What is Cultural Literacy? And How Can it Help You Homeschool?

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull: The cultural literacy of the founding fathers made this scene possible.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull: The cultural literacy of the founding fathers made this scene possible.

In the last post, we talked about knowing the very least you need to teach. The basics of cultural literacy hold the key to laying a solid foundation. If you have no idea what “cultural literacy” means, you’re not alone. You can find many definitions, but here’s one to start with: To be culturally literate is to understand the history and concepts that underlie a culture, and to be able to converse fluently in the allusions and informal content of that culture. For purposes of this post, the culture I’m writing about is Western civilization.*

Much has been written on cultural literacy, and many people have attempted to define what it includes. E.D. Hirsch’s best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is an excellent introduction to the importance of cultural literacy, and it includes a list of things that an educated person should be familiar with.

The key concept that makes cultural literacy an attainable goal is “familiarity.” In order to be culturally literate, you need to be familiar with all manner of things, from Waterloo, Hamlet and “Call me Ishmael,” to the Wife of Bath, the Magna Carta, Tutankhamen, the Pythagorean Theorem and 1066. To be familiar with something is far different from being an expert in it, and it’s entirely manageable.


I realize that any list ignites controversy over what’s included and what’s not, so I wouldn’t try to list everything your student should learn, but here’s my short list of what they’ll need to study for basic cultural literacy:

  • Literature (both read for pleasure and taught analytically in historic and artistic context)
  • History (in its fullest sense, encompassing all aspects of individual civilizations up to and including the present, with attention to politics, religion, science, and the arts)
  • Art and Music (including at least some applied experience, and built on a foundation of art history and appreciation)
  • Science (applied sciences to be studied on the foundation of knowledge of scientific history)
  • Logic and Mathematics (built on a solid foundation of arithmetic)
  • Rhetoric (including debate based on principles of logic, and including appropriate allusions to content from the other disciplines)

When I was in school in the 1960’s and ’70s, most students meekly accepted whatever fragments of desiccated knowledge that were tossed out, never imagining that there might be a better way to learn. I was lucky enough to be one of the few who read, and I liked old books, so I realized that what I was getting bore little resemblance to the education of the past. In the books I read, young people studied Latin and Shakespeare, and created events and plays based on classic literature. Somehow, even though I hadn’t heard of the concept of cultural literacy, I had the feeling that I was missing out (we all were)!

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio

Fast forward to the present, and walk through a homeschool convention. There’s a mind-boggling array of ways to teach everything, each shared by enthusiastic proponents of a particular method. Students don’t have to miss out on anything. They can take Latin, Shakespeare, Geology, Ancient History, American Government, and sewing, right along with multivariable calculus and algorithms. Not only that, they can study it in units, traditional texts, via satellite or video, chronologically, alphabetically, or cyclically.

What’s a time-crunched parent to do? And if you’re like most graduates of traditional schools, how can you teach what you don’t know? More importantly, how do you decide what to teach and when? You can’t do everything, so your only choice is to focus on the foundation. Even though there are thousands of choices available, look for simple, direct materials that take you through a survey of Western civilization. Make sure they have the four fundamental skills discussed in the last post, and you will have laid a solid foundation for future learning.

For more information:

E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation offers free downloadable Core Knowledge Sequence Guides for up to grade 8.

The Literacy Company offers a selection of free online cultural literacy tests. These are interesting and possibly useful, but you’d probably have more fun (and thus remember more) playing board games such as Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit.

Alexander the Great, 356-323 B.C.

Alexander the Great, 356-323 B.C.

*Wikipedia offers a fairly decent academic definition of Western civilization, which I’ve reprinted below, but you’ll have a better understanding of the term if you visit the definition page, and scroll down and read through the brief overview of Western civilization.

The term “Western culture” is used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, religious beliefs, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies. Specifically, Western culture may imply:

  • A Graeco-Roman Classical and Renaissance cultural influence, concerning artistic, philosophic, literary, and legal themes and traditions, the cultural social effects of migration period and the heritages of Celtic, Germanic, Romanic,Iberians, Slavic and other ethnic groups (especially from the Islamic world), as well as a tradition of rationalism in various spheres of life, developed by Hellenistic philosophy, Scholasticism, Humanisms, the Scientific Revolution andEnlightenment, and including, in political thought, widespread rational arguments in favour of freethought, human rights, equality and democratic values averse to irrationality and theocracy.
  • A Biblical-Christian cultural influence in spiritual thinking, customs and either ethic or moral traditions, around Post-Classical Era.
  • Western European cultural influences concerning artistic, musical, folkloric, ethic and oral traditions, whose themes have been further developed by Romanticism.

The concept of western culture is generally linked to the classical definition of the Western world. In this definition, Western culture is the set of literary, scientific, political, artistic and philosophical principles which set it apart from other cultural spheres. Much of this set of traditions and knowledge is collected in the Western canon (a term used to denote a canon of books, and, more widely, music and art, that has been the most influential in shaping Western culture).

*Note: This series of posts is presented, not in a spirit of “we did it right,” because we didn’t, but in a spirit of encouragement. I share these because I believe they’re helpful basic principles we all can learn from. If I had ad better grasp of these from the beginning, it would have made homeschooling much easier, but it’s never too late to learn.

7 Responses

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