What is Cultural Literacy?

In the last post, What’s the least you need to teach?, I outlined the learning tools that can help your student study and absorb knowledge. Now, let’s look at the concept of cultural literacy and see how it might help you homeschool.

Cultural literacy, great books, classical education, and Charlotte Mason — what do they have in common?

Who needs cultural literacy?

If you have no idea what cultural literacy means, you’re not alone. To be literate means to be “acquainted with letters or literature ; able to read and write; educated” or a “liberally educated or learned person” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). The poet Matthew Arnold described culture as the pursuit of perfection “by means of getting to know . . . the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits” (preface to Culture and Anarchy, 1869).

To express it more briefly, I would say that to be culturally literate is to understand the history and ideas that underlie a culture, and to be able to converse fluently in the allusions and informal content of that culture. In other words, to be educated. Cultural literacy is essential for taking part in what has been referred to as the Great Conversation, an ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.

Reclaiming literacy

During the twentieth century, a number of thinkers debated about the essentials of education. Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler proposed and published a series of Great Books of the Western World, 52 volumes designed to give readers a foundation in the thought of Western Civilization, and a variety of other Great Books lists were created and promoted. Toward the end of the century, E. D. Hirsch joined the chorus of alarm over the ever-shrinking knowledge of high school graduates, and in his best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know discusses the importance of cultural literacy. As an example, he provided a list of people, ideas, and events that an educated person could reasonably be expected to be familiar with, such as Waterloo, Hamlet, “Call me Ishmael,” the Wife of Bath, the Magna Carta, Tutankhamen, the Pythagorean Theorem, 1066, and many more. The word “familiarity” is the key. To be “familiar with” something is far different from being an expert in it, and familiarity is a by-product of wide reading and conversations, both formal and informal, about the great ideas.

Although Hirsch’s work was an attempt to point the way back to a genuine education, the list he provided played directly into the hands of test-obsessed education bureaucrats. It seemed a lot easier to create a curriculum of bits and pieces of information that students could regurgitate on a test at week’s end, than to spend time reading through the Great Books list. Read a synopsis or a scene from Hamlet during the school year, and bingo — the student would recognize the character’s names and the school could check off the “Shakespeare” box in its list of things to cover. Not quite what is meant by “cultural literacy,” and in the long run, much less interesting and more difficult than doing the thing that has worked for centuries — reading, narrating, and writing through the foundational books of Western Civilization.

Following clues toward literacy

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 understood that I was missing out on all the good stuff. Authors of the books I loved best drew on deep wells of knowledge to create vivid, convincing, and yes — living worlds peopled with compelling characters. I bumped into Shakespeare and Spinoza in the hilarious novels of P. G. Wodehouse, encountered Mozart, Rembrandt, Demosthenes, and Keats in Little Women, and found Spenser and Chesterton through the writings of C. S. Lewis.

Without knowing anything about classical education, commonplace books, or the concept of living books, I began following threads of thought and trying to read more about the people, events, and ideas in my favorite books. I copied interesting quotes in a small notebook, memorized poetry I liked, and continually tracked ideas. Whenever I encountered an author whose work was rich in ideas, I read more books by that author. Ever so slowly, I was inching toward an understanding of the types of learning that mattered and ways of learning it that stuck.

Forging a simple path

When I started homeschooling the boys, it made sense to teach them in the way that I had begun to learn. It was in the 1980s, and there wasn’t much available for homeschool curriculum so it made sense to keep it simple and do what I knew would work. We read tons of books, listened to audiobooks and great music, copied passages, talked about what we read, drew pictures, played music and games, and spent time outdoors. On a lot of days, we had so much fun that the boys didn’t quite realize they were learning all the time. What we did was simple, but it seemed to work.

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 an enthusiastic proponent of a particular method. Students don’t have to miss out on anything. They can take Latin, Shakespeare, Geology, Ancient History, American Government, welding, and sewing, right along with multivariable calculus, algorithms, and Ruby on Rails. Not only that, they can approach it in just about any format that pleases them, including traditional texts, satellite, podcast, or video; and in just about any order they please, including chronologically, alphabetically, or cyclically.

How can you choose what to do?

And if you’re like many graduates of institutional schools, how can you teach what you don’t know?

You can’t do everything, but you can do the most effective things. Just as great tutors through the ages have done, you can provide an atmosphere that helps students learn, spread a broad feast of great ideas through living books, and together, you and your student can learn and grow just as Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, Leonardo daVinci, and Thomas Jefferson learned. Together, the tools of learning and living books are the foundation and means of becoming educated, and thus culturally literate. It’s a path that is both simple and challenging, and it’s worth taking.

Now . . . wouldn’t you like to go read a good book?

Ingredients in an education for cultural literacy

I realize that any list invites reductionism, so this list is intentionally broad and relatively general.

  • Literature (both read for pleasure and studied in historic and artistic context)
  • Rhetoric (including debate based on principles of logic, and including appropriate allusions to content from the other disciplines)
  • 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)

Resources

Learning in this way is a joy, and there are a growing number of resources to help you do it. AmblesideOnline.org and MaterAmabilis.org offer free lesson plans and book lists, and the Charlotte Mason Institute offers Alveary, a similar curriculum. A library card or a lively account on Amazon Prime or Audible.com is the most important Although this way of learning is sometimes seen as a separate “Charlotte Mason-style education” (as if CM invented something new), it is simply a classic education — learning things that matter using methods that work. Charlotte Mason didn’t invent a different education, she just designed a way to present a solid, time-tested classical education to children from every background. This is why she is important to homeschoolers.

Just for fun

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

Note: All Amazon links are affiliate links, of course. Complete disclosure in the footer.


For purposes of this post, the culture I’m writing about is Western civilization. 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 and Enlightenment, 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 ethical or moral traditions, around Post-Classical Era.
  • Western European cultural influences concerning artistic, musical, folkloric, ethical and moral 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).

7 Responses

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