals the means to understand, communicate, and succeed—both socially and materially. 4–6

Hirsch and colleagues not only suggested that there were words and ideas that were central to our common American culture, but they also drafted lists of these items and they devised tests, based on these lists, in order to assess an individual's attained level of cultural literacy. 7 Hirsch's 1987 book contained the first such list, including 63 pages devoted to nearly 5000 names, dates, aphorisms, and concepts that Hirsch and his collaborators asserted everyone ought to know. The methodology for generating this list has remained somewhat mysterious, however. Hirsch explained merely that “more than one hundred consultants reported agreement on over 90 percent of the items listed,”4 (p146) without ever explaining how such agreement was ascertained (eg, did each consultant generate his or her own list independently?), nor indeed how the consultants themselves were chosen. 8 (pp80–81) Furthermore, Hirsch alluded to rejecting some items from the list because they were in fact too commonly familiar, and thus failed to discriminate effectively between the truly literate and the masses. 4 (p146) He also made the list occasionally proscriptive rather than descriptive by including items, especially from the natural sciences, that were generally unfamiliar to even the more culturally literate, but which he felt should be familiar. 4 (p148)

“Hirsch's list is the disease for which it claims to be the cure,” argued Neil Postman. “[T]hat is to say, its arbitrariness only demonstrates the futility of trying to do what he wants to do.”9 (p121) Indeed, the original list and its variants have been savaged by some for their inexplicable capriciousness and by others for their overt bias. For example, in the arena of entertainment, Hirsch declared that all Americans ought be familiar with P. T. Barnum, Greta Garbo, and the Barrymores, while omitting Orson Welles, Mickey Mouse, and Miles Davis. Likewise, seven leading businessmen and industrialists were listed, but no counterpart labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers or Jimmy Hoffa. Essential music in our common culture includes, according to Hirsch, “Yankee Doodle” and “White Christmas,” but not “Louie Louie” or “Satisfaction.” This led Dan Fleming to conclude that “[b]y his list, Hirsch clearly reveals a disdain of the modern world.”10 (p109) In addition to avoiding the contemporary, Fleming noted that Hirsch also avoided the nonwhite, for example by omitting from the list Mexico City (the largest city in the world), while including Stuttgart and Hamburg, or by omitting Mexico and Kenya but including Luxembourg.

Similar observations were made by others, including Herbert Kohl, who concluded that Hirsch thought a culturally literate individual was “apparently a university-educated European-American, most likely male, who speaks in platitudes and has a passing acquaintance with words drawn from the sciences, the humanities and the arts.”11 (p457) To illustrate his point, Kohl excerpted items beginning with the letter “P” with which Hirsch asserted everyone ought to be familiar:

“perfectibility of man, periodic table of the elements, pax romana, pay the piper, pearl of great price, peeping Tom, Peloponnesian War, penis envy, penny saved is a penny earned, persona non grata, Peter the Great, Phi Beta Kappa, philosopher king, photoelectric effect, plate tectonics, Pickwickian, Planck's constant, play second fiddle, pogrom, proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Pyrrhic victory.”

Though I have a doctoral degree, I confess to a little bit of confusion about “Pickwickian.” However embarrassing it is to admit this as a scientist, I am also not sure how well I could explain the photoelectric effect, plate tectonics, or Planck's constant, nor have I ever heard “pearl of great price” used in a conversation, ever. The question remains whether one qualifies as culturally literate merely from having encountered these words, or whether one must actually understand what they mean, and if so, just how deep an understanding is required. 12 Despite my own rudimentary grasp of many of these concepts, I can at least take solace in the firm belief that few contemporary leaders of government or industry, or others of substantial wealth and influence in our society, could do much better with Planck's constant than I could.

Kohl 11 also noted that the list tended to downplay words and phrases that relate to subgroup thinking and non-Western cultures, and listed examples of words and phrases that Hirsch opted to omit such as “peace activists, pesticides, political prisoner, potlatch, premenstrual syndrome, prison, prophylactic, prostitution, pueblo and prime time,” not to mention “prick, piss, putz, pussy, patronize, palimony, prissy, putsch, pig, profligate, play politics, play the field, and play into one's hands.” Who is to judge that these words are not equally at the center of our culture as those chosen by Hirsch? I certainly do better on Kohl's lists than on Hirsch's, despite generous helpings of elite education. This example highlights a certain arrogance in making such lists in the first place, presuming that Hirsch or any other individual is qualified to speak for what is essential for the rest of us to know. A reasonably objective or rational methodology for constructing such a list has never, to my knowledge, been suggested by any of the proponents of cultural literacy. Perhaps an even more damning indictment of the arrogance involved in drafting such lists is that Hirsch and his colleagues made so many embarrassing factual errors. 13 For example, they asserted that HIV was unknown in 1986, that President Roosevelt died after Nazi Germany surrendered, that Marx Brothers’ films featured a sibling named “Gummo”, and that Khrushchev sent troops into Poland in 1956 (it was Hungary). Among other gaffes, they also provided incorrect definitions or explanations of “the national debt,” IQ scores, and “The Dow-Jones Average.”

More importantly, in a diverse society there is simply no monolithic national culture, and no single set of facts or terms that everyone ought to know in order to succeed materially or socially. 8 (pp71–72), 14 A good example of confusion over this point occurs in Kelleher's essay when he asserts that “…in the 1970s the Communist Khmer Rouge … forced people to move from cities to the countryside and murdered the educated and the skilled. In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, to be culturally literate was to be murdered.”3 (p499) The crucial point here is that, in fact, many kinds of knowledge exist in a society, and only one kind was targeted by the Khmer Rouge. The regime killed or exiled those who had a Western education, who spoke French, or who were cultivated in matters urbane, cosmopolitan, or bourgeois. There are many kinds of knowledge that are necessary to be a successful farmer in rural Cambodia: an intimate knowledge of various plants and domesticated animals, for example. People proficient in these sources of knowledge were not targeted. The author mistakenly implies that Western cultural literacy, which is what the Khmer regime attacked, is equivalent to cultural literacy in general.

What happened in Cambodia in the 1970s was, in fact, a war between subcultures of knowledge within a complex society, with the Khmer Rouge regime using the coercive power of the state to root out and destroy one such subculture. The United States in the 1980s also witnessed a war between subcultures of knowledge, although ours was, thankfully, decidedly less murderous. Hirsch's work played a prominent role in these “culture war” debates, as did the work of Allan Bloom, 15,16 with which Hirsch is often linked. Bloom was at least more open about his cultural biases. One only needs to note, for example, Bloom's revulsion over the way Louis Armstrong's “smiling face” singing Kurt Weill's “Mack the Knife” symbolized the ignorant Americanization of a purer German culture. 15 (p151), 17 In Hirsch's work, the cultural chauvinism is perhaps more subtle, but no less readily apparent. It is revealing, for example, that in 1987 Hirsch should include on his list Rhodesia but not Zimbabwe, Ceylon but not Sri Lanka, and Peking but not Beijing. 10 (p108)

Even setting aside the thorny theoretical issues, the practical constraints are daunting. Kelleher reassures the reader that the construct can be measured. Although published empirical work has indeed relied upon adaptations of Hirsch's lists, 18,19 it is by no means clear that these simple checklists capture a quantity that we could assume to be cultural literacy in the sense described by Kelleher. Because Hirsch vacillated between proscriptive and descriptive strategies in the selection of items, no gold standard appears to exist for the validation of any derived scale. 8 (pp73–75) Therefore, although checklists have been administered and scores computed, this exercise provides no basis at all for Kelleher's confident assertion that cultural literacy is “something specific enough to measure,”3 (p498) only that self-reported familiarity with items on Hirsch's lists is something specific enough to measure.

There is no disputing the observation that the epidemiologic measure of years of completed formal education is a hodgepodge variable that involves numerous components, some causal and some spurious, and that this variable is therefore deficient in a theoretical sense. Thus, the idea of capturing knowledge as one specific causal component of this quantity is an attractive one, especially if the content of educational experience is a salient factor in determining health status. The theoretical and practical barriers to doing so appear to me to be insurmountable, however, and the Kelleher commentary, 3 although raising this interesting possibility, has failed to provide any indication that we can actually do better in this regard. Although Kelleher cites empirical studies in which individuals responded to checklists of items deemed to be indicative of cultural literacy, one should remain highly suspicious of these lists until there is a full accounting of the methodology for their construction and some formal validation of their capacity to capture the unified latent quantity that we might reasonably call cultural literacy in any general sense.


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© 2002 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.